Minor miners: A brief reflection on child labor underground

by Sara E. Pratt
Friday, October 31, 2014

Editor’s Note: We asked our staff and some frequent contributors to write a short commentary on something that they had been thinking about in 2014. We gave everyone carte blanche. What follows is a collection of extremely varied, often very personal insights into how the planet impacted each individual.

It has been more than a century since one of the first child labor laws in the U.S. raised the minimum age of mineworkers to 12, but some mines in Colorado are still encouraging children to descend into the bowels of the Earth — as tourists now, of course.

But the thought that, not that long ago, children not much older than mine were working in the mines wasn’t far from my mind as our family toured two 19th-century gold mines in the Colorado Mineral Belt and the Cripple Creek District this past summer. At one time, the regions hosted thousands of mines extracting gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, uranium and other minerals. Today, most of the mines are inactive, and several of them are now operated as tourist attractions.

Our first tour consisted of a 500-meter walk into the main-level drift of the Bachelor-Syracuse gold mine in Ouray, Colo., in the northeast-southwest trending Colorado Mineral Belt, which owes its ore richness to thermal fluids that infiltrated faults and fractures formed as the Rockies were uplifted during the Laramide Orogeny about 70 million years ago.

The second tour occurred in the Cripple Creek District, which lies within a 30-million-year-old intrusive diatreme complex, a volcanic feature composed of breccias formed when magma interacted with groundwater. Gold was discovered here by a local rancher in 1891, setting off the last big Colorado gold rush. Since then, Cripple Creek has produced more than half of all the gold mined in Colorado and is, today, the site of the state’s only active gold mine. Our tour of the historic Mollie Kathleen gold mine, which was active until 1961, began with a 300-meter descent in a cramped, double-deck cage.

Entering the mines reminded me of previous descents into coal mines in my native state of Pennsylvania, and the infamous historic photographs of “breaker boys” — young children, faces blackened with coal dust, hunched over chutes sorting coal for up to 12 hours a day in cold, damp and dangerous conditions. Such images were reality as recently as my grandparents' generation.

Compared to the historically dangerous conditions in Pennsylvania coalmines, the hard rock mines of the West, with few wooden support beams needed to shore up the roof and spacious drifts and adits that allowed adults to walk upright, seemed somewhat safer. But I suspect the working conditions were just as harsh.

Today, in Pennsylvania, the memory of breaker boys has diminished, but the citizens' pride in the role of the coalfields — and the local steel mills they fueled — in building America’s industrial might and global power remains. Likewise, in Colorado, the legacy of the gold mines has been burnished and packaged to appeal to tourists' nostalgia for the settling of the American West: a mythology that, along with cowboys, Native Americans and pioneers, prominently features prospectors.

But the health, safety, social and environmental problems the mines wrought are rarely discussed, even though some of the consequences are still evident in old mining towns today, like the massive tailings piles that line the Ouray and Cripple Creek valleys. Nevertheless, the guides in both of the mines we toured did remark on the shortened life spans of hard rock miners — while also noting that their pay of $2 to $3 per day was generous for the time.

There was no mention, however, of the labor strife for which Colorado mines are famous. In Cripple Creek in 1894, miners struck after owners colluded to increase the length of the workday while paying the same daily wage. When the miners protested, the owners offered to maintain the same hours for reduced pay. The strike escalated into violence between the miners and the owners' private militia. Eventually, the Colorado governor called in the state militia to protect the miners — an unusual occurrence at a time when government forces were more often called in to break a strike. The strike was settled when the owners agreed to return to the original pre-strike hours and wages.

Humans weren’t the only mineworkers who benefited from progressivism in the early 20th century. Prior to mechanization, young donkeys were blindfolded, cow tied and lowered into the mines where they would pull carts loaded with tons of ore, often working until their deaths. (Still, miners rightly complained that the donkeys were treated better than the men. After all, if a donkey died, the company had to buy another; if a miner died, they need only hire a replacement.)

According to our guide at the Mollie Kathleen mine, Theodore Roosevelt visited Cripple Creek while he was vice president and was disturbed to learn that, after years underground, the donkeys went blind. He proposed an ordinance requiring the animals be exposed to sunlight daily, or, according to alternate versions of the story, removed from the mines altogether. It’s not clear whether an ordinance or ban was passed, but the donkeys were soon replaced, first by men, according to the guide, and then by tractors.

Once he became president, Roosevelt went on to campaign for the prohibition of child labor and, partly in response to the labor strife in Colorado, established the short-lived Department of Commerce and Labor (a precursor to the Department of Labor), which, in 1912, created a Children’s Bureau.

The first federal law prohibiting the employment of children under 16 in factories and mines was passed in 1938.

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