Perils of the Mines – Snapshot 1910

In the background, two miners examine the roof of the mine.

From the beginning, lead and zinc mining in the Joplin district was a dangerous means to make a living, and if lucky, a fortune, too.   The year 1910 was considered a good one, respectively, when compared to 1909 when 51 miners lost their lives.  In 1910, in contrast, only 32 miners were killed in the pursuit of the valuable ore.   Every year, mine inspectors from the state toured the mines which surrounded Joplin to ensure compliance with mining laws and to note deaths and the causes behind them.  In 1910, two inspectors toured 551 mines and 65 accidents.  Here are the results and a snapshot of mining in Joplin in 1910.

In summary, the most dangerous element in a mine came from above.  Of the combined deaths and serious injuries, falling mine roofs accounted for 27% of the victims.  The next deadliest was the more obvious danger of explosives in the form of premature explosions, squib shot (involved in the dynamiting process), and to a degree, the foul air which was caused by failing to blow out the air in a mine following an explosion.   Sadly, even entering and exiting a mine bore a certain amount of lethal danger, as our previous post on the unfortunate Number 52 noted.


Source: Joplin News Herald

From the beginning, lead and zinc mining in the Joplin district was a dangerous means to make a living, and if lucky, a fortune, too.   The year 1910 was considered a good one, respectively, when compared to 1909 when 51 miners lost their lives.  In 1910, in contrast, only 32 miners were killed in the pursuit of the valuable ore.   Every year, mine inspectors from the state toured the mines which surrounded Joplin to ensure compliance with mining laws and to note deaths and the causes behind them.  In 1910, two inspectors toured 551 mines and 65 accidents.  Here are the results and a snapshot of mining in Joplin in 1910.

Mining and Picher, OK

The plight of  Picher, Oklahoma is well known to locals of the Four State area.  Discounting the disastrous tornado that ripped through Picher not too long ago, the lead and zinc mining resulted in a dangerous contamination of the town.  The mining in Picher arose from the mining in the  Joplin area, after all, the town gains its name from one of Joplin’s earliest mining entrepreneurs, O.S. Picher.  Recently, Wired magazine has written an article on the town

Addititionally, here’s a streaming video link to a entertaining documentary about Picher today and the effects of its mining past.  It’s worth watching if only for some video of the process of mining, the same process used in the Joplin area.

A Plunge Down a Sixty-Foot Shaft

Every day hundreds, if not thousands, of automobiles rumble through downtown Joplin.  Most drivers  go about their business without a thought that there may be empty mine shafts below their wheels.  We here at Historic Joplin do – which is not to say we’re afraid of our vehicle plunging into a gaping chasm on Main Street, but in an area riddled with mine shafts, tunnels, and sinkholes, the ground giving way does happen from time to time.  Mine shafts even presented a threat to folks, who despite having a familiarity with the dangers of working in the mines, had the misfortune to make a misstep.  Or, in the case of James “Jim” T.  Bodine, the wrong way home.

In the summer of 1904, Jim Bodine was on horseback herding the family cow home for the night.  As he passed south of Twenty-Sixth Street, he had to ride through some brush when he and his horse unexpectedly encountered an abandoned mine shaft.  Bodine, who was a, “well known and very popular mine superintendent and operator,” undoubtedly knew about mine safety, but riding your horse into a mine shaft in the middle of the night was something he had thought little about up to this point.  Bodine’s horse pitched forward into the shaft.  It managed to dig its forelegs into the mine shaft so that it seemed as if it would be able to get both itself and Bodine out of the shaft.  Unfortunately, its legs buckled and the two plunged sixty feet into a water-filled mine shaft.

An abandoned mine shaft via Bureau of Land Management

Abandoned mines poise significant danger risk in any mining area, such as this one located in California.

Both man and horse surfaced with Bodine still in the saddle.  The horse struggled to keep its nose above the water.  Bodine tried to sit in the saddle as long as he could, but realized the horse could throw him at any time, so he slipped into the water.  His head throbbing from a bump to his head, Bodine managed to climb two or three feet onto the walls of the mine shaft.  As the strength began to leave his arms, he began to cry for help.  There he remained for over an hour yelling for help.  In the water below Bodine, his horse was “plunging and striking his feet right and left.” Gritting his teeth, he sank his fingers “into the sides of the shaft as far as possible.”

Fortunately for Bodine, a Mrs.  Carter was passing by when she heard his cries for help.  She “ran to the shaft, shouted a word of encouragement to Mr.  Bodine, and then ran for help.” Mrs.  Carter brought James Ingram, D.E.  Krokroski, and H.  Dillon back to the mine shaft.  There the three men lowered a rope to Bodine which he tied around his waist.  Together the men pulled Bodine up to the surface where he was rushed home.  Four doctors were summoned, but found that Bodine was in good shape despite his harrowing ordeal.

Bodine later told a Globe reporter, “There was a time when I thought I would have to give up and fall into the water.  After Mrs.  Carter looked into the shaft and then ran for assistance it seemed hours before assistance came.  I felt my strength gradually giving away, and it seemed that every minute would be my last.” Even as the rope was being lowered to him, Bodine confessed, “I thought I would not e able to keep my position until I could get it tied, but it is remarkable how a man’s strength will stay by him when his life is at stake.” As for his horse, several men tried to extricate it, but as of the newspaper’s deadline, they had not been able to pull it out of the shaft.

Source: The Joplin Globe

Death in the Mines

Lead and zinc mining was the heart and soul of early Joplin. Men toiled in the mines to earn their living or, in many cases, meet their end. There were a variety of ways that death came to those who worked in the mines, often sudden and very violent.

On June 13, 1901, the Carterville Record reported that T. Hibler, a mining engineer working in nearby Galena, fell into a mine shaft over one hundred feet deep while walking to work at 5:30 a.m.  Perhaps it was simply luck, or maybe the manner in which the unfortunate engineer tumbled downward into the darkness, but Hibler survived the fall. Not only did Lady Luck spare his life, but shortly after, a passerby came to his rescue.  Amazingly, Hibler suffered only a few cuts, bruises, and a sprained ankle. He was one of the fortunate as others were not so lucky.

A typical mine in Southwest Missouri

A mine with chat pile looming beside it.

In James Norris’ “AZn: A History of the American Zinc Company” he noted that “In 1897 soaring prices and continued active demand produced large profits for miners in the Joplin zinc-ore district, and the following year was one of the most prosperous in the history of zinc mining.” This boom in lead and zinc mining attracted the attention of wealthy Eastern investors. In 1899, a group of Boston capitalists formed a corporation they called American Zinc, Lead, and Smelting Company. American Zinc, as it was commonly known, became one of the major players in the Tri-State Mining District.

In 1902, Harry S. Kimball was sent to Joplin to evaluate the company’s prospects in Joplin. He later recalled that Joplin was a, “bleak prospect for a tenderfoot to see as his first contact with a mining camp.” Hugh chat and slag piles littered the landscape. Miners were using “relatively simple and inefficient” mining methods.  Thus men who were on the cusp of a century that heralded rapid technological and industrial innovations were operating as if they were still in the Dark Ages.

A primitive hand jig

An example of the primitive technology at play in the mining fields. Here a hand-powered jig.

Historian Arrell M. Gibson describes the various mining techniques used in the Joplin area in his book, “Wilderness Bonanza.” Shafting, which required miners to create a vertical access shaft into the earth, was dangerous work. Miners drilled openings into the rock face and then inserted sticks of dynamite into the holes in order to break up solid rock. Dynamite, if handled incorrectly, was deadly. Miners sometimes had to tamp sticks into place.  This involved tapping the explosive material into a firmer or deeper position. If they neglected to use a wooden stick to tamp in the dynamite, often using a metal bar instead, it could create sparks and cause a premature explosion with devastating effect.

Adding to the danger, miners also used giant powder, which was more powerful than regular black powder, to break up solid rock surfaces. Gibson states that many miners complained that giant powder caused headaches and nausea. But if a miner was fortunate enough not to die in a mine collapse, premature explosion, or suffocate, there was a good chance he would die early from silicosis. Silicosis is a condition caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust.  After a controlled explosion, miners often failed to wet down the rock and as a result, inhaled minute particles of rock dust, which damaged their lungs like invisible razorblades piercing through their lung tissue. Miners who suffered from silicosis experienced shortness of breath, coughing, fever, and even a changing of the color of their skin. Of the many miners who eventually succumbed to the manufactured disease, one was Oscar C. Rosebrough. The thirty-six-year-old miner died of “miner’s consumption” in the summer of 1917.

A photograph of likely zinc or lead miners

Miners posing for a photograph within the dangerous confines of the mine.

Other deaths came suddenly and mercifully for some.  The Carl Junction Standard reported on September 12, 1903, Walter McMahan was telling jokes and laughing with his coworkers at the Edith Mine near Joplin when a large boulder fell from the mine roof and crushed him. Meanwhile, The Carthage Evening Press recounted the death of Riley Marley, who was killed when he and his partner set off two shots of blast in a mine shaft. When one of the shots failed to go off, the two men reentered the mine to re-tamp the shot. As Marley tamped the shot back into place it exploded and drove the tamping rod through his head.  He died instantly. His partner was blinded by the blast but survived.

Much of the danger came from simply entering the mines or processing areas.  In 1905, Nathan Rice was struck on the top of his head by a falling timber. He later died of his injuries. In 1916, John Campbell was killed when he got caught in a drill rig. In 1882, Johnie Craig died when he went into a mine contaminated by bad air. In 1920, Kenneth Everett, a five year old child, died from bad air in an abandoned mine shaft.

Photograph of Joplin steam jig for zinc and lead mining

Far more complex than the hand jig, it's not hard to understand the danger of working around this steam powered jig.

Close calls were common and sometimes bizarre.  In 1902, William Morgan was injured while working in the Big Six Mine when an icicle fell from the top of a mine shaft and hit him in the back. The icicle was heavy enough that it fractured his shoulder blade, but the physician who tended Morgan expected his patient to recover.

The zinc and lead of Joplin brought great wealth to some, work to many, and danger to all who entered the mines to retrieve it.

Sources: “Mine Accidents and Deaths In the Southwestern Area of Jasper County, Missouri, 1868-1906,” Volume I. Compiled by Webb City Area Genealogical Society.  “Mine Accidents and Deaths In the Southwestern Area of Jasper County, Missouri, 1907-1923,” Volume II, “Accidents, Deaths, and Other Events.” Compiled by Webb City Area Genealogical Society. “Wilderness Bonanza” by Arrell M. Gibson