Saturday, August 20, 2016

Philip Deidesheimer & A Miner's Worst Fear

In geology, a lode is a deposit of ore containing metallic elements, most notably gold and/or silver. A lode may be embedded in a fissure (crack) in a rock formation or deposited as a vein between layers of rock.

The Comstock Lode is one of the most fabled in history. Discovered in 1859 under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, a peak in Nevada's Virginia Range, it was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States. News of the discovery set off a rush of miners to the area not seen since the California Gold Rush in 1849.

Virginia City with Mount Davidson in background; c.1876; public domain

Mining camps such as Virginia City and Gold Hill boomed. However, placers (ore found near streams by panning and other methods) soon played out. The lode outcroppings led far underground, requiring men by the thousands to dig out the ore and send it to the surface on hoists, the same way miners were lowered into the shaft and brought back up.

Comstock Lode miners, c. 1880s; public domain
As you might guess, the miners faced many hazards: unbearably hot air and scalding water at great depths that could kill a man in seconds, hoist chains that broke and dropped men to their doom, and worst of all, cave-ins. These dangers led to several technological innovations, one of which is square set timbering.

This method of supporting the roof of a mine tunnel was invented by Philip Deidesheimer, a German-born mining engineer. Trained at the prestigious Freiberg University of Mining, Deidesheimer immigrated to the United States in 1852 at the age of nineteen. He worked in the California gold fields until April 1860, when he was hired by W. F. Babcock, a trustee of the Ophir Mine, to solve one of the Comstock mines' worst problems.

The large silver ore bodies of the Comstock Lode ran through rock known as "heavy ground" in mining terminology. The rock was soft and easily collapsed into the stopes (openings where men extracted ore). Clay in the rock also swelled when exposed to air, causing so much pressure that traditional mine timbering broke, causing cave-ins.
Square set timbering c. 1877; public domain

Inspired by the structure of honeycombs, Deidesheimer invented a system of heavy timber "cubes" to support the tunnels, allowing miners to open stopes of any size. In large openings, the cubes could be filled with waste rock, creating a solid pillar of wood and rock from floor to roof.

Deidesheimer refused to patent his innovation, which was employed in mines all over the west from that time on. He went on to design other mining projects and became superintendent of the Ophir Mine in early 1875. He was bankrupted by speculation in mining stocks in 1878 but continued his engineering career at the Young America Mine in Sierra City, California. As one of the five mine owners, he grew rich over the five years of good ore production.

A fictionalized Philip Deidesheimer appeared in an episode of Bonanza in 1959. He was also featured in an installment of the National Public Radio program The Engines of Our Ingenuity and was inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame.

Now here’s an excerpt from Dashing Irish illustrating the results of not timbering a stope. In this scene Tye Devlin recounts a terrifying experience from his mining days, before coming to Texas.

He took a breath and let it out slowly. “We’d done some blasting that morning and were digging broken rock from the ore face. Tom was putting his all into it. Too much so. I told him I didn’t like the looks of the ceiling and we should stop to timber it. Shore it up, that is. But he wouldn’t listen.”

As he spoke, Tye stared into the past, reliving the scene.
“Lord save us!” he muttered as a mighty swing of Tom’s pick sent chunks of ore flying. The rocks struck the stone floor and clattered down the inclined stope they were working.

“Timbering takes time,” the burly Cornishman argued, swinging again. “I want to see if we’ve struck anything first. Come on, put more muscle into it. Our lease runs out in two weeks. Do you want to uncover a rich vein just in time for the company to collect all the profits? The greedy devils rake in enough off our broken backs as it is.”

“I’ll grant ye that, but I’d rather walk away empty-handed than not a’tall.”

“Not I! I mean to walk away with my pockets lined with silver. And what’s happened to ye, bucko? Have ye forgotten the dreams that brought ye west? Where’s the daring lad I once saved from breaking his neck?” Tom chided as more rocks flew.

“He’s right here, ye big ox. And he’s seen too many men die in these infernal pits to be taking fool chances.”

Perched on a ladder, Tye gouged out a patch of loose rock, using a more cautious approach than his friend. Ten or twelve feet across, the ore face was nearly equal that in height. While he worked the upper right half, Tom worked the left, standing on a second ladder.

Tom laughed. “Quit fretting. I’ve crawled around mine tunnels since I was a boy of ten. I know what I’m doing. Besides, we have your famous luck o’ the Irish to protect us, don’t we?”

“Lucky, am I? After gophering the hills for two years without finding a thing, I hardly think –” A loud cracking sound cut him off.

“Tom!” he bellowed, seeing the ceiling start to give way above the other man’s head.

Screaming hoarsely, Tom jumped off his ladder. He stumbled, caught himself and took a step toward Tye. Then a huge slab of falling rock caught him square on the head and flattened him to the floor.

“No!” Tye roared as he hurtled off his own ladder, knowing Tom’s skull must have been crushed. He crouched low against the ore face and covered his head with his arms while the cracking noise grew to a thunderous rumble. Expecting to die, he muttered a hoarse prayer, then cried out when a large rock ricocheted off his right forearm, snapping a bone.

Eyes screwed shut, he sucked air between his teeth and clutched the arm to his chest. Slowly, the agony diminished to a sharp throb. By then, the noise had also subsided into a heavy, dark silence. All the candles had been snuffed out.

The dust-laden air made him cough, sending fresh shards of pain through his arm. When the coughing passed, he pulled a match from the fistful in his pocket. After several shaky, left-handed tries, he managed to strike it, but the tiny flame hardly dented the blackness.

Cradling his broken arm against him, Tye searched the rock-strewn floor around him. He used up three matches before he found what he was looking for, a partially used candle, and got it lit. Then he pushed painfully to his feet.

He took a few steps and halted as the candle revealed what he’d dreaded seeing. Debris had tumbled down the incline, and timbers had given way in the older section of the tunnel, totally blocking it a short distance from where he stood. The barrier might extend dozens of feet beyond that. He was trapped, doomed to a slow, miserable death unless the other miners got to him in time.

Lifting the candle high, he saw why he wasn’t already dead. Overhead, a patch of ceiling held fast. But for how long?

His gaze shifted to where Tom lay buried beneath a heap of massive stones. He couldn’t leave him like that. Wildly, he glanced around and spotted the handle of his pick. Stuck between two boulders, only the tip of it showed. Tye deposited his candle on a flat rock and set about freeing the tool. It was an excruciating process, but he finally succeeded.

One-handed, he clumsily swung his pick at the cairn of rocks covering Tom. The impact reverberated through his broken arm, but he clenched his jaw, pried loose a stone, and swung again. When he absolutely had to, he rested. Once, he permitted himself a swallow of water from the bucket he’d filled before work. The liquid tasted metallic with rock dust, but it was wet. Thank God he’d set the bucket in the corner near him, or it would have been smashed. Like Tom.

By the time the candle guttered out, Tye had grown light-headed. He sank to his knees, eyes shut against the darkness and pain. Now what? He’d found no more candles and he couldn’t hold a match and dig at the same time. If he tried working without light, he’d likely stab himself in the foot, if he didn’t collapse first. It was useless; he couldn’t get Tom out.

“Why didn’t ye listen to me?” he cried. “We should have stopped to timber. Oh God, I should have made ye listen!”

Grief swamped him. He hung his head and shuddered with the force of it, not caring how much his arm hurt. Tom was dead. Tom, who’d saved him from falling down that mine shaft in Utah, who’d befriended him despite the bitter rivalry between Irish and Cornish miners. Aye, Tom was dead, and the blame was his, Tye admitted. They wouldn’t even be here if not for him. He was the one who’d wanted to try his luck – that cursed thing – in Colorado, and he’d convinced Tom to come with him. Not only that, he’d pushed Tom into staying here, when the man had been ready to give up and go home.

“’Tisn’t bad enough I’ve wasted my own life. Now I’ve killed ye, Tom,” he choked out, wiping his damp eyes on his filthy shirtsleeve. “But you’ll have company soon, my friend.”

Soon . . . .

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  1. I have always thought that might be the worst, the most frightening way to make a living--mining in those conditions. Even today with so many advances, cave-ins still occur and I just want to cover my head so I won't see the images on tv...or read about the tragedy.
    The block tier is really a stroke of genius.
    Good post, and much luck with your release!

  2. Interesting post, Lyn. Wonder why Deidesheimer didn't want to patent the innovation. I well remember that scene from Dashing Irish!

  3. What a shame he didn't patent his work. He would have lived comfortably for life. I admire his grit and tenacity though. Ya know, I can't imagine working in a mine and not going nuts. Your life is filled with darkness--not to forget the whole traumatic feeling of claustrophobia just knowing you're working underground with only one way out. I can get chills just thinking about it. This was a very interesting article, Lyn.
    I want to wish you great success with Dashing Irish and the Devlin series.

  4. Thank you, ladies, for stopping by and commenting. My oldest granddaughter is getting married late this afternoon. Yesterday was crazy with the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. As a result, I totally forgot to check in here. Sorry about that. Gotta go now, still have a gift to wrap and other last minute details. Sheesh! why didn't I do this stuff days ago? Oh yeah, I was writing.

  5. Oh. I meant to say something about that fantastic excerpt. Wow. Very emotional and gripping. You do know how to write.

    1. Thank you, Celia! I'm so glad you enjoyed Tye's heart-breaking memory. His guilt over the death of his friend is what makes him feel unworthy of Lil's love.


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