The Mining Effect

lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica.

The southwest is sprinkled with olden whistle-stops that have become shells of their once-thriving days. A large mining boom in the early 1900s provided a financial flourish for towns such as Bisbee, Ariz., which boasted enormous copper deposits and provided jobs for hundreds of men. Bisbee’s population in 1910 swelled to over 9,000 residents, making it one of the largest towns between St. Louis and San Francisco. By 1917, new mining methods were put in place in order to meet the demand of copper and other metals during World War II.

Acquired by Phelps Dodge in 1885, the Copper Queen Mine produced an estimated 8 billion pounds of copper during its’ nearly 100-year run. According to the Copper Queen Mining Tour, the camp cultivated $6.1 billion (1975 value) in metals and became one of the largest selections in the world.

But this thriving mining camp also paid a price at the lives of the miners. Conditions in the mines were extremely dangerous and machinery was in its infancy. One machine in particular, the Widowmaker, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, of men. The name given to the machine was not just a clever nickname, but rather a literal term: the men who died from the effects of the machine turned their wives into widows.

The Widowmaker. Image via William J. Prest

The Widowmaker was a single-man heavy duty drill that had the power to pulverize minerals. Compressed air entered the drill which then utilized a piston to smash the rock walls as it rotated. Once the Widowmaker created large holes, the miners inserted dynamite to blow and even larger space.

For operators of the mine, this tool saved money on manual labor by reducing the need for manpower. The new drills increased injuries and deaths on the job, despite the financial savings. Prior to proper safety measures, a miner using the Widowmaker was oftentimes alone in his section of the mine. Workers also teetered on shifty scaffolds and canopies while using the drill, causing even more concern for the men.

Perhaps even more alarming was the amount of silica in the dense air underground, which lacked decent ventilation. 12-hour days in the mines meant prolonged exposure to chemicals and an arid environment. The Widowmaker did not use water, or any other type of liquid, and therefore forced hazardous dust to fill the mines. The miners suffered from lung-related illness and disease due to the dust produced by the Widowmaker, as it drilled through rock with a powerful force.

Compared to modern tools and drills, the Widowmaker appears almost barbaric. With its extended bayonet-style drill tip, and almost machinegun handling apparatus, the contraption is tough to handle — especially considering they could weigh up to 300 pounds.

Although there is not a recorded number of deaths at the hands of the Widowmaker inside the Copper Queen Mine, a local mining tour guide claims that over 300 miners lost their lives during the camp’s 100 years.

Indeed, over the decades, supervisors and workers engaged in stronger safety precautions, such as adding ventilation underground and wearing breathing masks to protect against the residuals of the Widowmaker. A current mining tour guide claims he worked inside Copper Queen for 18 years. When prompted, he mentioned that he had yet to experience respiratory issues from the toxic dust created by the Widowmaker.

Modern day Bisbee is a much quieter scene. Photo via Katie Self

Yet, in the early days, between respiratory infections, collapses, dynamite explosions and other major injuries, mining was an extremely ruinous occupation. In addition to the poor work conditions, miners in the early 1900s made $.34 a day completing the manual labor. Thirty-four cents! Considering the amount of copper there was to be had, a job in the mine meant job security. And with the revolving door of workers injured or killed, if a man could stay alive in the mine and not fall to the Widowmaker, he could rely on an income.

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