(Ink illustration by Buck O’Donnell in 1967; public display, World Museum of Mining, Butte, Montana, USA)
Excerpt from the soon to be released book about the Hawkesworth Drill Bit
Underground mining in Butte Montana in the early 1920’s was a dangerous job done by fearless men, mostly young, illiterate immigrants, who descended deep into the earth, working under extremely hard, hot, and hazardous conditions. These were not ordinary men; they were strong, courageous, tenacious blokes soaked in sweat while working ten-hour shifts under harsh conditions.
Butte was a hostile environment, bleak, smoggy and bitterly cold eight months out of the year with temperatures often in the teens. In stark contrast the temperature of the earth’s rock can be searing. And the deeper you go the hotter it gets to the point where it is as hot as a glowing branding iron.
At the forty-two-hundred-foot level, the deepest level where the miners were mucking the ore, sometimes the temperature would get as high as one hundred- and twenty-seven-degrees Fahrenheit. Hotter than death valley.
The miners sweating profusely would immediately remove their heavy clothing, working in their underwear. Or naked. They would use the “Dry” to change their clothes before returning to the surface.
To survive under such extreme conditions a steady supply of fresh air had to be pumped into the mine. Tons of it.
To tackle the problem the Company, in 1918, created the Ventilation and Hygiene Department. The team went on to design and install eighteen enormous surface fans that pumped over three million cubic feet of fresh air into the tunnels of the Anaconda Mine. It was a tremendous achievement for ACM.
Arthur was a member of the team, contributing three of his patented inventions to the endeavor; “A Portable Ejector for Mine Ventilation, an Oil Pump and Tank, and a Metallic Packing for Piston Rods.” And ACM went ahead and integrated them into their amazing ventilation system.
He was thrilled to be of service but disappointed because he was not recognized for his contributions. All he got was a patronizing pat on the back and that just pissed him off. But he kept quiet and carried on.
Breathing was just one of many challenges facing the miners as they needed to be extra careful. Every move they made had to be thought out and calculated. A wrong decision could be deadly.
One of the most treacherous jobs, given to the new workers, was that of prying loose slabs of unstable rock. It was dangerous as hell. The sharp, protruding slabs, called Duggans could slice through a man in an instant. In honor of this dangerous job and out of respect for the dead there was a funeral parlor called Duggans.
Watching their buddies getting diced up, losing fingers, arms, legs, and dying, had a deep psychological effect on the miner’s psyche.
Many lived their lives in the moment, with a sense of fatalism and a belief that life was short and could end at any moment. Few had savings and some believed that a higher power was in control, “thy will, will be done” was a common reaction to accidents and tragedies.
Rising from hell after their shifts ended, they didn’t give a damn about obeying the rules. Tired and relieved that they survived another shift, they were eager to blow off some steam. The saloons were more than willing to provide a reprieve from the harsh reality of their lives. And boy did they raise some hell.
The men stumbled in and out of one saloon onto the next all night long laughing, joking, letting loose, and indulging in all manner of vices.
Let the good times roll amidst smoked-filled rooms, the clattering of chips and the sound of glasses clinking. It was loud raucous and there was plenty of music and entertainment.
The pianos played loudly competing against the boisterous laughter, the mindless crude language and the men singing one song after another some belting out the English idiom, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die,”
They hugged and jostled one another telling one embellished tale after another and the first liar and no chance he would always be one upped. Then as the night rolled on, they told each other how much they loved one another.
And then on the drop of a dime, boom they would get into fist fights or worse. Bare knuckled fights settled disputes. And those that were tough and mean as hell would fight every Friday night for pride and money in sponsored boxing bouts without gloves. Bare knuckled.
Wild nights of reckless abandon were more than escapes from reality, it was their survival mechanism, Young and alive, nothing would stop them from living life to the fullest.
Little thought was given to the far-off morning that would bring with it the harsh realities of their lives, they were hard workers and harder players, drinking, singing, and fighting the night away.
And when they woke up and stumbled out of bed with pounding headaches and queasy stomachs, there was no guilt for their behavior, for them life was too short to wake up in the morning with regrets.
They knew that they had to make the most of the morning, so before heading off to work after a hearty breakfast, they would pause and take a few precious moments to embrace their loved ones.
They held their wives and children close, taking in the scent of their hair and the warmth of their bodies. With tears in their eyes, they whispered, “I love you,” their words would be a lifeline that would connect them to their families throughout the long, treacherous day ahead.
They knew that each kiss and hug could be their last, and they wanted to etch themselves in the memories of their loved ones with those final words, as if they were painting a vivid picture that would remain with them forever in their minds.
They struggled to find a balance because it was dangerous work, the pay was good but for some it came at a high price. Some did it because they had no other choice. They were the bread winners of their families, and it was the only work they could find.
For many mining was a way of life, a legacy passed down from generation to generation. “My father’s father was a miner. And his father, was a miner too.” It was a sad day when a descended could not carry on the family tradition because he was “getting the jitters,” “feeling boxed in,” “having the willies,” or “getting the creeps.”
Then there was the daring, thrill seeker who loved descending deep into the earth, confronting danger, and defiantly defeating death. Fearlessly, enjoying playing with the dynamite.
The Irishmen loved the scary, dangerous job, but even with such bravado many were known to pray before entering the cage or chippy as it was called, with lunch pails in their hands and rosaries in their pockets.
Before descending into the depths of their hell where the blistering heat was waiting for them, they would recite the Bible passage “be brave and steadfast; have no fear or dread of them, for it is the Lord, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you or forsake you.” Others would be cursing and swearing. Some staring at their boots whispering.
With the jarring ring of the bell, their hearts would race anticipating the dizzying descent into the depths of the underworld.
Suddenly and rapidly, with a heart-stopping rush and with stomachs lurching, they dropped like boulders. The sound of the chippy rattling against the timber shaft echoed through the tunnels, sending shivers down their spines. And bam with boots bouncing off the floor of the chippy they stopped.
Once they reached their designated levels their ethnic and religious differences disappeared. They were bound together by a sense of loyalty and camaraderie that transcended social boundaries. In the darkness of the mines every man looked the same, he was a brother and a lifeline.
The miners were well aware that their survival hinged on their ability to support and motivate one another, never allowing the demon fear to haunt them. They collaborated to prevent the likelihood of accidents and to safeguard each other by building wooden roofs and escape routes. Providing them with solace and a sense of security.
The bonds they forged in the mines were often stronger than those between family members, as the men shared a unique experience that could not be found anywhere else in their lives.
Outside of work, they were a tight knit community, with The Miners and St Patrick’s Day parades and social events reinforcing their sense of identity and shared purpose. They ate and drank and were merry as a community. And when the tough times rolled around, they supported each other through injuries, illness, and death.
While working underground they passed their time by telling tales about the legends of the past, reminiscing about their homeland, or cursing the foremen and the terrible working conditions.
Staying calm and not worrying about the creaks and crackling sounds going on all around them, they kept busy putting the rock in the box and repeating their routines, rituals, and heeding their superstitions.
Superstitions, like the ore ran deep. Some believed in rats, feeding them from their lunch pails, convinced that they could predict cave-ins. If a rat got anxious and started scurrying about, it was an omen. And time to get out.
Whistling and women, especially the “red haired women,” were forbidden. It was a man’s world. They spoke in faint whispers but mostly worked in silence so they could listen to the telltale signs of shifting soil.
You were taught to keep a close eye on your gear and grub because a pesky Tommyknocker could be lurking about. This mischievous little gnome had a habit of roaming the tunnels and doing all kinds of playful things He was not to be trifled with. Knock. Knock.
Legend had it that he would bring good luck and wealth to those who respected his power, but calamity and woe to those who dare to doubt his abilities or scoff at his existence. Knock. Knock.
A Tommyknocker was only two feet tall with a large head, long arms, short legs, wrinkled skin, white whiskers, and he dressed in miner’s attire. He was often blamed for missing food or tools and tolerated because he was credited for saving men’s lives when they heeded his knockings and got out of the mine before it caved in. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Superstitions aside, the miners took immense pride in their work. Diligently drilling holes, deftly handled dynamite, boldly blasted the rock, and meticulously mucked the ore. They were professional craftsmen thriving in a treacherous environment. It wasn’t work for the faint of heart. Because like the valuable minerals, death and injury were everywhere.
The Demon Fear’s Executer, Death was omnipresent and could come instantly from the cage rides, cave ins, electrocutions, explosions, or fires. Sometimes he would take his time with lead and mercury poisoning or years for Miners’ Consumption.
Demolishing large rocks required the men to drill holes and place dynamite into the crevices in order to “blast” the rock. They used a forged steel shank attached to the Ingersoll Rand pneumatic drilling machine known as “The Widow Maker” to drill the holes.
This industrial machine gun would deliver between eighteen hundred to two thousand blows per minute into the granite walls stirring up massive amounts of silica dust.
The razor-sharp dust would cut into the miner’s lungs and over time would cause a hard hacking cough that was known as the “Miners Con” or silicosis. This drawn-out disease was dreadful, as it destroyed families.
The men would gradually get sicker and sicker, eventually having to stop working all together. Incapacitated for years, with no money coming in, it was devasting for families and heartbreaking for children and wives to see their dad or husband in such a state in their final days.
Once robust men reduced to mere walking corpses coughing up chunks of their lungs as they died in morphine induced comas. It was a horrible way for a man to die.
It bothered Arthur to see his brothers suffering in this way knowing that his new drill bit could help them breathe better. There would be less silica dust, reducing the cases of Miners Con, because his bit could drill faster, cleaner holes.
In addition, his bit could decrease the amount of steel being used by nearly fifty percent. Saving companies hundreds of millions of dollars in operating cost and reducing the need for the tool boys, or as they were called “nippers.”
It was another one of Arthur’s goals to get them out of the mines after the tragic deaths of his friend Manus Duggan and several other nippers.
Industrious boys that he had formed deep bonds by engaging them in meaningful conversations as they trudged back and forth from his workshop, carrying the heavy drilling shanks.
Young boys full of vitality, with wide-eyed innocence eager to impress him with their tireless work ethic.
Their lives had ended tragically when the most catastrophic event in hard rock mining history occurred. The sights from the Granite Mountain and Speculator Mine disaster of burnt corpses and the limp bodies of those once-vibrant boys that were brought to the surface after being asphyxiated in the tunnels broke his heart. The images haunted him for years and it made him more resolved in his commitment to change things and get the boys out of the mines.
Not only could the boys’ benefit from his bits but the men that were working in the oil fields, subway excavation, bridge construction, anywhere that hard rock drilling was taking place. It was an invention with global applications.
Arthur was convinced that his bit was a game changer, and it would secure his legacy if he could just get it into the mines. Once they started using his bit the demand would be off the chart.
He would build factories in Detroit and San Francisco and the whole world would benefit from the Hawkesworth Drill Bit.
He came up with a plan to get the bit into the mines. First by staging a demonstration or contest for all to see what his bit could do. He would give in and put his trust in his partner and reorganize the company, build a factory, hire machinists, and find one big client.
He was optimistic about his plan and hopeful that ACM would be his one big client. It was logical. They could start saving money right away. And besides it was better to have ACM as an ally than a competitor.
Arthur’s timing was terrible. The copper mining industry was in trouble.