| Written by Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter

Imagine standing on the edge of a bustling gold mine in the late 1800s, feeling the excitement and the promise of fortune. From those early days in the Wild West to the tech-driven mines of today, America's relationship with mining is as deep and complex as the tunnels that crisscross beneath its soil. Since 1875, mining has unearthed more than just minerals - it's revealed stories of grit, innovation, economic highs and lows, and environmental debates. Interested in the history of mining in the United States? Then let's go!
Mining in the United States

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Mining in the United States: TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS

During the Industrial Revolution, mining technology saw significant improvements, particularly in the area of drilling and blasting. In the early days, the only available blasting agent was black powder, a relatively low-power explosive. This required miners to manually pound holes into the rock, with one miner holding a steel chisel while the other used a sledgehammer. Each hole had to be drilled by hand to a depth of six or eight inches, making it slow, tedious, and exhausting work. In a 10-hour shift, a team could only drill, load, and fire black powder charges in about eight or 10 holes. Depending on the size of the mine tunnel, a single blast could bring down anywhere from three-quarters to two and a half tons of rock.

However, the invention of dynamite in 1866 by Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel revolutionized the mining industry. Dynamite, an explosive five times more powerful than black powder, quickly replaced it in mines by the mid-1870s. At around the same time, the development of pneumatic machine drills further enhanced mining efficiency. These drills were powered by compressed air, which was piped underground from large steam-powered compressors located on the surface. Equipped with five to six-foot drill steels, these machines could drill three to four-foot holes into solid rock within a matter of minutes. This new technology allowed two-man teams of miners to blast between four and 10 tons of rock per shift. However, it came with its own risks, particularly the development of silicosis, a deadly disease caused by inhaling microscopic silica dust generated during machine drilling. Miners operating these drills would often contract this incurable disease within just a few years.

Fortunately, J. George Leyner of Denver, Colorado, invented a better machine drill in 1897 that virtually eliminated the risk of silicosis. Leyner's improved drill injected water into the drill hole, transforming the drill shavings into harmless mud. This mud acted as an efficient wet grinding compound, cooling the drill bit, while the flow of water flushed out the drill hole. Leyner patented his mechanism, which remains largely unchanged to this day and is still used in modern hard rock mines. Read more about modern mining technology.



In 1890, when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was founded, it marked a significant step toward bettering the pay and work environment for coal miners nationwide. Colorado saw a surge in union activities in the early 20th century, with many union members participating in strikes, especially in the southern coal-rich areas of Fremont, Huerfano, and Las Animas Counties. Sadly, in the spring of 1913, a union-led strike in this region escalated into the tragic events of the Ludlow Massacre, followed by the Coalfield Wars.

When you think of influential unions in Colorado, the UMWA's role in the Coalfield Wars definitely makes it stand out. In contrast to the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which isn't around anymore, the UMWA still thrives. With about 70,000 members spread across seven districts in the U.S. and Canada, it's still making waves. In Colorado alone, the union's western district represents around 4,000 members, many of whom are from the Navajo Nation. Going back to the late 1800s, coal wasn't just black gold; it powered industries and put coal companies in a powerful and affluent position nationally.In Colorado, William Jackson Palmer's Colorado Fuel and Iron stood as one of the largest corporations in the country, encompassing not only coal mines throughout the state but also railroads and a steel mill in Pueblo.
On the other hand, coal miners had it tough. Their job was among the riskiest globally, with work conditions that were downright dangerous. They toiled for fourteen or sixteen hours a day in cramped and dirty environments. The risk of mine shaft collapses, flooding and explosive flammable gas was ever-present, exemplified by the devastating incident at the Jokerville Mine near Crested Butte in 1884. Instead of receiving cash wages, miners were paid in scrip, a form of company currency only redeemable at company stores, which conveniently served as the sole source of tools and food in many localities. This exploitative practice ensured that the majority of wages returned directly to the company. Additionally, miners were compelled to pay the company for accommodation in "company towns," controlled settlements designed to keep the workforce under strict surveillance.

In this starkly imbalanced arrangement, workers held little power. Prior to the 1890s, miners attempting to advocate for better conditions through organization and strikes often faced termination or imprisonment. These severe corporate retaliations created fertile ground for the emergence of labour unions.

The United Mine Workers originated in the battlegrounds of the Midwestern coalfields, where workplace accidents and punishments for labour activism were commonplace. On January 25, 1890, the UMWA was formed through the amalgamation of two Ohio-based unions, the Knights of Labor and the National Miners' Federation, in Columbus. Their constitution outlined a strategy of "conciliation, arbitration, and strikes" to improve pay and working conditions for miners. Among their initial demands were the abolition of company stores and the prohibition of "non-resident police officers" frequently employed against striking miners. Membership dues were set at a nominal five cents per month.

Initially, the union primarily comprised British immigrants. However, the UMWA was among the first unions to explicitly welcome African American miners into its ranks, although they often faced unequal treatment and were relegated to less skilled positions. The union had a way of bridging divides. It brought together folks who had once been on opposite sides during the American Civil War and even managed to unite various European immigrants, melting away language differences. This shared sense of understanding and facing challenges together became the union's signature trait. It's probably why the UMWA lasted longer than other unions that weren't as open. In 1897, the union achieved its first major victory when it secured an eight-hour workday for coal workers across the Midwest after a strike involving 150,000 individuals. Later, in 1902, the UMWA became the first union to gain federal recognition when President Theodore Roosevelt mediated an end to another strike in the Midwest.


Mining in the United States: MONONGAH MINING DISASTER

On the fateful day of December 6, 1907, a devastating explosion tore through the deep tunnels of the Fairmont Coal Company's No. 6 and 8 mines in Monongah, Marion County. The sheer force of the blast, so powerful that it shook the very ground and echoed for miles, claimed the lives of at least 361 brave men, forever etching this tragedy as the darkest mine disaster in American history. Although the exact cause was never definitively determined, investigators theorized that an underground train accident, a mismanaged blasting operation, or even the flicker of an open flame lamp ignited a deadly mix of dust and gas, unleashing an unimaginable catastrophe.

Among the courageous souls toiling in those mines, a great number were recent immigrants, hailing from Italy, Hungary, and Russia. With no trained rescue workers available at the time, fellow miners from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio rushed to Monongah, setting aside any ethnic rivalries, to lend a helping hand in the arduous rescue efforts. Armed with little more than their picks and shovels, these valiant rescue crews ventured into the sprawling underground labyrinth, battling raging fires, treacherous cave-ins, and the ever-present threat of explosive gases. Slowly but surely, they unearthed the mangled bodies of men and young boys, some as young as eight, from the devastating aftermath. The true number of lives lost remains a haunting mystery, as the miner identification system was obliterated by the force of the explosion.

In the grim aftermath of the Monongah tragedy, three more major mine disasters unfolded in rapid succession, casting a dark shadow over the final month of 1907, forever earning it the ominous moniker of 'Black December.' When the final tally was counted, a staggering 3,241 American miners had perished on the job that year alone, marking it as the deadliest year in the nation's history. Despite these horrifying accidents, many mining operations, including Monongah, willfully ignored well-established safety precautions. They stubbornly clung to outdated practices, relying on open candles instead of shielded lamps, opting for cheap dynamite over safer alternatives, and disregarding tests that could have detected lethal methane gas. These reckless practices mirrored those already prevalent in Europe.
Driven by the nationwide outcry following the devastating events in Monongah and other mining disasters, Congress finally took decisive action. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt saw the need for a dedicated group to look into mine mishaps and to push for safer working conditions. By 1910, thanks to his efforts, the Bureau of Mines came into being. It was a major move to watch out for those hardworking souls who spent their days deep underground.

Learn more about modern mine technology.


Mining in the United States: WORLD WAR II

When we think of World War II, we often imagine young soldiers bravely fighting on the front lines. But the true success of the war effort was not just in the hands of these brave men, it was also in the coal that fueled the fires of industry back home. Back in the day, coal was like America's heartbeat. Without the massive production of coal, the war machine would have ground to a halt.

In the '40s, with everyone clamouring for more resources, coal production took off. Everyone turned to strip mining since it was a faster, cheaper way to open new sites, causing a production boom. Nationally, coal production jumped from 348 million tons in 1938 to 617 million tons in 1944. In Pennsylvania, the state known for its rich coal reserves, production increased by a staggering 69.9% from 1938 to 1945. Strip mining played a crucial role in meeting the demand, with 26 million net tons produced in 1945 compared to just 2 million net tons in 1939.

Butler County, just a stone's throw from Pittsburgh's steel mills, played a big role in supporting the war. The county embraced strip mining and saw its coal production soar from 496,000 net tons in 1938 to over 1.2 million net tons in 1944. However, this transition came at a cost. The ease of strip mining meant fewer jobs for coal miners, as heavy machinery took over the labour-intensive work. In 1938, there were 1,391 coal mining jobs, but by 1945, that number had decreased to 945.

One mine that thrived during this time was Kincaid Mine in Butler County. It outproduced all other mines in the county, producing 106,397 net tons in 1945.

Across the nation, little coal mining towns stepped up, helping power the war efforts. But, on the flip side, the quick growth of strip mining sure did a number on the environment. Abandoned strip mines, acid mine drainage, and pollution were all consequences of this accelerated mining. Efforts to repair the damage began in the 1960s and 1970s with programs like Operation Scarlift in Pennsylvania, but many challenges still remain. While the United States emerged as the leading industrialized nation of the war, it came at a significant environmental cost (learn more about safety topics in mining in the past here).


Mining in the United States: COAL MINE HEALTH AND SAFETY ACT

When Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, it was like hitting a home run for worker safety. This was leaps and bounds better than what we had earlier, ensuring that miners everywhere could clock in with a real shot at a safer workplace. Before this, federal inspectors could do little more than peek through the fence when it came to coal mine safety. But with this new act, they were in the driver's seat, able to get in there, see everything, and enforce some real safety rules.

Mine operators now had to follow a whole playbook of safety measures. Good airflow in mines, regular equipment check-ups, and training sessions for workers became the norm. These weren't just window-dressing; they truly helped keep miners safe and sound. And to make sure everyone played by the rules, the act slapped fines or penalties on any operator trying to play fast and loose with safety. This wasn't just to penalize – it pushed operators to be safer.

Workers and safety groups were throwing high-fives all around when this act passed. They saw it as a big win for miners and everyone else too. In fact, this act lit a fire under the folks who came up with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, spreading the safety love even further. In simple terms, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was a win. Fatal accidents in mines started going down big time, and other industries began thinking, "Hey, we should step up too!" Safe to say, it was a game-changer.



On January 2, 2006, a devastating explosion shook the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia. Tragically, 13 coal miners were trapped underground, and only one managed to survive. The already devastating event took a deeper hit when incorrect news came out saying 12 miners were saved. As a result, the media, the mine's owners, and even the administration of then-President George W. Bush came under intense scrutiny.

Early on January 2, there was an explosion when two teams of miners went into the mine. The first group of 13 miners became trapped due to a cave-in, and the group behind them quickly realized that the air was too contaminated with carbon monoxide for a rescue attempt. According to Randal McCloy, Jr., the lone survivor, the trapped miners had emergency oxygen "rescuers," but unfortunately, some of them failed to function. As the rescue teams above ground struggled to locate the trapped miners, those inside the mine took desperate measures to protect themselves from the toxic fumes. However, their efforts proved futile, and one by one, they succumbed to unconsciousness.

Finally, after over 40 agonizing hours, rescuers reached the miners. They discovered McCloy in critical condition, while the others had tragically lost their lives. McCloy was swiftly taken to the hospital and stayed unconscious for quite some time. The source of the false rumors that initially circulated remains unknown, but the belief that 12 miners had miraculously survived led to widespread dissemination of the inaccurate information by newspapers and networks across the country. The national media, including Anderson Cooper from CNN and Geraldo Rivera from Fox News, descended upon Sago, and later faced accusations from locals of causing emotional harm by amplifying unverified reports.

To this day, both the cause of the explosion and the origin of the false news remain mysteries. Some theories suggest that a lightning strike or seismic activity triggered the disaster, while others suspect sparks from equipment being restarted after the New Year's holiday as the possible ignition source. Multiple investigations and hearings were conducted to determine responsibility, with particular attention on the fact that the Bush Administration had appointed former lobbyists and coal industry executives to regulatory positions. Critics, in particular, pointed fingers at former mining executive Dave Lauriski, who was appointed by Bush to lead the Mining Health and Safety Administration. Lauriski had rejected a proposed rule that would have mandated mines to maintain two functioning escape routes at all times. In response to the Sago tragedy, West Virginia swiftly enacted a law requiring multiple escape routes in mines.

At the time of the rescue efforts, a few dedicated employees of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) were working closely with MSHA in recalling their work and how it influenced the creation of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act. This law made it clear: mine operators had to have solid emergency plans, nearby rescue squads, and good communication and tracking for crises. On top of that, if they broke the safety rules, they'd face stiffer fines and penalties. Heck, if they didn't pay up, MSHA could even shut their mines down. Plus, there was more focus on training and research to keep miners safe, showing a real drive to stop any more mine tragedies.


Mining in the United States: SHIFT TO RARE EARTH ELEMENTS

Rare earth elements are the secret sauce in many green technologies and tons of daily-use gadgets. Think of them as the magic beans behind those super-strong little magnets in our phones, the force keeping wind turbines moving, and what gives electric cars their zip.

So, how do these elements get from deep in the Earth to being part of our latest devices? Let's break it down step by step. While the United States is actively involved in mining and concentrating rare earths, the subsequent stages required to produce magnets currently take place overseas.

The extraction of rare earth elements starts with the mining of specific ores. After mining, these ores undergo a concentration phase to enhance their purity. Following this, a meticulous separation process isolates the individual rare earth elements. These separated elements are then transformed into metals and alloys. These metals and their alloys are foundational in making items like permanent magnets, motors, sensors, electric car components, and various consumer products.

In February 2021, President Joe Biden's administration emphasized the importance of mining rare earth elements from domestic sources as a matter of national security.

While rare earths are not truly scarce on Earth, they are typically found scattered throughout the Earth's crust in low concentrations. The ore itself holds relatively little value without undergoing a complex and often environmentally hazardous process to convert it into a usable form.

Dr. Julie Klinger from the University of Delaware in Newark points out the detailed processing needed to fully utilize rare earth elements. This rigorous method has raised environmental issues within the rare earth mining industry. The extraction often involves large open-pit mines, which can harm the environment and disrupt natural habitats. In areas where mining oversight is lax, there's a risk of forming wastewater ponds laden with acids, heavy metals, and sometimes radioactive materials, threatening groundwater safety. Transitioning from raw ore to a refined product fit for crafting magnets and fostering technological innovations demands a protracted procedure.



Where is most of the mining in the US?

Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, and Minnesota stand out as the leading states, making up close to 40% of the non-fuel mineral production value. Notably, Arizona shines as the nation's top copper producer, while Nevada takes the gold crown, quite literally, as the leading gold producer.

Where is the biggest mine in the United States?

Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mine holds the impressive title of being the largest man-made hole on the planet. With its sprawling terraced walls, this massive open-pit mine is not only designed to prevent landslides but also to make it easier for heavy machinery to access the precious ore.



Looking back from 1875 to today, it's clear how much mining has shaped America's story. It's been more than just digging up resources; it's about fueling our economy and pushing technological boundaries. From the days of the Gold Rush to our current focus on sustainable practices, the way we mine has changed dramatically, reflecting advances in safety and care for the environment. Not everything went always smoothly. Worker disputes and environmental debates were there, but the industry has always shown its ability to bounce back and evolve. Mining's past tells a tale of determination, innovation, and relentless pursuit of betterment. As we are starting the next chapter of the future history book "Mining in the US after 2020", it's hard not to feel excited about how this age-old industry will continue to influence America's path forward.

If you are interested in further reading of the topic, we recommend you books:

  • Russel R. Elliott “Nevada's Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely”
  • Paul J. White “The Archaeology of American Mining”
  • John R. McNeill & George Vrtis “Mining North America (An Environmental History since 1522)”


Wearables and Risk Management in Mining

Dive deeper into one of our core topics: Miner Safety