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A miner’s sixth sense

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionA hand-drawn map of the Hope Tunnel shows the bends and branches of a miners' navigation.
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There is the wild darkness, when no moonlight helps you find your way without tripping over boulders or running into trees. And then there is the ultimate, underground darkness, where only miners’ special senses find the way.

Miners of the 19th century worked by dim candlelight. Some worked in total darkness, saving their daily ration of candles for home use. Underground passageways were difficult to navigate, especially in large mines like the Smuggler. Imagine trying to find your way through a multistory hotel with no windows if the power went out. At least the doors at hotel elevator shafts prevent you from falling in.

Most maps of Aspen’s mines present vertical cross-sections that show the numerous levels. Straight lines erroneously suggest that underground tunnels resemble straight and orderly motel hallways. Horizontal maps, like the one above, reveal a different reality. Mine tunnels followed ore veins as well as miners’ whims of where they might find them. Tunnels turn and wander off into dead-end branches. They abruptly intercept mine shafts and stopes (caverns where ore had been extracted) that extend hundreds of feet above and below the tunnel. The ever-growing maze that miners faced each day presented perilous challenges.

Miners were armed with skills and experience that allowed them to meet those challenges, even if their candles/lights went out. In total darkness, senses other than sight take over. Underground, sounds intensify. Distant dripping water can sound like a torrent, providing a directional clue. Explosive charges set off at a level above or below reverberate as a compass.

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A miner had even more darkness-navigation tools. Tunnels were usually driven at a slight grade to accommodate pushing heavy mine cars. Many tunnels had water flowing on the floor, also suggesting direction. Circulation systems sent a wind on your back, as telling for a miner as for a sailor. Approaching the intersection of tunnel and shaft or stope, a miner could sense minute changes in air movement.

Miners also navigated by nose. Fresh air contrasted greatly with stale or polluted underground air. Men working with mules understood which passages had recently been traveled by animal. Odors from dynamiting were intense and would linger for days. The carbide lamps that replaced candles emitted telltale fumes noticeable from great distances.

Experienced miners developed a special sixth sense, an ability to know where they were three-dimensionally. This came from chasing ore veins. They could descend a shaft a thousand feet, then meander hundreds of feet along a tunnel, and still know the direction and distance to another location above or below them. They could read exposed rock, moving from one type to another when they crossed faults. They could discern the angle and direction of rock movement.

The ability to close your eyes then, on command, touch any body part, allows you to move about three-dimensionally. Miners used that sense of location underground as they moved through the convoluted insides of mountains.

Mountain dwellers may be lost at sea. Tropical travelers cannot tell direction on the tundra. Many modern Americans navigate cyberspace without pause. Even so, most of us remain ill-equipped to survive the underground maze that miners managed daily.


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