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A simple gadget

Tim Willoughby

Dark underground is really dark. If you are without a light, then there is no light. For centuries a miner’s light source was either an oil lamp or the precarious candle. Before the underground was electrified, Aspen miners preferred the candle.

Three candles were sufficient for a 10-hour shift. A large mine like the Smuggler, with more than 100 men underground, went through cases of candles each day. Contract miners, who worked on their own, supplied their own candles. To reduce that expense, some miners would work at least part of the day without light. Some work, like drilling, could take place without illumination, but that increased the likelihood of injury. Miners who received three candles at the beginning of a shift would try to save what little they could for home use.

An advantage to working by candlelight was that the light source doubled as a stove to heat coffee and tea. Depending on the location of your candle, you could place a pot of water above it while you worked. Candle fumes were not as noxious as those from oil lamps, and while candlelight was not as bright, candles did not exude the foul odor of carbide lamps.



Traveling underground by candlelight challenged a miner’s patience. Breezes induced by walking could blow out a bare candle. To prevent this premature snuffing, miners put their candles into tin cans with enough holes in them to let out light but not enough holes to extinguish the flame. When miners carried these cans down the mountain after their shifts in the dark of winter, they created a firefly effect.

Aspen miners did not use canaries to warn them of bad air like coal miners did. Aspen mines rarely contained poisonous gases, except sometimes from blasting. They did have “dead air” sections with insufficient oxygen. Dead air caused fatalities when miners climbed a shaft ladder or worked alone. A candle functioned as an early warning system. If a candle went out in the absence of any motion in the air, a miner didn’t take time to relight. He made a hasty retreat to better air.




According to author Will Meyerriecks in his well-researched book about mining equipment, “Drills and Mills,” in the 1860s miners of the Nevada Comstock lode began using a miner’s candlestick, also called a sconce, to hold their candle while they worked. Before antique hunters carted them off, nearly every old Aspen house or garage held at least one. They were prevalent in Aspen’s privies. The simple gadget could hang from its hook or its spike end could be jammed into a cracked rock or tunnel timber. The holder was heavy and stable enough to hold up a candle when placed on a flat surface. In addition to its primary function, its strong sharp point could open a can of condensed milk for lunch or make an extra hole in a leather belt.

Although most miners’ candlesticks were manufactured under a patent, blacksmiths forged some locally. The manufactured ones are rounded, but the blacksmiths’ have flat surfaces where they were hammered into shape. It was perhaps the original multitasker, simply made.

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