Mastering a dark workday underground — eyesight, insight |

Mastering a dark workday underground — eyesight, insight

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Tubbs Caley, Pat Bonner and Fred Willoughby (left to right) during 1927, as they mine the endpoint of the Midnight tunnel.
Willoughby collection

Labor underground without light is like working blind. To understand the entirety of the darkness, you almost have to experience it. Unlike a nighttime bedroom, a mine has no moonlight seeping in from a window. No tiny bulbs signal that electronic devices are drawing power. Seeking light, you may strain your eyes. But they are worthless. You grope with extended limbs and rely on another navigation sense: hearing.

Miners had to learn to cope in darkness. Sometimes their light source went off, if even for a moment. Like a blind person, they had to have memorized their environment. They had to know from the feel of a tunnel wall where they might be, and keep in mind the dangerous places where tunnels plunged into shafts or stopes.

Some say it takes 10,000 hours of purposeful experience to master a task. My father had accumulated those hours before he was 30 years old. He had apprenticed with older miners, and observed their underground navigation skills. Plus, he had dug much of the Midnight Mine and knew every inch of it. If his light went out, he easily followed sounds and memory to reach safety. For him, the absence of light counted more as an inconvenience than a problem.

Lighting technology aided navigation. In the early days, candles lit Aspen’s mines. My father tunneled into an older abandoned tunnel in the Midnight and found cases of candles left over from the 1890s. Miners placed them in metal containers, gads, which protected the flames from breezes that might extinguish them. Commonly, a miner would receive a supply of candles for each shift. But a supply of candles did not always last as long as the work did.

Some miners took out contracts that paid them by the foot to dig a tunnel. They bought their own blasting powder and candles. To save money, they sometimes cut back on candle use and worked in the dark.

During the early 1900s, an improved technology, carbide lamps, replaced candles. The lamps functioned through a chemical process that mixed calcium carbide with water. Despite their odor and need for maintenance, the lamps stayed lit longer than did candles. Even so, a lamp might fail and leave a miner to navigate a cold and damp tunnel in darkness.

In modern times, reliable battery-operated lights replaced the carbide lamps. Recharged after each shift, these lights seldom failed.

At 20 years of age, my father worked at the Midnight. He visited the Smuggler Mine to inspect or buy something from the Smuggler. He had walked that Smuggler tunnel many times, and felt at home there. After he had walked a few hundred feet into the mine, total darkness suddenly enveloped him. He assumed that his carbide lamp had gone out. He did not feel alarm and continued to walk, with a notion that he would relight the lamp when he arrived farther along the tunnel.

He woke up in the hospital.

The lamp had not gone out. He had lost his sight. Soon, he fell down a 30-foot hole. Fortunately, someone discovered his unconscious body.

After three days, my father could see again. At the time, the 1920s, the town’s only doctor could not diagnose the problem. My father traveled to Denver, and doctors there could not figure out what had happened, either. After a few weeks’ rest he returned to work, worried that blindness might strike at any time without warning.

My father never lost his eyesight again. Even so, I suspect that he and all workers who spend their lives underground appreciate their vision more than the rest of us do.