A Hard Rock Miners Guide to Staying Alive
The history of the Southwest is littered with stories of miners, gold and silver, old mines and mining towns. The pursuit and acquisition of gold, silver, tin, copper, lead and more shaped this part of the nation like nothing else. A huge percentage of the towns in the four corners states were established near mining interests — places like Silverton, Leadville, Jerome, Tombstone, Sante Fe, Taos, St. George and Iron City, and hundreds more. Those towns that weren’t directly involved in mining were most likely established to support the railroad that supported the mines. The landscape, legends, stories and culture of the Southwest were shaped by these rough and tumble rock hounds.
Hard rock mining refers to the process of extracting mineral bearing rocks from tunnels deep underground. Hard rock mining was, without a doubt, one of the most dangerous professions one could pursue, particularly in the Old West. The miners faced the risk of cave-ins, fires, bad air, poor lighting, damp and miserable working conditions, as well as disease and injury. It isn’t surprising, then, that these men were extremely superstitious. In particular, they believed strongly in ghosts, goblins and spirits (creatures they collectively called Tommy Knockers).
The name Tommy Knockers (pronounced knackers) comes from the knocking sound the miners would hear in the walls of the mine that occurred just before a cave-in. Actually, the sound is usually caused by the creaking of the earth or timbers, or popping of the stones as a crack formed, often signaling a collapse. But to the superstitious miners, the sounds were made by spirits.
Some miners believed Tommy Knockers were the spirits of departed miners. Others believed these impish, gnome-like men were the Cornish equivalent of Irish leprechauns and English brownies. Germans called them Berggeister or Bergmännlein, meaning “mountain ghosts” or “little miners.” The Cornish believed these wee little men were the souls of the Jews who crucified Christ and were sent by the Romans to work as slaves in the tin mines.
Whatever their origin, most miners agreed on what they looked like, although few claimed to have actually seen a Tommy Knocker. They were tiny characters, about two feet tall, sometimes with green skin and hair, who dressed like little miners and performed many mining duties while underground working alongside the other men. In the early days, Cornish miners refused to work the mine unless they were assured by the mine owners that the Tommy Knockers were on duty.
No matter what they were called, Tommy Knockers brought both good and bad luck to the miners. They were said to lead miners to rich loads of ore by knocking on the rocks in the direction the miners should follow. The knocking could also indicate the danger of a cave-in. Those who believed that Tommy Knockers were there to help, listened closely to these signals.
Many miners felt less kindly toward these spirits. Tommy Knockers, when offended, could be malicious. These capricious spirits stole tools, lunches, pelted the miners with stones and blew out candles and lanterns, or worse, failed to signal the collapse of a tunnel or rock fall thereby injuring or even killing a miner. To placate these spirits, miners would very often leave a part of their lunch or other small offerings for these tiny creatures.
Legend also says that when a mine played out, the Tommy Knockers found work in the homes surrounding the old mineshafts. The superstition continued when many families whose homes were “invaded” by Tommy Knockers experienced good or bad luck.
Belief in Tommy Knockers remained well into the 20th century, and though not much is heard about Tommy Knockers today, these spirits will forever have a place in the history, legend and lore of the Southwest!