Superior copper district meets Cornish contract system

Because the Cornish mining men were the most experienced, were readily available, and were the most knowledgeable about mining, both underground and on the surface, the mines of the Lake Superior copper district developed under Cornish mining systems.

One of these systems was what came to be called the Cornish contract system.

The actual job of a miner was by no means simple in the early days that the Lake Superior copper district was developing into a mining district. In fact, a good Cornish miner had begun his training when he was approximately 8 years old, usually under his father or other family member.

The child usually began as a “drill boy.” His tasks included bringing sharp drill steels to the mining team, and bringing dull ones off to be sharpened, as well as bringing black powder and fuse to the team as required. He also paid attention. As he became older, stronger, and learned the rudiments of the trade, his tasks were expanded until he at last became a miner.

If in the Lake Superior copper district the Cornish miner acquired a reputation for being fiercely independent. That’s because he was. He was not an employee of the company for which he worked, but rather, he was an independent contractor. He was not paid by the hour, but instead, was paid based on how much ore or copper he produced in his contract period.

Typically, a stoping team consisted of six men. They elected one member to represent them on “setting day,” or the day the monthly contracts were made. The representative met with the company’s head mining captain, and together they looked over the area to be worked during the upcoming month. Measurements were recorded, and the price discussed. If both men agreed on the contract details, the representative accepted the contract for the entire team.

The stoping team was divided in half. Three men worked the day shift, and three men worked the night shift. During the contract period, all supplies the men needed were purchased through the company. This could include black powder, fuse, candles, sledgehammers, and whatever else was needed.

The cost of the items was charged to the team’s account.

At the end of the contract, the representative and the mining captain again met at the assigned work place. New measurements were taken and calculated, the final figures being turned in at the office.

After being paid based on the amount of ore mined during the month, the charged supply costs were deducted from the amount, and the representative received the remainder of the contract settlement, which was then divided among the other team members.

This (very simplified) description of the Cornish Contract System worked well enough in the beginning, but it became a way later for the company, as well as the mining teams, to cheat each other. It also demonstrates that mining teams had a great incentive to work diligently and efficiently, and this is where the Cornish miners stood out. Working under the contract system since the age of eight, the average miner had long ago learned to judge the rock he was mining, and based on that judgement, determine the minimal number of holes required to liberate more rock with the minimal amount of powder. Fewer holes meant less time spent drilling, and less powder meant lower cost deductions on settling day.

In order to achieve fewer holes, however, the contract miner had to know the specific angles at which to drill the holes, and to what depth, using the proper diameter drill steels. He also had to know the hardness of the rock he was drilling. He then had to know the proper amount of black powder to place in the holes, the proper amount of tamping the powder required, and how long to set each fuse, as well as the proper lengths to cut them to ensure the men enough time to get away from the blasting area.

All of this was in addition to the miners drilling upward over their heads. Thomas Egleston, in his 1876 book, “Copper Mining in Lake Superior,” called this type of drilling the overhand stoping method. It required one member of the mining team to hold a drill against the rock face, while the other two team members took turns swinging their sledgehammers upward over their heads and striking the drill. In Cornish terms, this was called “jacking” the drill. When the holes were charged and the rock blasted, it dropped it onto the floor of the mine, away from the work surface, so the men would not have to stop and muck out the place they just blasted.

This system was not possible with shaft sinking, because by their nature, shafts went downward. Underground, however, sometimes it became necessary for miners to create a shaft-like hole from one level to the next. Sometimes this was done to improve air circulation, or to create a hoisting station from one level up to the next. If this internal shaft was opened upward, it was called a raise. If downward, it was referred to as a winze.

Mining was never easy. It was constant hard work, particularly when using the overhand stoping method, which required hours-long precision in aiming an eight to 10-pound sledgehammer being swung upward, to avoid striking the man holding the drill. All of these things required skill it took a lifetime to obtain.

On arriving in the Lake Superior district, those miners with more experience, or those more adept at the trade, became shift captains, or shift “bosses,” or became head mining captains.

By the turn of the 20th century, the contract system had largely been done away with, although both labor and management both pretended it still existed. All underground workers, whether miners, trammers, timbermen, platmen, pumpmen, worked for wages, and the days of the Cornish miner being supreme ended.

The once-superior skills of the Cornish miner had been eliminated by pneumatic drills and dynamite.