Mining companies flirt with new drilling technology

While mining companies continued to crop up in the Lake Superior copper region into the early 20th century, the Lake Superior mines were beginning to face incredibly stiff competition from mines in the western states, though they did not produce native copper as did those in Michigan.

To name just a few examples, copper was discovered in the Morenci district of Arizona in 1865, which further exploration determined was just part of an enormous vein of copper that spanned an entire mountain. In 1872, the Detroit Copper Mining Company was organized and started production near Clifton and Morenci, in 1875, by a man named William Church. Copper mineral was discovered in the Greenlee district of New Mexico in 1872. Copper was discovered in 1879 in the White Knob mountains near the current town site of Mackay, Idaho. These are just to mention a few of the western mines that created competition.

One particular advantage most of these western mines, particularly the Detroit company in Arizona, had over the Lake Superior copper mines, was that they exploited flat, level lodes through open pits. Open-pit mining was much less costly than hard-rock mining and, in the case of the Detroit company, contained exponentially more copper than did even the great C&H mine.

Managers of the larger Lake Superior copper mines knew that in order to remain competitive, they needed to explore newer technologies both above and below the surface. What managers had been keeping an eye on for nearly two decades was pneumatic-powered drills designed and built for drilling through rock and the improvements made to previous designs.

Jonathan Crouch had patented the first percussion rock drill in 1849, but it was not powered by air, it was powered by steam. According to Construction Equipment Magazine’s July 26, 2018 article by Tom Berry, “The First Percussion Drill,” the drill steel passed through a piston. The steel was launched by steam like a lance, seized in a gripper box on the recoil when the engine valve released the driving pressure, and rotated after every stroke.

Berry reported that It worked on granite blocks, but was not commercially successful. The first compressed-air drill was patented in Europe in 1857, Berry wrote. Meanwhile, in the United States, patents were issued to G.H. Wood, J. D. Hope, and L.P. Jenks for modifications to the steel and the use of springs to advance the steel from the force of its recoil. A “portable” unit–weighing 590 pounds–that mated a drill to a steam engine’s cylinder and valve motion was patented in 1861 by William Harsen. A Harsen drill was tried at Hoosac and found wanting.”

The drill Lake Superior mine managers looked at initially was the Brooks, Gates and Burleigh drill.

Between 1850 and 1875, Europeans patented 86 rock drills, stated Doreen Chaky in her Mining History Association journal magazine, “John Henry v. Charles Burleigh’s Drill.” In the same period, 110 were patented in the U.S.

“But it was the Burleigh drill that was to advance tunneling, quarrying, and mining technology in the United States,” wrote Chaky, “and it was Burleigh’s name that, like Xerox with all copiers, was to become synonymous with machine drills, no matter who made them.”

Burleigh modified his initial drill after it could not stand up to the tunneling through the Hoosac, Massachusetts Mountain. Burleigh’s modifications worked and his drill was endorsed late in 1866 by the Massachusetts legislature.

According to the 1873 printing of the Statistics of Mines and Mining in the States and Territories West of the Rocky Mountains, published by the U.S. Treasury Dept., The Pewabic Mining Company first experimented with the Burleigh drill in 1868, with the Calumet and Hecla company introducing the new technology in 1871. According to that account, the motive power was steam. The Aztec Mine, in the Ontonagon region, ran the next trial with machine drills, and according to the Statistics, those drills were powered by compressed air. The Central Mine was next in procuring a Burleigh drill, also in about 1871, to work in an incline shaft. The shaft, 14 feet by 8 feet, was inclined at a 30-degree angle. In the 1872 Annual Report of the Central Mining Company, the mining captain reported that by use of the drill the rate of shaft sinking had increased by 50 percent.

“This was the first machine of the kind I saw at work,” the Statistics book author wrote, “and it very forcibly struck me that the machine could drill more ground in an hour than three of the best miners could in a day.”

In very few of the Lake Superior mines were the Burleigh drills successful, the primary reason being their size. They were simply too big for the standard drifts, which were most commonly four feet wide by six feet high. The Burleigh drill was a behemoth. The Burleigh was much too large, too heavy, and uneconomical for the small openings and steep pitches of the Lake Superior mines. The Burleigh, though advertised as practical for mining use, had been designed with the Hoosac Tunnel in mind. The Hoosac Tunnel was 25,000 long, cut through a solid rock mountain for a short-line railroad. It might have worked well there (which it did not; it was subject to frequent breakage and repair), in a straight-line tunnel, but for the twisting, winding drifts that ran between the shafts of the Lake mines, the carriage-mounted drills were too large, too long, and just plain unreliable. The managers of the Lake Superior region needed something smaller, lighter, more portable, easier to set up and take down, and that could be operated by just two men.

The machine drill they needed finally arrived on the market at the end of the 1870s, stated Charles K. Hyde in his 2016 book Copper For America: The United States Copper Industry from Colonial Times to the 1990s.

The drill the Lake Superior region managers finally found was manufactured by the Rand Drill Company, of New York, which also designed and manufactured the air compressors required to power them. Simon Ingersoll, who is claimed to have invented the pneumatic drill, but actually did not, was a premier manufacturer of rock drills, but according to the National Engineer Magazine, Vol. 15, published in 1911,from the time Addison and Jasper Rand marketed their drill, it was the most formidable competition against Ingersoll. Each manufacturer held value to the other and the two companies would eventually merge to become Ingersoll Rand.

The Rand drill quickly became the preferred machine in the Lake Superior copper mines, Hyde wrote. In the span of four years between 1879 and 1883, 15 of the 20 operating mines had adopted the Rand drills, and by 1883, the five largest producers had 138 in use.

Graham Jaehnig has a BA of Social Science/History from Michigan Technological University, and an MA in English/Creative Nonfiction Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is internationally known for his writing on Cornish immigration to the United States mining districts.


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