Even though working in Cripple Creek goldmines mines was tough labor, occasionally, miners took a break from their deep underground toil. Some Cripple Creek miners wanted to memorialize their work in the goldfields by posing for group photographs in front of their mines. A few of these photographs have survived and are stored in various Colorado archives. Some of these photographs contained surprising faces among the cast of characters. As I studied some of these old and brittle photographs, I noticed the faces of young boys looking back at me. With a magnifying glass in hand, I looked deeper. In one photo, a young boy (figure 1) puffs on a spit-soaked cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. With his dark eyes full of mischief, he poses with his adult coworkers at the Republic mine on the Mary McKinney mine property.
|Figure 1. This photo depicts a young boy posing with the adult miners |
at the Republic mine in the Cripple Creek Mining District.
Photo circa 1899, courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum.
These boys were part of the mine’s workforce. Some historians argue that only a handful of them were there, but their number remains undetermined and their stories lost to time.
Cripple Creek mines were dangerous, and there were many ways to be killed or injured underground: rock falls (also known as widow makers), cave-ins, explosions from unignited rounds of dynamite, and accidents with machinery. These drastic situations—the injury or loss of a father—led some children of the stricken miners, all boys, to work in the mines (Wright, 1974). These boys were supporting families that had had a father die or injured in a mining accident. Others were orphans and lived on their own.
These “minor miners” were known as pick boys (figure 2). They ran errands, fetched supplies, and brought dull drills and picks to blacksmiths for sharpening (Wyman, 1979). The pick boys also lugged water to thirsty miners to drink. It is likely that these boys tended the donkeys who worked with them underground.
|Figure 2. This closeup captures a moment in time where a pick boy |
is sitting with a group of miners. Photo, circa 1902,
courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum.
Some of the boys worked above ground in the ore-sorting houses. It was here that finely ground ore, considered richer than the coarser or oversized ore, was separated (Lindgren & Ransom, 1906). Some sorting houses used a process of hand sorting to separate the higher-grade ore, something a boy could do.
Lowell Thomas was 14 years old when he rode horseback for the Portland mine, gathering specimens from other gold mines to be assayed (Marist Archives and Special Collections, n.d.). The Portland mine, near the rough-and-tumble goldrush town of Victor, was one of the major producers in the Cripple Creek Mining District. Lowell Thomas grew up in Victor, where his father was the town doctor (Lee, 1958). Dr. Thomas took Lowell out for walks, where they looked for rocks and Lowell learned about geology (Lee, 1958, p. 239-240). Lowell Thomas came back to the mining district after college and worked in some of the mines and then edited several newspapers in the district for a short period (Lee, 1958, p. xii). Lowell Thomas went on to be a celebrated radio and television broadcaster, author, and world traveler.
Cripple Creek was not the only place where there were boy miners. In the Leadville district, boys left high school before graduation, usually to go to work in the mines and become breadwinners for their families (Crawford, 1959).
One miner’s account told of his mining partner at Colorado’s Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville. His partner was called “Scotty” because he was from Scotland. Scotty told him that one day when he was about 11 years old at home, the sun was low on the horizon outside, flooding his family’s kitchen with the ruddy light of sunrise. He was eating breakfast with his father. His mother was busy making his father’s lunch for work. Scotty’s father said, “Mom, fix a lunch for Junior.” The mother replied, “He’s going to school and will come home for lunch, and then go back to class.” The father said, “Not anymore. He’s goin’ to the mine with me. He’s had enough schooling.” Scotty never went back to school (G. Lewis, personal communication, 2020). Back then, children became "adults" much earlier than today, going only as high as completing eighth grade in most cases before going to work.
Colorado coal mines in the early 20th century used children in their workforce. According to Martha Todd, “The coal miners as a rule all had big families. The family of five was a small family. . . I’ve heard of families of 12 and 15 children. . .There were no child labor laws in those days and the boys were taken into the mine [at] 11, 12, 13 years old. And the girls, just as soon as they were able to take care of baby, were kept at home. They didn’t get to go to school much” (Margolis, 1985).
Child labor laws were slow in coming. In 1912, President Taft signed into law a bill creating “The Children's Bureau,” the first federal agency that focused on improving the lives of children. When the Department of Labor was established the following year (1913), The Children’s Bureau was transferred to it. However, child labor problems were far from solved.
Leadville’s Herald Democrat of October 18, 1921 featured an article about child labor. “In 20 states, boys less than 16 years old could be hired to work in mines and quarries. In 17 states, child workers under 16 years of age would not even be afforded the protection of the eight-hour workday. In 17 states there would be no law to prevent the child workers from being employed at night.”
The Walsh-Healey Act, enacted in 1936 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, established safety standards, minimum wage, maximum hours, overtime pay, and child labor regulations on federal contracts. Finally, in 1949, the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibited child labor.
Since there were no social systems to take care of the families with a father killed or disabled in a mine, and no labor laws to protect them, some of the boys in Cripple Creek worked in the mines by necessity, becoming the breadwinners for their families. Some boys quit school and followed the lure of gold and the adventure of mining. They became the pick boys, the minor miners of the Cripple Creek Mining District. They endured the hard work and dangers of underground mining.
Athearn, F. J., 2008, Early Mining in Northeastern Colorado Chapter 6. In The New Empire ofthe Rockies: A History of Northeast Colorado. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/blm/co/16/chap6.htm on April 1, 2020.
"Child Labor Still Issue." Herald Democrat, 18 Oct. 1921 [Leadville], p. 1.
Crawford, I. C., 1959, School Days in Leadville. Colorado Magazine, Vol. 36, p. 224.
Lindgren, W., and Ransome, F. L., 1906, Geology and gold deposits of the Cripple Creek District,Colorado. Washington: Govt. Print. Off.
Lee, M. B. 1958, Cripple Creek Days. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press., pp. 239-240.
Margolis, E., 1985, Western Mining as a Way of Life. Journal of the West, Vol. 36, p. 54.
Marist Archives and Special Collections: Lowell Thomas. Retrieved from http://library.marist.edu/archives/LTP/Graphic%20Materials/PhotographicPrints2.1.3/lowellThomas188.8.131.52.3.xml on April 5, 2020.
Wright, J. E., 1974, The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado. New Haven, CT: Yale UniversityPress, (pp. 20-21, 24-27).
Wyman, M., 1979, Hard Rock Epic: Western Miners and the Industrial Revolution 1860-1910.Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 13.