It’s Dark and Cold in a Lead Mine
Platteville Museum Offers a Realistic View at the Work of a Miner
by Selin Gök, age 16
On a hot August day, a team of Free Press reporters and I decided to visit the Platteville Mining Museum. When we entered the museum, a very friendly staff person greeted us and gave us a brief introduction to the museum and its history.
The museum was run by Rollo Jamison and is one of the only museums funded by its home city. The Platteville Mining Museum, also known as the Rollo Jamison Museum, was founded in 1968. In 1976, the museum began offering tours of a real lead mine.
The first stop on our tour was a large shelf filled with hard helmets. Our tour guide, Eric Fatzinger, showed us how to fasten them, and we put them on for safety while touring the mine. Once everyone had donned a helmet, our group headed underground.
We quickly learned that it’s cold underground. The further down the the mine we went, the colder we got. This lead mine, which was operational between the 1920’s and 1970’s, is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As we walked, Fatzinger told us the history of how lead mining impacted Wisconsin.
This chapter in Wisconsin’s mining history started with a lawyer named Lorenzo Bevans.
In 1845, Bevans was struggling to make ends meet. With the help of his assistant, Bevans dug into two old mines and discovered massive amounts of lead. Soon enough, Bevans had a unit of 20 miners digging for lead 50 feet deep into the mine. Over two million pounds of lead were harvested in the first year, making Bevans a very wealthy man.
Bevans also made a business of supplying mines with equipment. He became a well-known businessman, and in 1847, Bevans was elected to help write Wisconsin’s constitution. Bevans’ draft of the constitution was declined due to the fact that he supported women’s voting rights.
Because lead was mainly used for military equipment, business slowed down significantly after the Civil War ended in 1865. Shortly after the plummet of the lead business, zinc became very popular. The zinc metal could be used to make brass and to coat iron. In 1860 the first load of zinc was shipped out of southwestern Wisconsin.
On the tour, we also learned of the many dangers miners faced. To get in and out of a mine, the workers had to use a windlass, a device used to haul miners up and down a mineshaft. Up to six men would hold onto a rope with one foot inside a bucket while two miners cranked the windlass and lowered them into the mine. As you might imagine, this wasn’t exactly safe. This method could injure or even kill a miner if they didn’t hold onto the rope tightly enough.
Once underground, miners carried buckets or used wheelbarrows to move the ore, or unrefined metal. Miners also used mules to pull the ore. Above ground, miners sorted the ore from the waste rock by breaking apart the rock and ore with a sledgehammer. From there, the zinc ore was taken to a mill where it was broken into even smaller pieces and sorted.
As we carefully stepped over the many puddles in the mine, we stopped at a dark corner while the tour guide pushed a button on the side of the wall to give us light. The lighting underground was very poor. Early miners could only use candles as a light source. A single miner might use three to six candles in a day. Miners would use candleholders called ‘sticking tommies’ to attach the candles to their hats or the wall. Miners dampened their clothing to protect themselves from flames. Sticking tommies made mining a little bit easier.
All in all, mining was quite a messy process. The life of a miner was treacherous. The mines were dark, damp and cold. The mine I toured was not a place I would like to work in from sunrise to sunset.
I did, however, greatly appreciate the opportunity to explore this lead mine. Mining is an important part of our state’s history. Mining boosted Wisconsin’s economy. It also helped push technology along by triggering the series of inventions to make mining easier.
The Platteville Mining Museum is an interesting sight for all ages. Visitors can get a hands-on look at what the life of a miner was actually like. The museum is open daily from 9AM to 5PM, May through October. Group tours are available year-round by appointment.