Saturday, August 10, 2019

I’d Rather Be A Nipper Than A Flunky (Mining History)

The stereotypical image of historic miners is that of an unskilled laborer with a pick-ax and shovel. Think of the Seven Dwarfs. "We dig, dig, dig, . . ."

In reality, workers performed various jobs, and few of them looked like the dwarfs swinging pick-axes in vast, well-lit caverns.

In order to lengthen the tunnels, rock had to be blasted and removed. The miners would drill long, slender holes in the rock wall and place sticks of dynamite inside. 

Author photo from the Molly Kathleen mine tour in Cripple Creek, Colorado
Before the invention of hydraulic drills, two men would hand-drill. One would hold a drill-steel with a sharp bit on the end while the other hit the steel with a sledgehammer. After each hit, the one holding the steel would rotate it a quarter-turn. Imagine the trust those guys had in each other. I don’t think I would hold my hands in front of someone’s big hammer. But that would be the only way to get a rest from swinging the hammer.
Author photo from the Molly Kathleen mine tour in Cripple Creek, Colorado
After the holes had been drilled, someone placed a stick of dynamite in each one and ran a long fuse. (They look just like the ones in the cartoons.) Often this happened at the end of the shift. Everyone left the mine, and the explosives were detonated.
Author photos from the San Juan County Historical Society museum in Silverton, Colorado 
By the next shift, the air had cleared, and a pile of rubble remained. Workers had to shovel the rock into a car to be removed from the mine. This was called “mucking.”
Author photo from the Molly Kathleen mine tour in Cripple Creek, Colorado
With any luck, the rock that had been blasted out contained some ore (gold, silver, copper, and such) that could be processed and sold.

As difficult as these jobs sounded, they weren’t even the low-level positions. A young man (or boy) who aspired to be a miner started out as a “nipper.” Nippers served as runners for the miners. They fetched tools, like sharpened drill bits from the underground blacksmith shop.

And, yes, blacksmiths worked underground in shops complete with hot fires, giant billows, and anvils that would make a cartoon character proud. They repaired tools and sharpened drill bits. I have to imagine that they knew the nippers by name.

Author photos from the San Juan County Historical Society museum in Silverton, Colorado
Lest you believe that the nippers were the bottom of the ladder, above ground, in the boardinghouse kitchens, there were men with the title of “flunky.” Their job description seemed similar to that of nippers, but they were on the surface where it was safe . . . And boring. Few held that job for long.

Many of these jobs exist today. Miners continue to drill and muck out the rock with the aid of machines. Muscular men (and women) operate the equipment. Blacksmith shops were replaced with machine shops. Google “nipper,” and you’ll find job opportunities. I’m not sure anyone wanted the job title “flunky.” At least nippers enjoyed the exciting work of mining and had upward mobility.


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection 

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

For a Free Preview, click here:


  1. Thanks for the interesting post! My husband worked for years in the talc industry in Vermont. He was never a miner but went into the mines for maintenance issues a couple of times.

  2. I guess that's where the term "little nipper" comes from. I've been down in the Molly Kathleen mine. It's quite an interesting experience to visit, but I sure wouldn't want to work down there.

  3. I hadn't thought of that. The Molly Kathleen is one of the best mine tours, but it is deep underground.

  4. I've found it to be cold deep underground, but a constant temperature. What an interesting post, Suzanne. Thank you! (My son works in a mine, but things are quite different today.)

  5. Thanks. Things are very different now. Some mines are cold. Others can be very hot.

  6. Nicely written post. I've researched early mining in Pennsylvania but you had some things I didn't know. Maybe it's because of the difference between New Mexico mining and Pennsylvania's?

    1. Thanks. It could be the difference. Although I live in New Mexico now, my research is based on Colorado mining.