Virtual lecture digs up the deep history of mine shaft sinking in Park City |

Virtual lecture digs up the deep history of mine shaft sinking in Park City

Registration open for April 7 event

Dr. Michael Nelson, former chairman of the University of Utah’s department of mining engineering, will discuss the history of shaft sinking in Park City on April 7. Nelson's father and grandfather worked in the Park City mines.
Courtesy of Michael Nelson

Mine shafts are vertical tunnels that give miners access to valuable materials.

Sinking a shaft, which is another way of saying boring holes in the ground for mining, was hard, physical work, especially in the late 1800s, said Dr. Michael Nelson, former chairman of the University of Utah’s department of mining engineering.

“Most of the shafts in Park City were sunk by drilling and blasting the rock, which was the same way they mined the ore,” said Nelson, who will give a virtual lecture next week about the process.

The lecture, hosted by the Friends of Ski Mountain Mining History, will consider the development of shaft sinking technology, and describe the history of shaft sinking in Park City mines through 1900. It will start at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7. Registration for the free event is open at

“Miners started the process by clearing away the vegetation on a site, building a wood or concrete collar, which served as a place they could get into the shaft and support the work below, and shoveling away dirt,” said Nelson, co-author of the book, “History of Flotation.” “As miners go down to the bedrock, they would start drilling, and when they first did that in Park City, they drilled by hand, which was called hand steeling.”

Hand steeling required miners to use hammers to hit hand-held chisels that were placed against the rock, he said.

Once the miners bored holes in the rock, they would fill them with blasting powder of dynamite, connect the fuses, light them and climb out of the shaft as fast as they could, Nelson said.

“After the blast, they had to wait for the gasses to clear, and then they would lower steel buckets, which are called kibbles, and the miners would fill it with rock or ore and hoist the debris to the surface,” he said. “They could work all day. It took a long time.”

Nelson’s lecture will also touch on the history of shaft sinking.

“There is evidence of shafts that sunk in mines that operated in Egypt B.C.E.,” he said. “Over the years, people gradually learned more efficient ways to do it, and then faced the challenge of how to get the debris up to the surface, and how to get fresh air down there to the miners. There are all kinds of problems to solve, which miners and engineers have done for the past 2,000-3,000 years.”

The advent of the steam drill made Park City miners’ lives a little easier, Nelson said.

“It made the drilling faster, but also made it hotter and more humid.”

Miners stand in and around a double cage at the Daly Mine shaft in 1891. An upcoming virtual lecture by Dr. Michael Nelson, former chairman of the University of Utah’s department of mining engineering, will discuss how miners sank shafts to pull ore out of the ground.
Park City Museum & Historical Society, Park City Mountain Resort Collection

Miners would sink shafts when there wasn’t evidence of “outcropping,” Nelson said.

“That’s when you come across any place of a hill where one of the layers of rocks has some valuable properties that you can get by just digging up the surface,” he said. “But when places don’t have an outcrop, miners would sink a vertical shaft to get to the materials.”

Some of the shafts in Park City dropped down as far as 3,000 feet, which caused other technical challenges, said Nelson, who has worked for Kennecott Copper, Westinghouse Electric, Consolidation Coal, and EIMCO Process Equipment.

“One of the big problems they faced in Park City was the town’s high water table,” he said. “So as miners went down, the shaft would fill with water, and they had to either pump it out of the mine or develop tunnels to drain it.”

Two of the more popular draining tunnels in town are the Spiro and Ontario tunnels, Nelson said.

“They still exist, and still have water flowing out of them,” he said.

The other challenge was supporting the shaft’s walls as miners dug deeper into the earth.

“They had to support the dirt walls and roofs of the tunnels with timber,” Nelson said. “They would lower these 10-by-10 beams into the shafts, and then the miners would have to lift those into place and anchor them.”

For their hard work, regular miners who worked the Ontario Mine made $3.50 a day and the shaft sinkers and timbermen earned $4 a day, according to Nelson.

Mining, especially in Park City, runs in Nelson’s family.

His grandfather, Carl Nelson, was born and raised in the Heber Valley and worked in different mines for most of his life.

“When he worked in Park City, he was in his 30s, which was old for a miner,” Nelson said. “He would say he wasn’t strong enough to work underground, so they had him working on the surface in a job they called top car.”

The top car worker was the first person on the surface who would direct a mining cart.

“Some of the mines in Park City brought their ore out through cars they lowered and raised in an elevator in the shafts,” Nelson said. “They would hoist those cars to the surface, and the top car man would push the cart, which usually held a lot of ore, onto the rails and dump it into the ore dump or waste rock dump. It wasn’t as hard as working underground.”

Nelson’s father, Tom Nelson, also worked in the Park City mines, to much to his grandmother’s chagrin.

“My dad graduated Park City High School in 1946, and his mother arranged for him to go to Brigham Young University to study music,” Nelson said. “He played the trombone, but said he just wanted to work in the mines like everybody else in Park City.”

When Tom graduated high school, he met with the Silver King superintendent and asked for a job.

“My dad’s mom had already talked with the super and told him not to hire my dad, because he was going to study music,” Nelson said.

A few weeks before college started, the super told Tom if he started college he could work in the mines on the weekends and during vacations anytime he wanted.

“So while he was at college for the first couple of years, my dad would work four shifts at the mine every weekend,” Nelson said. “That’s what got him through school, and he was the first person in the family to go to college.”

Although Nelson was born in Afton, Wyoming, and raised in Logan, he found his father’s career in the mines fascinating.

“He kept telling me I should learn to play music, but then at night he would tell us about working in the mines,” Nelson said. “And that’s what got me interested in mining engineering.”

Shaft Sinking Lecture by Dr. Michael Nelson

When: 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 7

Where: online

Cost: Free




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