Buried Alive!

I just got back from a brief vacation. We often find we need to get away from our day jobs and other concerns for a while, and just be tourists. In this case, we took a short driving trip through south-west Wisconsin to Galena, Illinois.

The entire area was rich in lead and zinc deposits, and during the first half of the 19th century, the region was filled with boom towns and miners, and all that those two things attract. Galena was lovely; a thriving tourist town now, it had seen years of decay and despair as the town dwindled from the second-largest city in Illinois to a town of just a couple of thousand hardy souls. As the home of Civil War General and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses Simpson Grant, Galena capitalizes to the greatest extent possible on Grant’s connection to the town, and why not? Few towns can boast such a notable, historic, and influential figure.

But that isn’t what caught my attention on this trip. No sir; I was captivated by something in the tiny Wisconsin town of Shullsburg, population of something over 1,200 souls — an overall sum that hasn’t changed significantly in more than 130 years.

Shullsburg, like Galena, was a mining boom town, and is the third oldest immigrant settlement in Wisconsin. In 1829, settlers discovered what the local Native Americans had known for years: there were lead deposits to be found here, some very close to the surface. When the lead ran out in 1958, the mine was closed. Fast forward to this year. T. and I passed through Shullsburg on our way to Galena, and my attention was captivated by the sign advertising the Badger Mine & Museum with its mine tours. I’ve never been in a mine, so I was curious. Sadly, we were there on a Monday; the museum was closed until Wednesday. There and then, I made T. swear that we would stop on our return trip Thursday and visit the mine.

Long story short, we did. We arrived in the early afternoon, and the lights were all glowing their fluorescent shimmer. Inside were several tour guides, including one, a teen-ager, who was still undergoing her guide training. The museum itself has an impressive array of artifacts from before the turn of the previous century, including a rare, intact square grand piano. Also present are a number of ore and mineral samples, fascinating for rockhounds and beautiful in their fractal simplicity.

Seeing as I was the only person with an interest in touring the mine, the young guide-in-training, whose name was Brooklyn, took me down into the mine. First, I exchanged my baseball cap for a hard hat, then I was led down the steepest, narrowest set of steps I’ve even encountered. Made entirely of wood, the steps were a bit wet and slippery in spots from recent rains. We descended something like 50 feet underground, with switch-backs every three or four steps. Along the way we passed the ten-foot thick slab of poured concrete that made up the foundation of the museum. It’s not often you see concrete in cross-section.

At the bottom, I stared into a low tunnel — with a string of compact fluorescent bulbs along the ceiling — stretching into the distance. Brooklyn began her spiel, and seemed surprised that I knew more about mining and Wisconsin history than probably most of the museum’s visitors. That’s what happens when you have a history teacher for a dad, and a houseful of history-related books to fill long winter evenings.

The mine was a claustrophobe’s nightmare: most of the time I was stooped over, my forearms resting on my thighs as I duck-walked through the tunnels, most of which were four feet high or less and no more than three feet wide. This was termed a “primitive mine,” meaning it never saw the use of steam power or even dynamite, and the electricity was only added for the tours. Blasting was accomplished using a hammer and long chisel, and the resulting hole filled with black powder packed in tightly. They would light the fuses at the end of the day after almost everyone had left; the amount of dust and debris in the air would make work impossible without several hours of settling time, so that was the last chore of the day – lighting the fuses and getting out.

Miners were lowered six at a time into the diggings using a large metal bucket. The men would hang from the bucket, one leg in, one out, clinging to the central rope, and it was here that the majority of mine injuries took place. If the bucket began to swing, legs or arms could be crushed colliding with the rock walls with more than nearly half a ton of weight being brought to bear behind the swing. If the rope snapped, or the workers above lost control of the windlass, it could drop to the mine floor below.

To increase efficiency, rails were added to the tunnel floors, and small mine cars were used to ferry the lead ore to the shaft to be brought to the surface. Only a small section of track and the sad skeleton of one mine car are left in the tunnels open to the tour. More tunnels lie in lower levels, most now filled with water. Because the area had experienced heavy rains the night before, the tunnel we were walking in had spots where two or more inches of rainwater now rested. Brooklyn explained to me that they had a gravity-fed drainage system in this tunnel to keep it relatively free of water, and the rushing sound from the pipe buried an inch or two under our feet was testimony to how effective it was. She went on to explain that folks in scuba diving gear had explored and mapped some of the lower tunnels, a few of which were completely filled with water. Suddenly, a little mud on my shoes seemed entirely reasonable, and we moved on.

In the final chamber we were to explore, Brooklyn lit a candle and stuck it into a holder in the cave wall. She warned me that she was about to show me what lighting conditions were like in the mine during its heyday. As she switched off the lights, my eyes were fixed on the candle glow, illuminated a patch of stone no wider in circumference than a large grapefruit. The rest was pitch black, and it made me wonder how many miners lost their eyesight prematurely from squinting in the darkness to make out minute changes in rock color and texture that indicated lead ore might be near.

The humidity in the mine — aided by recent rains — was oppressive. I didn’t notice it at first, but even in places where I could stand I felt a bit short of breath. That little bit of discomfort was nothing compared to what was in store for me later.

After Brooklyn turned the lights back on, she pointed out the skull of a dog nestled on a ledge over the opening we’d come through. She told me of a miner who, having no family to speak of, brought his pet dog with him into this mine every day, six days a week. One day, that particular miner had the job of lighting the fuses. He looked around for his dog, but not finding the animal, assumed his fellows had taken it up with them. Sadly, they hadn’t. When they returned to the mine the next day, the dog was dead. The miner himself put the dog’s skull on the niche later, declaring that as long as the skull remained there, no one else would die in the mine. So far, it’s worked.

As we started back up, the steepness of the steps combined with the high humidity had me panting for breath by the time we reached the top. It took several minutes for my breathing to return to normal, which the guides had warned me about before I went down. Strangely, I didn’t feel exhausted as I thought I might, but breathing was a challenge for a minute or two.

The Badger Mine Museum is well worth a visit. Roughly an hour’s drive from both Madison, Wisconsin and Dubuque, Iowa, it’s an afternoon well spent, taking in history and marveling at the ingenuity and toughness of the men who dug those mines. Their collection of 19th Century artifacts is also quite impressive; hours can be spent just taking in all of that without even entering the mine.

Happy July 4th! Stay safe, and remember that patriotism isn’t just about doing what the government says you should do.

3 thoughts on “Buried Alive!

  1. Wow! I visit that part of the world often as my best friend lives in Platteville and I’ve been through Galena (and stayed in Galena) countless times. I also love Shullsburg! There are echoes of Shullsburg in my mystery series, which is set in SW Wisconsin. But I’ve NEVER been in the mine itself. And now, I surely won’t! I’m dreadfully claustrophobic and just reading your account, which was brilliantly visceral, had me gasping for breath and feeling panicky. Great post, I learned a lot I hadn’t previously known! Thanks for sharing, Bill!

    • Do visit us Nancy Sampson Bach. The mine tour can be viewed safely above ground by watching a recorded video on our large screen TV. The history lessons combined with entertaining stories will make you happy that you did! Badger Mine and Museum curator, Mary Bradley

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