Disaster in the Mine

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A historic look at a mining accident in a Vermont marble quarry and the miner’s life underground in a mine.

On a hot summer’s day, a quarryman begins the steep descent into the West Rutland mine. As he makes his way down the series of stair flights, he becomes aware of a gradual chill in the air.

He tramps through the darkened walls of the quarry– past the long stretch of derrick rope and by the massive marble pillars supporting the weight of the mountain of marble. He climbs down 294 steps, more than two hundred feet deep into the quarry, on this 1923 summer day.

Once at the bottom he buttons his jacket against the dank chill. Craning his neck upward, he glimpses a small patch of summer sky. Then he turns and enters the vast underground cavern lying beneath the West Rutland mountainside.

This is the Covered Quarry. In reality, it is a mine made of a series of quarries merged into one. The combined stretch of tunnel covers a distance of about 2,000 feet. One side reaches 400 feet back into the mountain; the other side has eaten its way 300 feet under the railway track. Its greatest depth was approximately 300 feet.

At first glance, chaos and confusion seem to reign. Here there is a string of electric block cars moving away in the gloom, which is lit intermittently by a glimmer of electric light. The shouts of the quarrymen compete with the rattle of drills and channeling machines boring into the massive marble walls as they struggle to release their load. In the distance, there is the rumble of blasting as a new floor of marble is exposed.

Actually, there is very little confusion in that covered quarry. Every man has his job. He knows what he is expected to do and he does it in a familiar and well-choreographed routine.

Scattered through the different floors are fifty channeling machines and thirty drills, each operated by a gang of men. Another gang of men separates the waste marble from the desirable slabs as they work on the electric road, which has pushed its way through 800 feet of the tunnel. More men load the inclined cable track. The block cars will climb 500 feet to the top of the quarry with their heavy loads.

All in all, an army of five hundred men toil in the gloom of the quarry. “Through the Ages” in November 1923 says it was “if the entire population of one of the smaller Vermont villages should clamber down the quarry stairway every workday morning and troop out again every night. It is almost like being placed in another world, and yet is far from being a bad world.”

The men relied on channeling machines, the workhorse of the quarries, to release the blocks of marble from their stone fortress. The machine was a modern marvel when invented in 1863. It took the drills out of the hands of the workmen and set them into frames, using steam power to move them up and down through the layers of rock.

In the late 1800’s, the scene in the Covered Quarry was described in Through the Ages as: “In visiting the quarry pits, the traveler who is sufficiently inquisitive is led down a steep ladder some 100 – 200 feet to the bottom of the quarry, or to a hole in the side of the hill into which it is difficult to see more than a few feet on account of the steam. In this atmosphere, the electric arc lights are merely an aggravation of the gloom. One is told that in this quarry there are about twelve channelers, but he could not believe it except for the deafening roar which he knows must come from the blows of the steel and the exhaust. Nothing short of a photographic flashlight will reveal the busy machines and their operators until the visitor is almost near enough to feel them as well as see them.”

Disaster struck the Covered Quarry on February 10, 1893. A large mass of stone, breaking loose and falling into the depths of the mine, buried a gang of men who were working the channeling machines. Seven men were killed and many others injured. The New York Times on February 11, 1893 noted that the quarry “with which Senator Proctor is connected” had suffered the worst accident in the history of marble quarrying and said that “at soon as the accident happened, the electric danger signal was rung in at the company office and work everywhere was stopped at once.”

The magnitude of the accident shook the industry. The marble bosses intensified their efforts to improve working conditions using modern technology. Changes were made to quarry operations. Most importantly, the steam pipes were removed and electricity was installed. This improvement took away much of the gloom and dampness and brought working conditions to a safer and more comfortable level.

Through the Ages concluded: “thus have the men been given a better place in which to work—which is only another way of saying that they have been given a chance to do better work. This improved service has in turn raised the standard of production and increased the efficiency of the entire system. In short, it has contributed to the general welfare of both wage-earner and employer.”

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