U.S. Department of the Interior
National Park Service
A mine shaft is deceptive to the uninitiated because
there is little or no light down a dark hole. The feeling
of height and normal reaction to "pullback"
is not evident in most persons. Many people who would
hesitate to look over the side of a tall building do
not show any fear when looking into a mine shaft. The
fall down a mine shaft is just as lethal as the fall
from a tall building - with the added disadvantage of
bouncing from wall to wall in a mine shaft and the likelihood
of having falling rocks and timbers for company.
The timber in abandoned mines are unsafe. Ladder rungs
are often missing or broken. Some will fall under the
weight of a child because of dry rot. Vertical ladders
are particularly dangerous. It is impossible to climb
down a vertical ladder and examine each rung before
placing weight upon it. Use of a rope will protect the
climber from falling - but will also act to dislodge
rocks and timbers above the climber.
The timber in abandoned mines is usually decayed. This
danger is not apparent as the lumber often looks very
solid - when it actually can be crushed with the squeeze
of a hand. Other timber, although in good condition.
becomes loose and will fall at the slightest touch.
Unfortunately, the timber does not always fall until
the person descending the shaft is below the timber.
A mine shaft will weather in much the same way as a
cliff. There are always loose rocks on timbers or on
the walls. A rock the size of a peanut, when falling
a hundred feet, can easily penetrate a person's skull.
Larger rocks are not necessarily more lethal - they
only make a tougher job for the mortician, if the body
is ever recovered.
The collar or top of a shaft is perhaps the most dangerous
area to the layman. The rock is already decomposed -
the timbers are more likely to have decayed - and conditions,
in general, allow for rapid disintegration of the shaft
wall. Carbon dioxide can be detected by a match or candle
- as both will refuse to burn. Carbon monoxide can not
be readily detected, and is lethal in very small amounts.
Many mine shafts contain pools of water at the bottom.
Drowning is an obvious danger in such situations.
Any protected hole or ledge is a natural habitat for
snakes. This is a particular hazard in shallow shafts
and in shafts with near-surface work levels.
Cave-ins are a danger in any mine. An experienced miner
can often detect areas that are likely to cave. A layman
stands little chance of making a proper evaluation.
Minor disturbances, such as vibrations caused by walking
or speaking, may cause a cave-in in an abandoned mine.
If a person is caught in a cave-in, his troubles are
soon over as he will usually be crushed to death or
suffocate. A less cheerful possibility is to be trapped
behind a cave-in with no one knowing that you are trapped.
Death may come through starvation, thirst, gradual suffocation,
or sheer fright.
The timber in horizontal workings is subject to decay.
A well-timbered mine opening can give a sense of security
when in fact the timber can barely support its own weight.
There is the constant danger of inadvertently brushing
against a timber and causing the entire area to collapse.
Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide often collect in
low areas or along the floor in horizontal workings,
particularly when there is only a single opening. A
person can walk into these areas and safely breathe
the good air above the gases. However, the motion of
the air caused by walking will mix the gases with the
good air, and, when walking out of the tunnel, the gases
will be mixed in lethal quantities with the good air.
There are many cases where experienced miners have been
killed while walking out of a mine after safely walking
Winzes were sunk in the floor of tunnels - and then
boarded over. If these boards have decayed, a perfect
trap is waiting for the first person that steps on the
Many tunnels have water standing in them or small streams
flowing out of them. When water is standing or flowing
on the bottom of a tunnel, it is usually impossible
to see the bottom and there is always the danger of
stepping into a winze or other deep hole.
Old miner tunnels are among their favorite haunts -
to cool off in summer - or in search of rodents and
Good miners never carelessly discard explosives, however,
many abandoned mines, both shafts and tunnels, contain
old explosives left by careless workers. This is illegal
and very dangerous. Explosives found in old mines include
dynamite and fuses and caps. Explosives should never
be handled by anyone not thoroughly familiar with them.
Even experienced miners hesitate to handle old explosives
as they are extremely dangerous. Old dynamite often
contains free nitroglycerine and will explode with the
slightest disturbance. Dynamite caps are perhaps the
most dangerous. Mice and rats, common in all mines,
scatter dynamite caps on the floors. If these caps are
stepped upon they will explode. Such dynamite caps are
often covered with dust and difficult to see. The only
way to avoid this danger is not to enter mine workings
in the first place. In fact, there is only one safe
way for any inexperienced person to deal with abandoned
mines and tunnels STAY OUT!
Rescuing a person from a mine accident is usually difficult
and dangerous for both the rescuee and the rescuer.
A rescuer must avoid dislodging any lumber or rock that
might fall on the victim - and this is an almost impossible
job. One of the cardinal rules in mine rescue is to
avoid all unnecessary risk. It makes no sense to kill
one man to rescue another. Death or injury faces any
professional rescue team that takes chances and these
teams are trained to know the odds. However, it is mathematically
certain that in making a given number of rescues, rescuers
face the inevitable unknown factor that results in serious
injury or death. Anyone, adults as well as children,
should consider this when tempted to enter abandoned