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Fourth of July, 1880's

In the 1880's, Christmas and the Fourth of July were the only two pay days of the year for the hard rock miners who labored in the mines above timberline such as the Silver Lake Mine above Silverton. For six months of the year these mines were imprisoned by an enormous amount of snow. The ore concentrates were transported in canvas sacks on the backs of mules, winding down the steep, treacherous trails clinging to the mountains. Done only when there was little danger of avalanche or rock slides, the transporting of the winter's backlog of ore concentrates didn't begin until late May or early June. Payment for the ore came from Pueblo giving the mine its payroll in time for July 4. A hard rock miner worked seven days a week and his life was one of constant danger and exhaustion. Death was always near in the form of cave ins and misfired charges of explosive. Though the miners ate well, drinking was prohibited because alcohol and high altitude don't mix. The miners worked through the long winters, captives of snow and ice for 7 months, in a world hundreds of feet below daylight. The principal tools of these miners were hand drills and explosives. The miners drilled holes into the rock or ore (called blasting holes) which would be inserted with dynamite. Holes were created by either single jacking in which a miner held a drill in one hand and swung a four pound sledge with the other, or by double jacking in which one man held the drill while a companion or two hit it with eight pound sledges. The drills were constantly turned in the holes so that they would not stick or fitcher. Ordinarily it took an hour or so to make a 30 inch deep hole. Miners' drills, called steels were made of round or octagonal rods sharpened to chisel tips that had a slight flare as a further prevention against fitching. The starter drill or bull steel was about a foot long with a 1 1/4 inch tip. After a hole had been well begun, the bull steel was removed and replaced by a change drill that was six inches longer and 1/32 inch narrower, so that it would follow easily in the hole. The changing was repeated until, at the usual maximum, the last steel was three feet long with a 3/4 inch tip. A down hole was considerably easier to make than an up or flat (horizontal) one, but an up hole had an advantage: the rock dust readily fell out whereas it had to be scraped out of the other holes with long, thin miners' spoons made of copper or wood. So as not to set off the dynamite, copper or wood was used since neither material gives off sparks. The steels had to be resharpened constantly. After drilling only six inches of hole, it was already in need of being resharpened and tempered by one of the blacksmiths in the mine. Understandably then, with this image of hard, dangerous labor, there were always miners desperate for relief - too crazed with Spring Fever and a desire to drink - to wait until the risks of avalanche and rock slides had abated. Even if the risk was low, becoming snow blind was a sure thing without taking precautions. Heading down the mountains on foot, the early birds would trudge through snow up to their armpits wearing thick black vails over their eyes. Some of the miners in the Silverton area were eager to return to their farms for the summer in Farming Town (later known as Farmington). With this insight, looking back a hundred years, one can sense the jubilance and celebration these miners enjoyed come July 4th in being released from their prisons of darkness and bone wrenching toil - and with a half a years' pay in their pocket. Weeks beforehand, the Durango and Silverton newspapers would describe the upcoming celebration. In the headlines of the 1887 Durango Herald: Durango bids welcome to southern Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona to the finest display of Games, Sports and Sights ever enjoyed in the Sunny San Juan. ...Running Races of all distances, open to the world will be a great feature. In that year Durango's businessmen contributed $3,000 in purse monies for the July 4th competitions spanning three days: a five mile relay race with a change of equipment and riders at every mile, foot races, horse races and hook and ladder races by the volunteer fire departments. With the Revolutionary War still a memory of recent generations, Independence Day was honored with patriotic speeches and the reading of the Declaration of Independence by local officials. In Silverton, Fourth of July began with a parade with the miners at the front. The pillars of Silverton's wooden sidewalks were adorned with freshly downed evergreen trees. Huge granite blocks six feet thick were placed on tall platforms in the middle of town for the highly competitive Drilling Contests, so common throughout Colorado. These competitions were the main draw in Fourth of July celebrations in mining towns throughout the West. Because of the remarkable skill demonstrated and the high risk of bloody injury, the contests drew huge crowds. Those who could drill the deepest, either singly or in pairs, competed for purses as high as $1,000. Drilling contests comprised speed, timing, endurance and danger. While a timekeeper stood by, the miners pounded away at their steels for exactly 15 minutes. If the hammer descended a fraction of an inch out of line on the drill's tiny head, a man's hand could be crushed. But the 15 minute marathon went on. When the partners exchanged roles, the injured one would take up the nine pound sledge and blood would gush from the injury. Onlookers were often spattered. The 7 foot tall platform would soon look like a slaughtering block. The men would cheer, the women would cry but the refusal to quit was par. The best of the drillers could average an awesome 76 strokes each minute over the grueling 15 minutes. The world's record for the straightaway (two men, but no change of position) was set on July 4, 1903 with a hole 28 5/8 inches deep. In a double jacking event the same day, with both men taking turns on the sledge, the team sank a hole 42 1/2 inches deep, another record. Owing its existence to hard rock mining, Silverton, Colorado, an hour north of Durango continues to honor this history with an annual Summer weekend of drilling contests and other mining activities called Hard Rockers' Holiday.