Guided Zinc, Lead Mine Tour

Diving into Platteville’s mining zinc during WSF


Justice Corpora photo

As part of the Wisconsin Science Festival, the Mining & Rollo Jamison Museums offered free guided mine tours on Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The tour was guided by Diane Nusbaum, who has worked with the museum since July 2021.

Nusbaum passed around a lead mineral that was on display in the museum and explained that when people see a chunk of lead, “their brains immediately go to lead poisoning. You can get that from the metal, which is, unfortunately, what we were throwing into everything, but this is a mineral. This is perfectly fine. We have a sulfur coating that blocks the toxins off away from us.” 

“If this (lead mineral rock) was metal, we would not be passing this around.” Nusbaum continued, “The First Nations people were just using tiny pieces of (lead) for things like art and jewelry. They would also grind it down to a really fine powder to wipe on the skin of their face as a type of decoration and make-up.”  

In contrast to the Natives’ uses, the Europeans had “more uses for that metal, so they start pulling the ore directly from the source and start mass-producing with it, and we start finding lead in everything … pots and pans, make-up, toys, … and we’re getting sick from all these different things,” Nusbaum explained. “The miners weren’t getting sick from mining the mineral, they were getting sick at home, which is the ironic part.” Currently, “anything you can think of that has a battery in it – probably (has) lead somewhere in there as well,” Nusbaum said.

After entering the mine, Nusbaum said that after a year of mining, a team of 20 miners “got 2 million pounds of galena lead ore out.”

The mine was then sold to a second team of miners, who did not keep a thorough record of how much they extracted. 

“A lot of times, we’ll say that it’s 2 million plus, because, unfortunately, we do not have an exact number of how much that surplus was,” Nusbaum concluded. 

After the second team mined for about a year, the miners “filled everything in and closed everything off, and they did such a good job at filling everything that by 1863, we built a school on the corner of the property. We followed that up in 1905 by building the high school right next to it, and continued to use that building as a high school until about the mid-1950s when we added the gymnasium … and then it turned into an elementary school,” Nusbaum added.

The Mining Museum was moved to the building on the corner of the block in the 1960s. The mine had not been known to be behind the museum on the property until 1972, “when we found a collection of maps and documents indicating that here was one of three in our backyard … and so we started drilling in our backyard, sending a camera down into the holes that we were drilling until we finally broke into what was man-cleared space … By 1976, we were holding our first tours here.”

“Everything that we walk through, everything that we have available, the whole three-quarters of a mile of the mine was done by them. We just cleaned it out,” she said. 

However, the work environment in the mine was cramped, and this was because they were “filling everything in with the waste rock (except for) the new spaces that they cleared as they were pushing forward,” Nusbaum explained.

The miners did not have a drill for drilling holes into the wall. Instead, they used a solid iron rod, sharpened a bit to be similar to a chisel. The other end would be struck by a hammer.

“After every strike of the hammer, the guy that’s got the rod is going to give it a quarter turn, and it will be struck again” until it began to drill a hole into the wall, Nusbaum said.

The person who struck the rod with the hammer stayed focused and paid attention to the subtle signal from the worker holding the rod as they simply placed their thumb over the flat end of the rod. 

Nusbaum said, “We’re not going to yell ‘stop’ or use any kind of verbal cues down here … We’re going to use visual cues instead. We’ll take our thumb and we’re gonna pop it over the end of the rod,” and this signal must be recognized visually by the person swinging the hammer. 

The hole was then filled with black powder, packed with clay and lit with a fuse that stuck out from it. Then the miners either worked on the other side of the mine or left for the day when the explosion occurred.

Hard hats were not implemented until the 1920s and mining for profit began nearly a century before that. Before hard hats, miners would “soak (their) hats in oil because oil and water don’t mix and so that water will just bounce or roll right off,” as Nausbaum said. The hats served as a preventative measure to keep the workers from being wet for eight hours at a time or from enduring a constant tap on their heads from dripping water.

Covering a hat in oil “also stiffens it up just a little bit to use this stick-n-tommy (a candleholder that clips to a hat), which would have been the only light source we had in the mines at this point,” which really did not give off much light, Nusbaum explained. Miners would sometimes attach a candle to their oil soaked hats because “these guys had to see directly in front of them so they (did) kind of have to risk it a little bit.” Battery powered headlamps were introduced in the 1940s. 

The use of steel-toed boots began in the 1930s. Early steel-toed boots would crush and conform if something heavy enough dropped on the toe cap. In the 1950s, the uniform of the miners was improved. They were provided slickers, or rubber pants, jackets and boots, which helped the miners keep from ruining their personal clothes.

The miners were about 100 to 300 feet beneath water level. Nusbaum said, “Water is actively flooding in while (the miners) are working down there … They had water pumps that got the water out pretty quickly; however, it didn’t get it out quickly enough so they’re still working about shin to knee-high level water at all times. That water is getting mixed in with the debris from their blast and it’s getting scooped up into a 500 lbs. ore can.” The miners filled the can with 1500 lbs. of ore, waste rock and water. 

Another issue of the mine was the entrance/exit. To get into the mines, about five people went down the shaft at a time, each with one leg in the bucket and the other dangled out the side, because these miners were “dropped down the main shaft.” Nusbaum continued, “The hoist upstairs has a clutch and a brake and that’s all. So there’s no speed control whatsoever. There really isn’t much of a way to slow (the miners) down.” Miners dropped at the same speed of the weight distribution of the can they were in. 

The leg that stuck out was used to kick out from the shaft’s rock wall edges on the way into the mine. If miners did not pay attention enough when they fell into the mine, injuries occurred, such as a crushed leg between the 500 lbs. ore can and the rock wall. 

Nusbaum guided the tour to the headframe, where a 500 lbs. ore can hung like it was actively pouring ore into the grates below, where the ore would have been hand-sorted. The zinc was taken to Mineral Point, WI to be processed and smelted. Other places in the area would go to Galena, IL or Dubuque, IA for smelting.