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Part 7

In a mine, air must come from the outside – all of it. In shallow or less extensive mines, the natural movement of air could help ventilate the mine, although relying on purely natural ventilation was a risky proposition. More commonly, however, air had to be delivered into the mine, both for the miners and to disperse the potentially lethal gases that would accumulate in the tunnels. In the Roslyn field, as elsewhere, pumps and ventilation shafts were used to bring fresh air into the mine and circulate it out again. The pumps used in this process were originally steam-powered, then electric. All mines also had surface vents and fans, which in many cases would be boosted by exhaust fans within the mines themselves. Down in the mine, the movement and direction of air was also accomplished through a variety of means. Abandoned sections of the mines were closed off by use of brattices, at first made of wood or canvas then later concrete. In active segments of the mine, air could be directed through the use of canvas stoppages or movable wooden partitions, all in an effort to ensure that the precious stream of air was not diluted or diffused in any way. So important was this task that in many coal fields young boys were employed to oversee the barriers, moving them as needed for a coal trip or miners to pass through.

When companies such as the Northern Pacific opened their first mines in the Roslyn area, miners were paid an hourly wage. Within two years, however, the coal companies tried to impose a new wage standard on the field – pay based on tonnage of coal produced. To the casual observer, this proposal might make sense, as more productive miners would reap the rewards of their hard work. Since a large part of a miner’s daily tasks resulted in very little actual coal production, this attempt to impose a production standard on the miner was met with intense resistance.

Miners paid by the ton referred to the numerous non-mining tasks they were required to perform as dead work since it had little to do with actually producing coal. Among these tasks was the laying of the track to the active coal face, brushing the roof (creating headroom by removing rock from the ceiling), propping timbers, cleaning out debris from the room, and a host of minor tasks occupied a significant percentage of the miner’s daily labor.

The battle over pay structures frequently resulted in labor troubles, ranging from work slowdowns to strikes, including the earliest strike by the Knights of Labor that eventually led to the large African-American contingent of miners in the Roslyn area. Payment for dead work was one of the key demands in the early mine unionization movement, but the uneasy relationship between mine ownership and mine labor stretches throughout the history of coal mining, with a long legacy of strikes and bitter disputes that disrupted families and communities throughout the coalfields of North America and Europe.