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Lighting the Way: Carbide Mining Lamps

This article was first published October 2011.

After the California Gold Rush of ’49 and the relative easy pickin’s of gold dried up in streams and riverbeds, prospectors went after precious minerals found in veins running deep underground.  Hard rock mining, requiring engineers and big money soon followed and much entrepreneurial capital was directed at the task of reaching the mineral wealth post haste. The need to shed light on the darkness created an industry and left a legacy.

In the beginning miners had only candles and oil wick lamps to light their way but after the accidental discover of carbide in the 1860’s and subsequent use in lamps for bicycles, the first carbide lamp for miners was patented in 1900 using the new technology. over the ensuing two decades a thriving industry of over 90 manufacturers sprang up in the wake of the new technology.

 Although the electric lamp would replace carbide lamps by 1923, the nearly 25 year period of carbide lighting for miners produced a vast array of lamp designs and manufacturers which became a part of America’s history and a visible legacy to the early days of mining. 

Todd Town began collecting with his father and today has an extensive collection of carbide mining lamps dating back to the early 1900's.
Todd Town began collecting with his father and today has an extensive collection of carbide mining lamps dating back to the early 1900’s.

 

Todd Town, who is a Globe native, and grew up in the mining industry where his dad and grandfather had an asbestos mine until 1973, began his journey as a collector, because of his dad who started out with a small collection of carbide lamps which sat on a shelf. Soon both father and son were haunting antique shops and flea markets to see who could find the most unique lamp.

Nearly 30 years later Todd Town’s collection puts him in the top tier of serious collectors and his inventory of mining lamps numbers in the hundreds. Dozens of his lamps are featured in Dave Thorpe’s definitive book on the subject, “ Carbide Light, The Last Flame in American Mines.”

The value of mining lamps varies with their age and manufacturer, with prices ranging from just a couple bucks for a common lamp in fair condition to upwards of $10,000 or more for a rare lamp in mint condition. Also highly collectible are Miner’s candlesticks which preceded carbide lamps and were used before 1900 by mostly Western hard rock miners.

 

A collection of old Time Checks. Miners were issued employee #s on metal tags which they left on a board by the shaft before going underground for their shift. That way, mine mgmt could simply look at that board and know whether they had 80 or 100 miners working below. And when you came up out of the shaft you better take your time check with you - or you could get fired.
A collection of old Time Checks. Miners were issued employee #s on metal tags which they left on a board by the shaft before going underground for their shift. That way, mine mgmt could simply look at that board and know whether they had 80 or 100 miners working below. And when you came up out of the shaft you better take your time check with you – or you could get fired.

At the Old Dominion Mine, for instance, miners were given ten stearic candles for their ten hour day deep underground. Unlike the Eastern coal miner who used oil wick lamps and moved around though out the mine, those in the West generally established one working area and would hang their candle on a rock ledge or in a piece of wood. The fact that the company provided the candles for the Western hard rock miner was an added benefit which the Eastern miners did not enjoy.

The candlestick holders themselves evolved over time from simple designs to those quite ornate. Town explained that back in their hey day, a common design might sell for seventy-five cents, while an ornate candle incorporating a fuse cutter and entailing some engraving might sell for as much as $3 – $4.

 

Town said he got his best candlestick in Globe from a miner who had worked the Iron Cap in Copper Hill which was active in the ‘20s. The man had called Town and said he had a folding candle stick, but it took him a month to get around to looking because he didn’t believe the guy really had anything special.

He tells the story of a friend  who bought a candle stick in Colorado made by John Cox – a prisoner in Canyon City Colorado in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Cox was known for his fancy spurs, but also turned his talent to producing ornate miner’s candlesticks which are highly prized today. His friend paid $12,000 for the one he found in Colorado, and  before he got home, Town says, he had offers from other collectors for $30,000.

“Presentation candlesticks are like a service pen,” explains Town. “The workmanship on some of them is unbelievable!” Many are hand made, and involve intricate scrolled designs reminiscent of custom Japanese swords.

This box of stearig wax mining candles dates back to the late 1800's when miners would be given six candles for a ten hour shift underground. Candles gave way to carbide in the early 1900's. And Carbide gave way to electric lamps after 1923.
This box of stearig wax mining candles dates back to the late 1800’s when miners would be given six candles for a ten hour shift underground. Candles gave way to carbide in the early 1900’s. And Carbide gave way to electric lamps after 1923.

When carbide was discovered accidentally in 1862, it was the beginning of a new way to light the world. In seems in an attempt to make metallic calcium, a young inventor by the name of Thomas Wilson, unexpectedly produced calcium carbide. Coal tar and lime were placed in an electric furnace, and the resulting melt, when placed in water, was found to produce a flammable gas, later identified as acetylene.

"The Last Flame in American Mines" is a definitive exploration of mining lamps and their designers from their inception to the last days of Carbide in 1923. The author lives in Phoenix, and has included 60 of Todd Towns' collection. The book is available through the Gila Historical Museum and Center for the Arts.
“The Last Flame in American Mines” is a definitive exploration of mining lamps and their designers from their inception to the last days of Carbide in 1923. The author lives in Phoenix, and has included 60 of Todd Towns’ collection. The book is available through the Pickle Barrel Trading Post.

It wasn’t until the Baldwin Company, who had used carbide in their bicycle lamps, designed 2 lamps for use in underground mining in 1900, that others quickly followed suit. Soon, there were over 90 manufacturers of carbide mining lamps with names such as Guy’s Dropper, Auto-Lite, Justrite, Maple Leaf, Acme and ITP.

 

 In fact, the lamp which is shown on the cover of the Local Pages phonebook this year is made by ITP, which stands for “It’s Trouble Proof.”  Made by the Dewar Mfg. Company, the lamp used a patented automatic water feed. It’s name may have been appropriated from a Justrite advertisement which used that marketing phrase, but it was Dewar who patented the name in 1916.

Justrite, who is still in business today and produces plastic carbide lamps, has been a leader in the industry for nearly 100 years. In the early days when miners were on the fence between keeping their candlesticks and going with the new technology, Justrite put out this ad, showing a mining lamp…with a ‘stick’ and touting the benefits of their new design.

 Carbide Lamps  2502

While the technology has moved on, the legacy of carbide lamps still shines a bright light on the entrepreneurial ingenuity of the early manufacturers and a time when these small, beautifully crafted lamps gave light to underground darkness.

 

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About Linda Gross

Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.

2 comments

  1. I started collecting carbide lamps a year or so ago and now have over a dozen.
    Recently purchased a force feed Hansen, but need a reflector for it. Can anybody help?

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