With legions of elementary schoolers sifting through pans of sand and silt every year, the fascination for old world mining that sparked Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush hasn't disappeared. Old mining equipment and well-used artifacts from this prospecting period have found their way into antique stores and auctions all over the country just waiting for intrigued buyers to find.
Old Mining Equipment to Collect
While mining the Earth for useful materials has been around for thousands of years, the beginnings of industrial mining didn't start until the 19th century. From coal mining on the American East Coast to the several Gold Rushes that happened on both sides of the country, the stereotypical miners that people learn about in history class emerged during this era.
Given that this period was before mechanized mining, there were a lot of hand tools and bare-bones equipment being used to dig further into the ground. With very few safety precautions and--for many decades--no electricity, mining was not only a dangerous activity, but quite frequently a deadly one. The artifacts from this job attest to just how difficult mining could be.
Mining Hand Tools
Hand tools were the foundations for historic mining; without the hand tools, mining as you know it today wouldn't exist. While gem mining might be the most glamorized type of historic mining, coal (and other deep-rooted materials) mining was far more consistently prevalent than the gold rushes that cropped up every few years.
In order to not only harvest raw materials, but also to dig further into the mines and remove the bounty, miners used a collection of hand tools. The most common tools you could find in a miner's arsenal were:
- Mandrill aka miner's pick axe
Perhaps the most exciting type of equipment used in historic mining practices was explosives. While it's not super common to find live or dead explosives themselves from old mines, you can find exploding caps, dynamite boxes, fuse lines, and more. However, don't go looking for old sticks of dynamite at your local antique store. While used all the time in historic mining, dangerous explosives aren't made for sale, and the most exciting item you can find is probably the blasting box that triggered the explosions.
It was imperative that miners could transport their goods from deep inside the mines up to the surface quickly; profits relied on this steady flow remaining operational at all times. Thus, a standard system of ore carts was developed where miners laid track as they dug deeper into the Earth, took their wares back up to the surface, and rode them back down again in a seemingly never-ending process. These ore carts come in a variety of sizes, but all have a generally recognizable shape. That being said, these metal bins on wheels are quite heavy, so collectors have to pay higher costs to transport these transport vessels to their homes than they do for other mining collectibles.
Since mining was almost always completed underground, lighting was a serious issue that miners faced. Before electricity was brought into the mines in the late 19th century, miners had to make do with flames that gave less output and were more dangerous to use. Despite their questionable safety, these artifacts are some of the most collectible of the bunch, and a lot of varied types and styles have survived today.
Originally, candles were the main source of light inside of the mines, and they were affixed to miner's candles--a piece of metal that held the candles and their bases steady. Candles gave way to carbide lamps in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This type of lamp burned a brighter, white light thanks to a reaction between calcium carbide and water, and the mining industry took it in stride, later developing stable safety lamps that helped keep the darkness at bay.
Some of the main manufacturers of these carbide lamps were:
How Much Does Old Mining Equipment Cost?
Generally, antique and vintage mining equipment is pretty sparse, so it can be a hard collectible for novice collectors to get into. Due to this, most of the items recovered from historic mining sites will be a moderate monetary investment, somewhere between $35-$300 on average. Paper ephemera and smaller items, like materials boxes, will land on the cheaper end of the spectrum, while larger items, such as ore carts, will land on the upper end. Take this assortment of antique and vintage mining equipment, for example:
- Vintage coal mining hammer and two chisels - Sold for $46.95
- Antique Jewel Coal Company mine No. 1 pick axe and hammer - Sold for around $49.99
- Vintage brass tool identification number fobs - Sold for $125
- American Cyanamid Company explosives box circa 1920s - Sold for $195
Out of all the types of old mining equipment there is to collect, by far the most valuable and easy to find are miner's lamps. From tall safety lamps to carbide lamps with the hats that they attached to, these illumination collectibles frequently sell between $50-$250. Even the most beat up and dirty examples can still bring in a hundred or two. For example, these are just a couple of the old mining lamps that've recently sold at auction:
Best Places to Buy Antique and Vintage Mining Equipment
If you live anywhere near an old mine, then there's a good chance that a local antique shop or general store might have some artifacts for sale from the town's old mines. These old mining tools tend to accumulate in the immediate surrounding area where the mines are, so if you find yourself somewhere near West Virginia or Pennsylvania, for instance, you should take a minute to explore the local shops.
Most likely, you don't live near an old mine, so your access to finding these goods is pretty limited to what you can locate online. Thankfully, there are a few places you can quickly find these antiques for sale:
- AntiqBuyer - AntiqBuyer is an online retailer that both buys and sells Gold Rush era antiques, including items relating to blasting, lighting, and more.
- Ruxton's Trading Post - Ruxton's Trading Post is a Colorado-based antiques dealer specializing in selling cowboy and indigenous artifacts. Among these are a collection of mining transportation equipment.
- eBay - While eBay does have a huge, constantly rotating, inventory of mining goods, it's hard to verify their age through the independent seller-based platform. Thus, you should be extra careful and communicative with any potential sellers.
- Etsy - In addition to eBay, Etsy is a similar (albeit updated) seller marketplace that's become increasingly known for its antique and vintage goods. Not as robust as eBay's catalog but nothing to sniff at either, Etsy is easy to both purchase and browse through, making it a great option for people looking to make a quick purchase.
Resources to Help You Dig Deeper
If you'd like to learn more about old mining collectibles and maybe see some rare finds up close, these are a varied assortment of resources for you to consider:
- Antique Mining Equipment and Collectibles by Ron Bommarito and David W. Pearson - This is a foundational text for anyone wanting to learn more about the many artifacts from historic mines that people like to collect.
- Mines and Related Equipment on Smokstak - Hosted on Smokstak is a forum filled with individual threads relating to historic mines and the equipment found at them. Collectors, professionals, and interested parties can all participate in these unique conversations and learn more along the way.
- The World Museum of Mining - Located in Butte, Montana, the World Museum of Mining offers tours of old mines in the area and houses several exhibits highlighting the life and experiences of the mining towns of the region. A great tourist destination, you can also follow along on their ghost tour and see what specters and spirits might be lurking underground.
Strike It Rich on Old Mining Equipment
While the days of the hearty prospector might be over, that doesn't mean you can't strike it rich in your own way by collecting and selling the old mining equipment used to harvest coal, gold, and others of Earth's precious minerals. With a distinctively industrial appearance and a high dollar value, old mining artifacts are a must-have for passionate collectors of the blue-collar lifestyle.