Chuck Mack: Old-time fire bosses and Tommy-Knockers – part 2
September 27, 2008
Craig — What the heck’s a Tommy-Knocker? Well, they originated back in the early days of coal mining. Back then, miners were of a superstitious nature. This is understandable. Here they were, working deep underground, in total darkness, with only the most primitive means of lighting and breathing air that was just barely life-sustaining, at best, using primitive tools to mine the coal and everywhere was the threat of death.
Under these conditions, almost anything could go wrong. The superstitious miners needed someone to blame, so they started blaming it on little imaginary Leprechaun-type creatures. Leprechauns who live outside in fresh air and sunshine are naturally good guys, but the ones who took up living in coal mines soon got a devilish, mean disposition, probably from the darkness and bad air. The miners called them Tommy-Knockers.
The devilish Tommy-Knockers got the blame for everything that went wrong. If the roof caved in, it was the fault of these rascals. If a miner got hurt or killed, the Tommy-Knockers did it. They hid tools and stole sandwiches from lunch pails – anything to torment the poor old coal miner. These mythical creatures have been living in the coalmines since the start of underground mining, and I suppose a few of them will survive until the last mine has gone.
Webster’s dictionary defines “Tommy” as “goods given a workman instead of money.”
The devilish tricks played on some of the coal miners would slow their production. Most miners were paid by the ton for the coal they loaded, so the imaginary little creatures would be “Knocking” them out of some of their “Tommy.”
When I was a fire boss at the Redwing Mine in northwest Colorado, I spent several hours each day in the mine by myself. But I was never alone! The Tommy-Knockers always were with me. I never got to see one, but I felt their presence. They pulled their little pranks on me.
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The Redwing mine was owned and operated by the Colowyo Coal Company. The Redwing mine was located up a draw, a short distance off of the Meeker highway, a couple of miles down the highway from the old Axial townsite, which is just a short distance further down the road from the Colowyo mine turnoff. The underground mine was closed in 1974, and the property sold to the W. R. Grace Company. They started what now is the strip mine. The draw in which the Redwing mine was located was filled in during the strip mining operation, and there is no evidence left that there once was an underground mine and coal camp located there.
I went to work at Redwing in 1951. In 1955, I went to work as fire boss and remained in that job until the mine closed.
I worked at the mine after its closure until all the machinery was removed from the underground workings. I was the one who plugged up the mine, so to speak. We cut the sides out of a couple of the large metal coal haulage cars, and I used that metal to build a steel wall sealing up the portal of the mine. After I completed the seal, the remainder of the portal was filled in by pushing dirt into it with a dozer. Yes, if you’re wondering, before I welded the last panel in place, I made sure that all of the Tommy-Knockers had safely exited the mine opening.