Main Listing Page

The Cornish Miners

On the southwestern tip of England on a large peninsula that divides the English Channel on the south from the Celtic Sea on the north is located Cornwall home to legendary miners like Matthew Penhallow and James Reskelly’s father who played a critical role in opening the American West by providing the knowledge and experience necessary to extract the rich veins of gold, copper, and silver that lay hidden deep within the earth. When these men and their families came to America, they brought with them strong religious convictions, a great love for music, and a vivid imagination. Some say that Cornish miners became known in America as ‘cousin jack’ because they were always asking for a job for their cousin Jack back at home. Others think it was because the miners used to call each other ‘cousin’ and Jack was the most popular Christian name in Cornwall.

When gold and silver were discovered in the American West, the Cornish miners were ranked among the world’s greatest hard-rock miners. According to Thomas A. Rickard in A History of American Mining (1932, 248), the Cornishmen “knew better than anyone how to break rock, how to timber bad ground, and how to make the other fellow shovel it, tram it and hoist it.” When the Cornish miners came to America in the 1800s they brought with them their knowledge of mining, their work ethic, and their customs. The Empire Mine labor force soon was made up of 90% Cornish miners.

As the mining progressed to a feverish pace, the depth of the mine soon fell below the water table. The solution was the Cornish plunging pump capable of pulling 18,000 gallons of water out of the mine per hour. After 40 years of use, Cornish pumps were finally replaced with electrical hydraulic equipment around 1900.

The Cornish miners also brought with them their belief in the tommyknocker. Called knockers in Cornwall, tommyknockers were small dwarf-like creatures who worked in the mines, tapping away and making strange noises deep in the rocks. They were often heard, but rarely seen. Exactly what their origins are is unclear. Some folks believed that the knockers were the ghosts of Jews who had been brought by the Romans as slaves to work in the Cornish mines. Others felt the knockers were the spirits of miners in general who had died in the mines or they were the spirits of souls who hadn’t been good enough to make it to heaven but hadn’t been bad enough to go to hell.

Whether they were spirits of dead men or simply creatures of faerie, tommyknockers were generally considered to be friendly and helpful by the Cornish. They often warned miners of cave-ins, and, upon occasion, would lead a miner to a rich vein of ore. But they also could be vindictive if neglected or abused through disrespect. Whistling could offend them, and, therefore, was considered to be bad luck. Speaking with disdain about the knockers could also result in a series of unfortunate events. As a result, many men played it safe and often left a bit of their lunch behind, often the crusty edge of a pasty, as a gift for their unseen companies.

The belief in Tommyknockers was so strong that the Cornish miners emigrating from England to California would not go into a mine shaft until they were assured by management that the Tommyknockers had already started the job. The Cornish miners, who were highly skilled at their trade, all believed the Tommyknockers to be a good partner to have around. The belief in these little creatures lasted into relatively modern times. In 1956, a large California mine closed its doors and sealed shut the mine entrance. The Cornish workers actually had a petition passed around and signed demanding that the entrance be opened to let the Tommyknockers out so they could resume working in another mine. The management agreed and all was settled.