The pick, pick, pick of the knockers: Cornish miners leave their marks on Colorado mining

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Here in the hard rock camps of Colorado, where the mountains are full of riches, the stories of "the knockers" will be found below.

The Cornish, miners for at least a thousand years, arrived in droves during the 19th century in the American West as the copper and tin played out in their native Cornwall.

Often labeled "Cousin Jacks," reportedly because mine owners valued their knowledge and experience so much, they were always asking "don't you have cousin, back in Cornwall that would like to come here to United States and work for us." The miners seemed to always have a cousin 'Jack,' back on the Celtic Sea that wanted to relocate.

With them, came their peculiar way of speaking, ancient stories and traditions.The language of the mines was heavily influenced. The Cornish word 'shaft' described a vertical hole. Horizontal tunnels were 'levels' and 'winzes,raises, and adits' all derived from Cornish origins.

As did the lunch pail, the miners candlestick, "Cornish pump" and the signal code for communicating to the hoist operators in the mines.

In the dark, strange underworld of the hard rock mine, it is easy for your imagination to run away with you and the stories.

"Knockers," according to lore, were the departed spirits of miners who had passed for this life and on to the next.

If you were miner trying to earn living beneath the earth, the knockers could be for you, or against you, dependent largely on how you treated them. Unlike the aliens of Stephen King horror novels, most knockers of Cornish legends were generally thought of in favorable terms.

Like the Irish Leprechauns, the knockers were wee people and the creaks, drips, groans, knocks and other sounds of underground work were often attributed to them and given special meaning.

"Miners hear eerie sounds working underground. Sounds made by the earth moving along fault lines, miners in distant tunnels setting off dynamite charges, and whirring machinery echoing off tunnel walls - all could be attributed to Tommyknockers," wrote Tim Willoughby in recent column in the Aspen Times.

"Sounds of dripping water, braying mules and creaking mine cars were compounded by total darkness."

Some miners tried to be nice to the knockers by leaving offerings of left-over lunch, fashioning small clay figures of the spirits to please them, avoiding whistling while working (because it was said to bother them) and speaking only in positive terms on their behalf.

Any deviation from said course could bring on a round of bad luck in the form of cave-ins,'dry holes,' missing tools, and deadly accidents. Being nice to them could result in their help finding the 'mother lode' or warning you away from a dangerous cave-in or other accidents.

The dwarf-like, tapping creatures were often heard in the depths of the mines but seldom seen. In fact, it was considered an ominous warning if you were to catch a glimpse of the little fellows. Seeing them in the mines could bring on more misfortune than a red-headed woman's presence in the mine (red-haired women were considered omens of death.)

Also called Bucca, or Bwca by the Welsh, the knockers origins are sometimes referenced as ghosts of Jewish slaves, brought to mines in Cornwall by Romans to work in the Iron age.

But here in the West, the knockers took on legendary status as illustrated by following poem penned in 1910 by Anthony Fitch.

The Tommy Knockers

'Av you 'eard of the Tommy KnockersIn the deep dark mines of the west

Which the Cornish miners 'ear?an 'tis no laughin'jest,

for I'm a Cornish miner, An' I'll tell you of it today,

Of the 'knock-knock-knock" of a tiny pick,

As we work in the rock an' clay.

We go down in the skips with our buckets,

With 'earts which nothing fazes,

Each man with a candle to light the way,

Through the tunnels winzes an' raises,

An' the stale air smells of powder,

An' the mine is full of sound,

But 'tis only the noise of a Tommy Knocker

Which makes our 'earts rebound.

"Pick...pick...pick"Someone be 'ind us knocked,Pick...pick...pick

'tis souls of dead miners

For they're locked in the earthen wall,

Those that found death down there.

An' tis the "knock-knock-knock" of their pick

W'ich makes on end stand our 'air.

So we leave the 'aunted place,

(For we won't work where they be)

An' we 'erever we'ear them knockin'

We sure will always flee.

For it means w'oever 'ears it

Will be next in line,The pick, pick, pick, of the Knockers

Is a last an' awful sign.