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Cornwall loses its last mine, too

Brief by Central Staff

Mining – November 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

When the Black Cloud Mine closed this year, it meant the end of about 140 years of mining in and around Leadville — a long tradition that goes back to before there was a Leadville, or indeed a Colorado.

However, there’s tradition, and then there’s tradition — perhaps as many as 2,500 years of mining, and at least 407 years.

That’s the situation in the Duchy of Cornwall, part of Great Britain. The last operating mine shut down last year, and plans to re-open it fell through this year.

The Phnicians and Romans of antiquity called the British Isles the “tin isles” because of the rich deposits of tin ore in Cornwall.

That was during the Bronze Age, and bronze is made from copper and tin. Copper is reasonably abundant in and around the Mediterranean (the name of the Isle of Cyprus comes from the same Latin root as copper), but tin is rare, and without the hardening effect of tin, a bronze sword would be just soft copper, of no use to a soldier.

Tin, though, was so rare that they had to search far afield for it. Ancient mariners eventually landed in Cornwall, where there’s evidence of tin mining as early as 500 B.C.

More recently, but still a while back, there’s one mine, the South Crofty near Redruth, which began operations in 1592.

Cornish tin mining reached its peak in the 19th century, when more than 400 mines were in production. In 1991, the Geevor Mine closed, and last year, the South Crofty ceased production and its dewatering pumps were shut off.

Hopes rose in January, when a Welsh businessman announced plans to re-open the mine, but he didn’t come up with the promised money in time. Now there’s a controversy over what happens next on the site: Some local politicians are “opposed to anything that would prevent re-opening the mine … others think that mining is finished in Cornwall.”

That sounds familiar, but there are many other connections. Skilled Cornish miners were the elite of underground workers a century ago, and many emigrated to American mining districts like Leadville.

They were called “Cousin Jacks,” and they brought distinctive ways of timbering both topside and underground, pastie pies in their lunch tins, and the tales of tommyknockers. And when you see an old house in a mining town with a solid stone foundation, you can be pretty sure you’re seeing a Cousin Jack’s house.

In other words, a fair part of Western mining lore, technology, and culture came from Cornwall — where the last tin mine has halted production.

(Based on an article in the September, 1999, edition of Paydirt Magazine, $30 a year from P.O. Drawer 48, Bisbee AZ 85603, email