By Alton Pryor
Gold miners were a superstitious lot, but none were more superstitious than the Cornish miners.
The Cornish belief that certain supernatural powers protected their efforts was heartfelt and real.
Belief can be a powerful force, even making you see things that don’t exist. When the hard-rock miners went underground, they believed wholeheartedly that underground elves existed.
These elves were called Tommyknockers.
In a 1989 issue of Sierra Heritage Magazine, Gary Noy writes about the Tommyknockers.
Even though the Cornish were superstitious, they were the most sought after hard-rock mining workers. Centuries of labor in the tin mines of Cornwall, England, gave these hardy workers a vast knowledge of tunneling and other mining techniques.
This knowledge, Noy writes, was perfectly suited to the mines of northern California. Along with these skills, the Cornish brought their colorful language, festive personalities, ironic view of life, and mining superstitions.
Cornish miners, considered the greatest miners in the world, were brought in to California to check the tunnel work of the Chinese by having them work in separate tunnels at the same time the Chinese were working. The Chinese, without fail, would cut more rock in a week than the Cornish miners did. The Cornish men left in disgust, saying they would no longer work with the Chinese.
The Cornish miner approached the dirty and dangerous task of hard-rock mining with irony, and with good cheer. One Cornish miner, when asked how to find a rich pocket of gold, replied, “Well, where gold is, it is, and where it hain’t, there be I.”
These Cornish miners imported their Tommyknockers to the Gold Country.
Tommyknockers were said to be direct descendants of ancient elves known as Vugs and Piskies. After emigrating to the Gold Country, the elves became Americanized and grew to be as important to the miner as his tin lunchbox, his hard hat, carbide lamp, and double jack.
Many Cornish miners refused to enter a mine until assured that tommyknockers were on duty, providing warnings, and helpful directions.
According to stories handed down from generation to generation, there were two kinds of tommyknockers that inhabited the mine—the friendly, helpful elf, and the mischievous nuisance elf.
Both are described as being little men about two feet high, dressed in miniature mining attire, complete with tiny picks, hard hats, and lunch buckets.
Germans call the elves Berggeister or Bergmanniein. This means ‘ghosts” or “little miners”. They watch over the earth’s precious ores and metals.
The elves that befriended the miners also watched over the miners’ children. More important, they worked alongside the miners deep in the mines. The elves led miners to rich ore veins, tested shaft conditions, pried down loose rocks, and issued life-saving warnings about cave-ins, water leaks, and runaway carts by tapping on air pipes or timber supports.
Miners could readily recall times when tommyknockers saved their lives.
Frank Crampton, writing about tommyknockers in his book, Deep Enough, insists that the little elves saved his life.
Crampton had just squeezed into a tiny underground crawl space to load sticks of dynamite for blasting. He carefully placed the dynamite, lit the fuse, and then, according to Crampton, “The Tommyknockers began to raise hell,” making all kinds of warning noises.
Instead of crawling out of the hole carefully, Crampton put on a head of steam to extract himself. As he exited the area, the whole thing blasted to pieces.
“I was lucky to get off with a few cuts and bruises from flying rock,” he wrote. “I owed my life to the tommyknockers, these unseen, wee, small folk.”
In another mining incident, this one at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley, California, a massive cave-in collapsed hundreds of feet of tunnel and caused extensive flooding—all during a shift change.
The miners firmly believed that tommyknockers held up the rock until the crew got out, and then released it. As was their common practice, the miners expressed their belief to the mine management.
In a 1957 interview in the Sacramento Bee, retired miner Fred Nettell, a member of a Grass Valley Cornish family, described the miners attitude toward tommyknockers.
“When a Cornish miner of the old school tells you how his life was saved by a tommyknocker’s warning, he is not being facetious. His respect and feeling toward these underground elves is almost religious.”
When the tommyknockers are bad, they are believed to hurt miners who doubt their power or do not believe in them. They can also bring misery, fear and death when they are mad. Earthquakes were once believed to be their handiwork.
(Alton Pryor has been a writer for magazines, newspapers, and wire services. He worked for United Press International in their Sacramento Bureau, handling both printed press as well as radio news. He traveled the state as a field editor for California Farmer Magazine for 27 years. He is now the author of 21 books, primarily on California and western history. His books can be seen at www.stagecoachpublishing.com. Readers can email him at email@example.com.)