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Carbide Graffiti

Carbide lamps are an icon of underground mining.  Introduced in 1901, they were such a major improvement over candles that they were universally adopted by the U.S. Mining Industry.

Carbide Graffiti in the Sixteen to One Mine ~ Photo by Roger Haas 2015

Miners, being a utilitarian lot, soon found other uses for their carbide lamps besides underground lighting.  They were handy for lighting cigarettes and fuses.  The soot created by their flame adheres to rock, tin and other surfaces creating a permanent black mark.  This ability to mark rock surfaces was especially convenient in the underground setting.  The lamps were commonly used for day-to-day tasks such as marking where the next round of holes should be drilled.  Mining engineers and surveyors primarily used lamp soot for their underground markings.

Underground at the Colorado Mine in the Alleghany District.  Charlie Ayers was a mining engineer at this mine in the 1930s.  ~ Photo by geologist Raymond Witkkopp 2006.

The switch from carbide to electric cap lamps was not nearly as quick or universal as the switch from candles to carbide.  Here, in the Alleghany Mining District, electric lamps were first introduced in the early 1920s.  A few of the mines in the district switched to electric lamps early on, but some mines, like the Sixteen to One, did not switch until the early 1960s.  Rural mines without electricity also favored carbide lamps.


Mining crew in the Alleghany District early 1900s.  Old photos are a good place to look.  The face in this photo is very hard to see on the original.  It wasn’t until the original photo was scanned at high-resolution and enlarged that the face on the tin became noticeable. ~  

Photo courtesy of the Jacob’s family.

Many miners preferred carbide lamps over electric lamps.  Carbide lamps were much easier to wear while working compared to cumbersome electric lamps with their heavy battery packs and electrical cords that got in the way. (Newer LED lamps, no longer have the battery pack and cord).

Survey mark in the Sixteen to One Mine. ~ Photo by Roger Haas 2015.


Naturally, being in possession of a handy marking tool, many miners drew or wrote with their lamps.  For lack of a better term we’ve tagged this art-form as “carbide graffiti”.  Our favorite example (found so far) is on the 800 foot level of the Sixteen to One Mine where the hanging wall protrudes into the travel-way.  A miner (who no-doubt had hit his head) wrote the word STARS and drew little stars (that look like asterisks) on the protrusion.  The photos in this article provide a few other examples.  This lost art-form can be found in most historical mining areas.  Start looking and who knows what you’ll find!

The side of the author Rae Bell Arbogast's garage.  It is apparent that this piece of tin was salvaged from another location.  This miner must have had time to kill and was thinking of as many kinds of “flats” as he could.  What can be deciphered: Charcoal [flat]*, Balsam [flat]*, Flats Fat, Nose Flat, Flat Feet, Broke Flat, Oak Flat*, E [flat], B flat, piano flat. 

* indicates a geographical location.

UGMM is collecting carbide graffiti images. If you know of any, please share! Thanks.

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