Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Black Powder and Hand Steel: Miners and Machines on the Old Western Frontier. By Otis E. Young, Jr., with the technical assistance of Robert Lenon. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 196 pages. $9.95.
Reviewed by Rodman W. Paul, Edward S. Harkness Professor of History, California Institute of Technology, author of California Gold: The Beginning of Mining in the Far West (1947; repr. 1965) and Mining Frontiers of the Far West, 1848-1880 (1963; repr. 1974).
A decade ago Otis Young turned from the military west to begin writing about mining and miners. The latter field had been attracting increasing attention from scholars for twenty years, but Young had the perception to recognize the neglected potentialities of the day-to-day technological working of western mines. Where most historians were intimidated by the strange vocabulary of the mining world, and the necessity for understanding basic scientific and engineering principles, Young seemed positively to relish the challenge. He read extensively in all kinds of sources, starting chronologically in eras that antedated western mining by centuries, and had the good fortune to acquire as a partner Robert Lenon, a consulting mining engineer and history enthusiast. Later he gained the assistance of Buck O’Donnell, an artist whose black and white sketches do an immense amount to clarify matters that can’t easily be explained in words alone.
After first testing himself with a locally published mining monograph, in 1970 Young produced an exceedingly useful book called Western Mining: An Informal Account. Now, with this new book, Black Powder and Hand Steel, he has published what is really a sequel to the 1970 volume. Taken together, they tell the reader all that he is likely to want to know about the hard-rock miner and his craft. The two books are very similar. Both are what Young himself calls “informal” histories. “Informal” means that they are breezy in literary style. It also means that Young feels free to be arbitrarily selective in what he chooses to discuss and what to pass by altogether without even mention. These are not histories of the mining industry but rather they are historically-based explanations for the technical phenomena that controlled mining development. Since these phenomena were important only insofar as men made use of them, Young’s interest in the professional miner follows very naturally. Where Western Mining deals more with machinery and tools, Black Powder and Hand Steel deals more with man, but running through both books is the central theme that the hard-rock miner was a peculiar breed that had a distinctive way of life.
Much of this distinctiveness had its origin in the monopoly of underground mining by Cornishmen and Irishmen prior to the very late nineteenth century. The Cornishmen, with their bizarre patterns of speech and their stubborn attitudes, win far more attention than the Irishmen in this little book. But perhaps that is partly justified, since the Cornish were veteran underground men who contributed immensely to solving western mining problems, whereas most of the Irish were raw recruits when they took their first job on the Comstock or in the Rockies.
It is a fundamental part of Young’s “informality” that he makes very free use of words and phrases that will be entirely new to most readers. Sometimes key terms are explained; sometimes Young simply sweeps ahead, as if he is assuming that the momentum of his very lively prose will carry the reader over the rocks of unfamiliar technical terms and miners’ argot. If the reader is content to remain unworried by this highhanded treatment, he will find that in fact the story usually moves along satisfactorily. In a chapter like the one on the Cornish pump, however, the profusion of unexplained words and unidentified equipment gets beyond reason, and that is an especial pity because the Cornish pump is one of the most omnipresent and yet most poorly explained of all western machines.
At times, also, most readers will feel that Young tries too hard to be arch. For example, this reviewer would prefer to call horses and mules horses and mules, instead of seeking humor by categorizing them as “fauna,” or to call outhouses privies instead of “structures of simple architecture.” But that is a question of taste that doesn’t affect the central value of the book, which is that it gives us a remarkably detailed, colorful, and perceptive picture of the hard-rock miner and his task. Henceforth no one will be able to write about western lode mining without using Young’s two volumes as essential guidebooks