My grandmother's brothers worked in the gold mines west of Boulder, Colorado. As I was growing up, she told me fascinating stories of the Cousin Jacks her brothers worked with, and sometimes she talked about their experiences with Tommyknockers.
"Cousin Jacks" was a nickname given to immigrant Cornish miners who were recruited to work in mines across the United States. Mine owners sought them out because of their skill in mining and their strong work ethic. Many of them seemed to have an instinct for knowing where an ore vein would be located, and they were known as some of the best mining engineers in the business at the time.
But they were also a superstitious lot, especially inside the mines. In some mines where a man had died, it was impossible to induce a Cornishman to even enter the mine. Several profitable mines in Leadville and Cripple Creek had to be closed because the miners refused to go in after one or more of them reported a ghostly touch on the shoulder or a strange sound or light coming to them out of the darkness. Even today, it is said that ghosts still roam some of the tunnels and shafts in these old mines.
But the Cousin Jacks knew the difference between a ghost and a Tommyknocker. And they knew the difference between a good Tommyknocker and a bad one. And they knew not to do anything to upset the Tommyknockers who inhabited the mine they were working in.
Tommyknockers are described as tiny little men, sometimes greenish in color, and usually dressed in a miner's outfit. They almost never leave the mines, although one miner in Leadville claimed that some Tommyknockers moved into his house after their mine closed down. They could often be heard working right alongside the men, although the miners said they rarely, if ever, worked on a Saturday. Belief in the Tommyknockers was so strong that when a mine closed down, the owner discharged the Tommyknockers along with the men who worked there.
If the Tommyknockers liked a miner, they could bring him good luck and protect him from injury in the mine. One of my great uncles claimed that a sudden knock on a timber nearby caused him to turn just as a rock fell from the roof above him. Had he not turned, he would have been seriously injured. He left a part of his lunch near the timber that day as a way of thanking the Tommyknocker who saved him.
Tommyknockers could also be mischievous and sometimes downright nasty. They would hide a miner's tools if he did not watch them closely, or if they thought he was not taking proper care of his equipment. Usually the tool turned up later in a different area of the mine, although sometimes it would be several weeks before it was found. They were also fond of stealing food from the miners' lunch pails. The Cousin Jacks generally took these pranks as good-natured jokes, and woe to the man who expressed a belief that one of the other miners had taken the tool or a lunch.
The miners were certain that they could tell the difference between noises made by the Tommyknockers and the normal cracking and creaking that occurs in a mine. They were always alert to the noises in a mine because cave-ins were frequent, and the miners understood that a sudden creak or sound of breaking rock could signal an imminent cave-in or rockfall. When miners heard the Tommyknockers knocking on the walls or ceiling of the mine, they generally left the mine as quickly as possible. And they were proven right in a surprising number of cases as a section of mine collapsed soon after the miners retreated. And if a cave-in occurred with no warning from the Tommyknockers, the miners believed someone had upset them and refused to go back into the mine, at least until the little creatures had been propitiated.
Every phenomenon associated with Tommyknockers can be explained away. Perhaps a miner laid down his tool or his lunch and forgot where he left it, blaming the Tommyknockers for moving it. Perhaps all the knocking on the walls and timbers of the mine was due to natural causes. After all, it is a well known fact that cave-ins are usually caused by breaking timbers and rock fracturing either from the vibrations of equipment inside the mine or a weakness in the rock itself.
And perhaps the feeling that an invisible little man was working beside him was the product of a miner's superstition or imagination. Mines are, after all, dark, confined spaces where most people find themselves growing extremely uncomfortable and claustrophobic within a very short time. But even today many miners are convinced that Tommyknockers are real and they still respect the little fellows for their ability to warn and protect them.
As for me, I never enter a mine without first asking permission of the Tommyknockers.