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Reviewed by:
  • Seeing Underground: Maps, Models, and Mining Engineering in America by Eric C. Nystrom
  • Larry Lankton (bio)
Seeing Underground: Maps, Models, and Mining Engineering in America. By Eric C. Nystrom. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2014. Pp. 320. $39.95.

Seeing Underground makes a significant contribution to the history of mining and mining engineering. The novelty of Eric Nystrom’s book is that it doesn’t explore mines, per se; it explores representations of mines. Nystrom examines the creation and usefulness of what he calls the “visual culture” (p. 3) of mining. He credits mining engineers, working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for devising mine maps and models that made it possible for people on the surface—whether investors, engineers, or juries sitting on trials—to “see” the underground and understand it. Nystrom emphasizes that in an era when mining became more complex, the ability to make and use maps and models allowed university-educated mining engineers to rise above practical, experienced miners in the hierarchy of mine management. Their special knowledge and skill set worked to their professional advantage. [End Page 986]

In documenting the use of maps and models, Nystrom incorporates examples drawn from different mining districts. He first provides a brief history of survey instruments and the production, duplication, storage, and retrieval of mine maps in engineering or drafting offices, especially in Upper Michigan’s copper mines. He then turns to the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, where a mine fire disaster in 1869 prompted the state legislature to pass a law requiring that all underground mines produce maps and make them available to the state mine inspector. This legislative push led mining engineers to innovate in making mine maps that could be used to guide rescue attempts to free trapped miners, to settle boundary disputes, and to study underground ventilation and other systems.

At the “Richest Hill on Earth” in Montana, under the “apex law” mine owners could legally mine their copper veins even if they left one property and crossed onto another. Here, the geology was complex. Faulting had caused veins to shatter and shift. Mining companies faced the twofold problem of tracking their veins and proving they were theirs to mine under the apex law. In response to these conditions, mining engineers and geologists created the “Butte System” of mine maps, which recorded geological findings as well as underground workings. These maps helped predict where wandering veins might be found, and they also served as evidence in apex lawsuits.

Moving beyond two-dimensional maps, three-dimensional models—“the most spectacular elements of the visual culture of mining” (p. 113)—began to be used frequently in the early twentieth century. Models came in several forms. The most impressive were made of large glass plates held in parallel positions in a box-like frame. Each plate carried a painted or drawn-on representation of a mine level. By looking through the plates, observers had a three-dimensional view of the underground. Companies made little use of such models in day-to-day operations, but they were useful in teaching classrooms and in courtrooms. Nystrom presents a good case study of the use of models in a major 1914 Tonopah, Nevada, lawsuit over the rights to silver ore.

Mine models found their way into world’s fairs and museums, where they educated and entertained the general public. Many large models showed surface plants in great detail, although in a highly sanitized manner. Nystrom tells an interesting tale of how curator Chester Garfield Gilbert developed a division of mineral technology at the Smithsonian that used mine models, many provided by the mining companies themselves. Gilbert promoted boosterism, and he wanted Smithsonian visitors to better appreciate the contributions made by industry to American life.

Seeing Underground is a solid piece of scholarship on a little-studied subject. In a book that examines “visual culture,” one could hope for more and sometimes better illustrations of the maps and models under discussion. Also, one key part of the “visual culture” of mining—surface and [End Page 987] underground photography—is omitted. True, mining engineers did not produce photographs, but companies used photographic images in many ways. Finally, Nystrom...


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