As we drive around Cornwall, huge brick chimneys are everywhere, standing like lonely sentinels on the rolling hills. They are remnants of tin smelters. Tin mining has been going on here for over 2,000 years, but came to an abrupt end during the Thatcher administration, along with the coal mines that were closed in Wales. In many places once the mines were closed, people just walked alway and looked for new work, but here and there remnants of this important industrial era survived. They are bound together as a World Heritage site throughout Cornwall.. We'd read that Grevor Tin Mine in Pendeen was especially well preserved. It was one of the last to be closed and people wanted to make an effort to save and honor what went on here for all those years. As we toured the mine we could feel the love in the restoration and preservation.
During the Bronze Age people just picked up the ore that lay at the surface, but as time went on, more and more hard labor went into mineral extraction. Our tour took us down inside the mine and as we went down we walked through layers of history. In the early 1800's the only way into and out of a mine was to climb on ladders and workers faced a two hour climb out after they worked their shifts. All the beams and timbers they used to shore up the excavations had to be hauled down on their backs. And in the pitch black darkness they did all this work by the light of primitive tallow candles made from rendered animal fat. Eventually large wheels of cable, powered by steam and then electricity, carried the miners down into the shafts as they went ever deeper.
We were given hard hats to wear on the tour, which felt a bit touristic, but once we were inside the mine, we were glad that we had them. The shafts were so narrow and small, we walked doubled over and I whacked my head at least three times. Thanks to my helmet, I was none the worse for wear. They also gave us coats to wear over our clothes since we picked up dust and mineral deposits as we squeezed through the passageways.
The entire mine complex is preserved. The locker rooms were especially poignant. They looked like people had just walked away with their street clothes still hanging in the lockers. The halls were decorated by large photos of all the miners who had worked there. Even though the work was hard, smelly, dangerous, smelly, hot and wet, the workers felt terrible when the mines were closed. They missed the camaraderie that forms when people work together in such adverse conditions. Posters advertised mining reunions, most recently in 2012. Many miners from Cornwall took their skills and knowledge all around the world, especially as the price of tin declined. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan was populated by a large contingent of Cornish miners who developed our iron industry there.