Brigid Amos’ young adult historical fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, The Storyteller, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Words of Wisdom. As a playwright, she co-founded the Angels Playwriting Collective and serves on the board of the Angels Theatre Company. She is also an active member of the Nebraska Writers Guild. Although Brigid left a nugget of her heart behind in the California Gold Country, most of it is in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she currently lives with her husband.
As a fellow member of Women Writing the West, I was quite enthusiastic when she approached me about being a guest here with her post on Double-jacking Competitions. What the hell is that? A part of western history with which I was not acquainted! Let’s find out more.
In a western mining town around the turn of the twentieth century, no Fourth of July celebration would have been complete without a double-jack competition. Double-jacking was a method of hand drilling in which two miners worked together, one holding and turning the drill steel in place on the rock while the other struck it with an eight-pound, long-handled hammer. It took a lot of trust on the part of the “shaker,” the miner holding the drill, and a lot of strength and stamina on the part of the miner striking the drill with the heavy hammer. For this reason, the miners switched off roles periodically. The miners would get the drill hole started with a short drill, and as the hole became deeper and deeper, they would use longer and longer drills.
Eventually, machine rock drills replaced hand drilling in the gold and silver mines of the western United States, but people were still eager for the skill, strength, and courage on display in a rousing double-jack competition. In such an event, all the hard work that miners used to do to drill by hand was speeded up and intensified, because the winning team was the one who drilled the deepest hole in a block of granite in fifteen minutes. The two men on a team would switch roles every thirty seconds as they hammered drills ranging from one foot to four feet in length.
How deep a hole could a two-man team drill in a double-jacking competition? In 1907, a team in Butte, Montana sank a hole nearly 46 inches deep. How much money could they win? In 1900, $5000 was offered in the Colorado state competition. Just for fun, I put that number into an online inflation calculator and discovered that this purse would be worth around $144, 000 today. Top athletes in popular spectator sports have always been well paid!
When I read about double-jacking contests, I knew I had to include one in my young adult historical novel, A Fence Around Her. In the following excerpt, my protagonist, fourteen year old Ruthie Conoboy, describes such an event on July Fourth in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. She is watching it with her parents and best friend Susanna. The stars of the competition are the burly Shaw brothers from Montana, but Ruthie’s focus is on a young Bodie miner named Robbie Van Ciel. She and Robbie have only exchanged a nod while passing on the street, and they speak to each other for the first time after the competition.
Excerpt from A Fence Around Her:
All the competitors laid their hands on the boulders and fixed their eyes on the timekeeper. He, in turn, raised his hand into the air as if swearing an oath and fixed his eyes on his pocket watch. At this point, the crowd fell into a silence so profound that it seemed the timekeeper had stopped time itself by his gesture. The wait for the second hand to sweep up to twelve seemed to stretch into an eternity, and we stood frozen in a tableau of anticipation.
“Go!” The timekeeper dispelled the unnerving silence by slicing the air with his open hand. All the teams lunged for their tools. One team member propped the smallest drill upright on the boulder and clutched it with both hands while the other pounded on it with quick, angry strokes. After each blow of the hammer, the holder rotated the drill a fraction of a turn. The crowd erupted in shouts intended to encourage one of the teams, but these blended together to form an incomprehensible block of sound that energized everyone present.
The pounding continued, ceasing only for a change of drill. As each drill was driven down so far that it seemed about to be swallowed whole by the rock, the holder would yank it out and replace it with a longer length of steel, and the striker went at it again. Some team members switched roles during the change of drill, others switched when the striker’s energy began to flag. Each of the Shaw brothers seemed to be able to go on striking the drill longer than any of the other competitors, and these two switched less often. Together they seemed to form a drilling machine made of muscle and sinew. I wondered what they were thinking, or even if they were thinking. It seemed to me that their thoughts were on something other than the three hundred dollars the residents of Bodie would pay them, for no one could work that hard for mere money.
At one point, I looked at Robbie Van Ciel as he struck the drill with an intense focus and unwavering precision. With each strike of the hammer, long rope-like muscles pulsed under the skin of his thin arms, and I marveled at his strength. His face was so red that it seemed ignited from within, and I felt myself alarmed by his appearance. I was certain his heart would burst from exhaustion, causing him to crumple dead to the ground, and I prayed that the competition would end before that happened.
“How much more time?” I asked my father.
“Seven minutes.” He had pulled out his own watch along with the timekeeper, and had been checking it periodically throughout the competition.
“So much time left?” I looked in Robbie’s direction again.
What seemed an eternity later, my father leaned down and shouted in my ear. “Two minutes!” Within a few seconds of this pronouncement, I heard a cracking sound that seemed different from the sound of the hammer striking the drill, and the two big Shaw brothers leapt with surprising agility away from their boulder as it split and a portion of it fell away to the ground where they were standing. The brother who had been holding the drill somehow extended his leap to the collection of discarded shorter drills lying on the ground. He grabbed the shortest of these and propped it up on the standing part of the boulder while his brother started pounding it as if nothing had happened. It felt as if the whole incident took place within the time span between one blow and another.
“They’re starting over? They can’t possibly win now,” Susanna said.
“They can add the length of this hole to the first one. See, you can see the first hole in the exposed face of the rock. These boys are a marvel. I’ve never seen their like before.” My father seemed rather pleased with the mishap.
“Time!” The competitors stepped away from their work and dropped their hammers to the ground. The judges then made the rounds of the boulders with a measuring stick. With a combined depth of forty-nine and five eighths inches for both holes, the Shaw brothers far out drilled the other teams to win the three hundred dollars. Robbie Van Ciel and his partner came in second. They held a handsome commemorative plaque between them for the photograph as Robbie’s face, now returning to its normal pallor, was lit by a wide, joyful smile.
About A Fence Around Her:
Can a girl break free from her mother’s past?
Having a mother with a past is never easy. For Ruthie Conoboy it becomes the struggle of a lifetime in 1900, the year Tobias Mortlock arrives in the gold mining town of Bodie, California. Ruthie is suspicious of this stranger, but her trusting father gives him a job in the stamp mill. Soon, Ruthie suspects that her mother and Mortlock have become more than friends. Can Ruthie stop this man from destroying her family?
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Cool! I learned something new today!
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Fascinating, isn’t it?
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I love learning about everyday life in these old mining towns. What I love about the double-jack stories I’ve read is that they really show that not much has changed. Here in Lincoln, everything stops for Husker football games, and right now my husband is cheering on the Cubs in the World Series!
Hi, Brigid and Andi. Great excerpt. I’ve been to lumberjack competitions in northern Wisconsin, but I’d never thought there would be such competitions among miners. Interesting the purse was so high! But it was a high risk occupation and I can’t imagine what it would be like back in the day without the technology we have today. Thank you for sharing.
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I’m wondering what the lumberjack competitions were like Patti–was it cutting down trees quickest? I thought they had some sort of log rolling competitions–another dangerous sport! Interesting how these things evolve from occupations, not pure sport like ball games or whatever. Even rodeo is evolved from ranching. 🙂
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Hi Patti, I just figured out how to reply here. See my comment Nov 3 regarding what you said about the risk involved in double-jacking. It could get pretty grisly!
Patti, You are right about how risky this was. In the book Lady in Boomtown: Miners and Manners on the Nevada Frontier, the author, Mrs. Hugh Brown, describes a grisly double-jack competition in which a miner’s hand was struck. He yelled to his partner to keep going as he bled profusely. She said the poor man sagged after each blow, but never gave up until the timer’s hand signaled fifteen minutes. She ends the description this way. “Then he fell over in a dead faint. The platform looked like a slaughtering block.” She doesn’t mention whether or not they won the prize money. I sure hope they did!
Fascinating post! I’d never heard of double-jacking, but what a strength competition it must have been! good luck with the book.
Barb, your comment made me envision how muscled up those guys must’ve been. Not sure I’d want to meet one down a dark alley! LOL
Thank you Barbara! Strength and accuracy! Especially for the miner holding the drill!
Wonderful research! Thank you for posting this. The book sounds great!
Hi Ilona, there’s a definite, ‘who knew?’ about Brigid’s post–and a benefit to doing in-depth research.
Thank you Ilona! I am planning to write more novels set in Bodie. It is such a fascinating place!
I had never heard of…what is it? Double Jacking? I’ll send this link to my niece, a nearly life-long resident of Butte. A Fence Around Her looks interesting. A lovely cover. I already care for that girl and all I’ve seen is her sweet face on the cover. Covers do matter!
That’s an interesting point, Eunie. I wonder if they had double-jacking contests in Butte? Let me know if you find out. And, yes, it is a great cover.
Thank you Eunce! My fictitious Shaw brothers are from Butte! Here’s another short excerpt from the same scene: “The crowd paid little attention to any of the aforementioned, because its attention was settled on two burly, bearded, and rather frightening looking men from Butte, Montana. They were known as the Shaw brothers, and were fresh from a four hundred dollar win at a competition in Telluride, Colorado. Their own attention was settled on nothing but the task at hand, as they huddled close together over the rock and conferred in low tones. Even the Grass Valley boys knew to leave them alone.” And here is a factoid from the Bisbee Mining and Minerals Website “One of the greatest contests was held August 18,1907 in Butte Montana. McIvor and Pickens of Bisbee won a purse of $1250.00 by drilling 45 31/32 inches in front of a crowd of 25,000 spectators .” So yes! There were double-jack contests in Butte, Montana!
I didn’t know either about double jacking.
Learn something new every day!
Neither did I when I started writing A Fence Around Her. This is what I love about writing historical fiction! I learn so much!
I enjoyed the information regarding double jacking. I am a silver mine tour guide in Georgetown, Colorado and have some questions about the double jacking technique. We tour guides are asked to tell a story about how the shaker (man holding/rotating the drill steel) ends up with a broken thumb by putting his thumb over the end of the drill steel to tell the striker(man with the hammer) to stop pounding. This seems crazy. Is it true? Thanks so much for your response.
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Hi Eric! Honestly, I have never heard this. It really wouldn’t make sense that this is how you would let your partner know to stop pounding the drill. It seems that they could just shout to the partner to stop. Putting one’s thumb over the drill to signal the striker to stop seems way too risky. Of course, people have always done crazy things, so it is possible that some double-jack competitor thought this was a great idea, and only did it once! I can’t verify that it never happened. By the way, I love Georgetown. My husband and I always stop there in the winter for lunch on the way to the ski resorts. and to buy candy on the way back. I have always wanted to spend time there in the summer, take the train, and see everything that seems to be closed in the winter. I was not aware that there was a silver mine in Georgetown. We have toured the Phoenix mine and the Argo mine in Idaho Springs. I will definitely have to check out the silver mine in Georgetown! If you do come up with a reference for this, let me know. By the way, there is a gory description of a double-jacking accident in Tonopah, Nevada in a book called Lady in Boomtown by Mrs. Hugh Brown. Her description was of an accident, in which the striker missed and hit the shaker’s hand. The striker hesitated for a moment, but the shaker yelled “Come down, you!” to tell him to keep going. Even when they switched and the injured man had to pound the drill with the hammer, he kept going, blood splattering all over. At the end of the 15 minutes, he fainted. She doesn’t say whether or not he and his partner won. I hope they did!
I read this post with great interest, Andi and Brigid. I had no idea that double-jacking competitions were so intense. Brigid’s thorough research on this subject helps make her protagonist Ruthie’s observations of the competition even more thrilling!
Your comment sent me to re-read the excerpt, Alice, and, yes, you put it very well–thrilling indeed.
Thank you Alice!