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Sutton Mine Ventilation and Escape Shaft

Submitted by James Flynn - November 12, 2012

The old shaft at the edge of town remained a part of the Sutton mine operation, serving two important functions.


A fan house was built above the old shaft, where two large exhaust fans operated continuously, drawing air from the mine. This caused a like volume of fresh air to be drawn down the north shaft. A sufficient volume of fresh air had to reach and pass along the "face", where the men dug coal. As a mine map elsewhere on this site shows, the face was west of I-39 when the mine closed, about a mile distant from the shaft.

The main entrance railroad tunnel carried the air to the face. Canvas "curtains" were hung to block old entries ((branches off the main tunnel), to prevent the air from being lost in mined-out areas. Additional curtains were used near the face, to maintain desired air flow. A secondary function of mine air movement is to prevent the accumulation of dangerous gasses.

An interesting part of this effort was an air diversion door that was needed across the far end of the main entrance tracks. A door frame was bolted to the rock walls, and a wooden door hung. It was deliberately hung out-of-plumb, so it would always swing shut by its own weight.

As the door was approached in one direction, the experienced mule would simply lower its head and butt the door open. The door rubbed on the passing coal car(s), swinging shut again when the last car had passed. In the other direction, the mule driver had to stop and latch the door open. As he then rode by, he would free the latch. Again, the door was prevented from closing until the last car had gone through. This took place in the feeble glow of the mule driver's carbide head lamp.

The volume of fresh air in the mine was not enough to significantly influence the temperature. Summertime temperature was 70 degrees; in winter, 68 degrees.

Escape Shaft

State and Federal legislators passed many laws to improve mine safety. One such law requires every mine to have a second entrance, or escape shaft, as it is usually called. The old shaft served this requirement also. Wooden stairs were built from bottom to top, a distance of 550 feet. That's approximately equal to the stairs in a 55-story skyscraper. In his capacity as mine examiner, my father often made this climb weekly. There were at least two other employees, who were also examiner qualified.

As I understand it, the stairs were bolted to one of the shaft walls, and zig-zagged upwards on that wall. There were handrails and a landing at the end of each flight, both required by law. Only one man at a time was permitted on each flight.


There were places in the mine, where headroom was less than adequate. In the perpetual darkness, the mules used their long ears as "feelers". When they felt rock overhead, it was time to duck. The ends of their ears were calloused from daily rubbing on the mine ceiling.

There were some severe injuries, but no one ever lost his life in the Sutton mine. It was a dry mine. Some mines are plagued by water constantly leaking in through rock fissures. Only the shafts leaked water, as the result of passing through five separate water veins. The veins generally were sandy or porous layers in the earth, through which water could flow. They were cribbed to slow water leakage into the shaft.

The north shaft had a sump 30 feet deep below the mine floor to collect leakage water. A lift pump was installed in the sump, with a discharge pipe and a large wooden lift rod that extended up a corner of the shaft to the surface. An electric motor, gearbox, and lift arm operated the pump. The water emptied onto the ground, away from the shaft.

Leaking water in the old shaft was usually not a concern. It pooled out in the old workings, where evaporation kept it from becoming a problem. Fan air movement sped its evaporation. I've heard of only one time, when they had to pump out some of this water, which had become deep enough to threaten entry into other areas of the mine.