Mining students find fun, competition in backbreaking 19th century skills

Honoring Nevada's mining heritage, the Mackay Muckers hold a fundraiser at the Sutro Tunnel in Dayton.
Published: Sep. 30, 2022 at 6:42 PM PDT
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SUTRO Nev. (KOLO) -A hundred years ago it was back-breaking dangerous work. Today it’s competition, even fun. And it will be on display Saturday at a historic site below the Comstock.

A man stands hitting a steel rod repeatedly, driving it into a cement block. It’s called single jack drilling, carving a hole out of rock with repeated blows with a hammer. It requires a steady hand and concentration, not to mention muscle sweat and the confidence that the 4-pound hammer will find the drill rod and not your hand. This was how miners made holes for explosives a hundred years ago.

Now imagine doing this by candlelight hundreds of feet below the surface and all the things that could go wrong with the drilling and all that followed. That should give you a new appreciation for the men who went down into those mines and built fortunes for others and in the process gave birth to our state.

It was dangerous, back-breaking work. Two of my great grandfathers did it for a living. Both died young.

“A lot of people died,” says mining student Gillian Hammons. “Fires, collapses, explosions, being left down there in bad air.”

“And now you’ve turned it into something fun. Isn’t that a little weird?” I ask.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all.”

She’s a member of the Mackay Muckers competition team representing UNR’s Mackay School of Mines, They drill, saw timbers, pan for gold and muck--that’s loading ore carts by hand--- for fun.

The competition dates back to 1980. It’s international. Teams from all over the world will next face off in Australia and Saturday the Muckers will be demonstrating these skills at a historic site linked to that tradition--the Sutro Tunnel, built more than130 years ago to drain the deep mines of the Comstock beneath the mountains above.

Water still flows out of this marvel of 19th Century engineering and these students keep alive the skills needed in the pre-mechanized ages of mining.

It’s a nod both to that hazardous history and the importance their chosen profession still holds in today’s world.

“With the games happening that brings awareness to our generation,” says Mucker Natalie Rubio. “The mining industry needs better representation and the only way we’re going to get better representation is be holding events and educating the people,” adds Hammons.

They’re holding a fundraiser with a demonstration at the Sutro Tunnel near Dayton tomorrow 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, Proceeds to help them get to Australia. Tickets are available at the gate or online at