Iron Miners - Documenting the Historic Mines of America


SafetyOur mine researchers have been trained in both mine safety and have first hand knowledge of the dangers that can be present inside and outside of abandoned mines. The field study of abandoned mines, like any outdoor activity can be very dangerous. As many old mines have not been worked or maintained for well over a century, there is no guarantee as to their safety. Every mine presents different conditions. Hazards such as unstable rock, low oxygen, poisonous gases, steep inclines, and winzes can exist inside. The following information is relevant to the exploration of abandoned mines in general, not to any specific region. It is not intended to overstate the dangers but to provide a realistic idea as to what these dangers actually are, although some rare. Like many other activities such as football, skiing, hiking, or even driving, there is inherent risk.


Tunnels including adits, drifts, and crosscuts were driven with the purpose of allowing the passage of miners, mules, and minerals through a mine. Although generally the safest of all underground mine features, they are not intended for the casual or uneducated visitor. Dangers from exploring a tunnel may include accidentally falling down a winze, unstable overhead rock, or bad air.

A winze can usually be avoided with adequate lighting. A weak roof is often indicated by piles or giant slabs of rock on the floor. Low oxygen can be detected and avoided by the use of a cigarette lighter (never use in a coal mine), a flame safety lamp (safe in a coal mine), or electronic air meter (for use in any mine). Coal mines may contain methane, a flammable gas. While it is rare to find methane in an inactive mine, its ignition especially by cigarette lighter could potentially cause an explosion.

Inadequate oxygen is more common in coal mines. Symptoms of low oxygen include tiredness, headache, and confusion and can lead to suffocation. Inhaling poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulphide (the smell of rotten eggs) while extremely rare can be fatal. An electronic air meter is the only option as an excessive amount of hydrogen sulphide can actually numb the sense of smell.

If a mine had any chance of success during its day, it likely accessed a stope underground where the actual mining of ore took place. Here the danger lies mostly with the possibility of a treacherous angle of the stope, slippery rock, or an unstable roof. Stopes are often lined with stulls. Stulls were put in place with either the intent of supporting the weight of the hanging wall or providing a visual cue of roof failure such as appearing to be crushed under excessive weight.

Although probably less likely than the above mentioned dangers, animals such as bears or snakes may roost in mines. Snakes are usually found closer to the portal. Any sign of animal tracks should be a signal of caution.

Inclined shafts and vertical shafts should be avoided. Even if the incline appears moderate at first, it may dramatically increase in inclination with depth, especially if the orebody becomes more vertical deeper underground. Rapelling down shafts should only be attempted with appropriate rock climbing gear and experience. Loose rock can dislodge from the collar of the shaft even if rapelling and ascending skills are mastered. First lower an air meter down the shaft by rope to ensure that no pockets of bad air are trapped down below.

Above Ground

On the surface, many mines have shafts which are nearly or completely vertical and can descend hundreds of feet into the earth below. The collar of these shafts as well as the top section of open pits are often weathered. As a result, much like standing at the edge of a mountain cliff, standing near the edge of a shaft or deep surface working can result in rock giving way which would cause certain injury or death.

Extreme caution should also be taken near any mine pits, especially in areas known to have former mining. Although it may appear as a minor excavation, such a depression may be a former vertical shaft that has eroded shut through time. Many shafts were originally cribbed or lined with wood timbers to hold back dirt and loose rock. As the timber support rots, the walls of the shaft can give way and form a plug towards the top of the shaft. If the plug is allowed to clear, often due to heavy rain, the small depression may open up to an open shaft once again.

Do not attempt to enter any underground mine on your own, and never alone. The safest way to view a mine is either from the outside or from this site.

Underground Safety Guidelines

We at IronMiners do not encourage or promote the exploration of abandoned mines. With that said, in the interest of harm reduction we do feel it is necessary to provide important safety information for those that will insist on going underground.
For a list of important safety gear and practices, please visit the safety page at We at IronMiners also recommend visiting the rules and guidelines page at Mojave Underground. Mojave Underground focuses on the western United States.

Disclaimer: IronMiners is not responsible for your safety if you choose to go underground. The above information is provided for harm reduction purposes only.

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