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“Hearty Big Strong Men All Died”: The Lasting Impact of the Silicosis “Plague” in the 1930s

by Helen Raymond/Laurie Mercier

Silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused when workers inhale fine particles of silica dust (found in sand, quartz, and granite), became a national cause célèbre during the Great Depression when it was recognized as a significant disease among lead, zinc, and silver miners, sandblasters, and foundry and tunnel workers. While silicosis was a crisis for the federal government, business, and insurance companies as well as labor organizations, its most devastating effects were on the workers who contracted the disease and the families and communities who watched previously healthy men waste away and die. The lasting impact that the silicosis “plague” had on individual workers’ lives in the 1930s is evident here in Laurie Mercier’s 1981 interview with Helen Raymond, who opened a tavern that catered to miners in Virginia City, Montana, in 1934.

Listen to Audio:

Helen Raymond: They drilled dry. Have you understood what drill dry means? Well, you just understand that there’s no water in the drilling. But when you drill dry, that silica dust is just lethal to your lungs. They’re very dangerous. And they didn’t know about protecting their health in those days. They didn’t know that it was hurting their lungs that bad. But silica is nothing but glass ground up fine as dust, you know. And when it hits your lungs, it doesn’t wash out and it keeps cutting through your lungs—microscopicly, even, where you couldn’t even see it. Just those few men that I knew at the prospect all died with silicosis, and hearty, big, strong men. They’d die in their early thirties and forties with it, because they worked extra hard. The stronger you were, the harder they drilled, and probably were contracting to make money, and they would work extra to make more money.

I remember two of them, Snyders, a father and his son, worked there. Well, they both got silica-cosis, or silicosis, from the lungs, in their lungs, and they were both sent to Galen. But the young man died first, and I just knew why, because he was a powerful man, 6’2" or 3, and full of fun, and lived pretty hard, you know, and he died right away, and the old man lived a little bit longer. But they both worked at the prospect.

Laurie Mercier: But these men that worked in the mines, were they afraid of what might happen to them?

Raymond: They didn’t seem to say so, no. I think they were paid around $5 to $6 a day then, and maybe $8, and I don’t think they realized that— Then later on, they started putting water in the mines, and they’d have a water hose that would wet the ground down, see, and that did make it better. But it don’t take many shifts when it’s dusty to hurt your lungs, and it takes a little while before you know it, you know. You don’t get sick that night or nothing.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Montana Historical Society.

See Also:"Must a Fellow Wait to Die?": Workers Write to Frances Perkins
"What You Really Want Is an Autopsy": Frances Perkins and the U. S. Government Conference in Joplin, Missouri, 1940