U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. government established the Bureau of Mines as part of the Department of the Interior in order to promote mine safety and improve mining practices.

Summary of Event

The U.S. government’s motivation for creating the Bureau of Mines was to prevent disastrous mining accidents such as those that had been occurring with regularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. The statistics were horrible. Between 1890 and 1906, a total of 22,840 coal miners were killed in fatal accidents in U.S. mines. In December, 1907, a series of explosions in coal mines shocked the entire nation. Coal mining;accidents Some 500 miners were killed in two mines in West Virginia, and 75 miners were buried alive in Alabama. A total of 3,200 miners were killed in that year, half of them in Pennsylvania. Such accidents were attributed to ignorance of the dangers of flammable dusts in the mines and of the safety precautions that should be observed in the use of explosives. Regulations were scarce, and no mechanism was in place to enforce proper safety procedures. Bureau of Mines, U.S. Mining;safety Workplace safety;mining [kw]U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established (July 1, 1910) [kw]Bureau of Mines Is Established, U.S. (July 1, 1910) [kw]Mines Is Established, U.S. Bureau of (July 1, 1910) Bureau of Mines, U.S. Mining;safety Workplace safety;mining [g]United States;July 1, 1910: U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established[02650] [c]Government and politics;July 1, 1910: U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established[02650] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 1, 1910: U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established[02650] [c]Business and labor;July 1, 1910: U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established[02650] [c]Natural resources;July 1, 1910: U.S. Bureau of Mines Is Established[02650] Holmes, Joseph A. Cottrell, Frederick Gardner

The U.S. Congress created the Technological Branch of the Geological Survey Geological Survey, U.S. expressly to conduct investigations of mine explosions in order to increase safety in mining. In 1908 and 1909, three programs within that branch were implemented—testing of fuels, testing of structural materials, and safety investigations—with a total appropriation of $500,000. The Bureau of Standards Bureau of Standards, U.S. took on the function of testing structural materials; little was done to test fuels, because the public was preoccupied with safety considerations. The focus of the Bureau of Mines, which was established as part of the Department of the Interior effective July 1, 1910, was thus on safety matters.

The bureau’s emphasis was on research and analysis, not on proscription and enforcement. This emphasis was reflected in the personnel chosen to lead the bureau in its early days. Joseph A. Holmes, the first director of the Bureau of Mines, had a background in research and academics. University of California chemistry professor Frederick Gardner Cottrell, who attempted to bring government and industry together in his work for the Bureau of Mines and for the Anaconda Copper Company, also had a research background. It was assumed that, given the proper information and techniques, mining companies would voluntarily improve safety standards without government coercion or regulation. State authorities, not federal authorities, had responsibility for whatever regulations were in place.

The initial emphasis of the Bureau of Mines, moreover, was on coal mining, not on the mining of metals. By 1915, the bureau was certifying explosives as safe for use in coal mines and was testing electrical equipment to determine whether it was safe to use in gas-filled environments. Within only a few years, the bureau established stations devoted to mine safety and mining experiments throughout the United States. It worked with universities to conduct investigations into mining accidents, the results of which were publicized.

During World War I, the Bureau of Mines played an important role in research and development for the war effort because of the advanced knowledge of chemicals and explosives it had developed. The bureau contributed significantly to research on poison gas and on the production of helium, an inert gas used to inflate airships and balloons.


World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and World War II all acted to enlarge the role of government in American life. The Bureau of Mines partook of the cultural environment of the times, assuming an increasingly activist role of its own.

At the beginning of World War II, mine safety inspections became a regular responsibility of the bureau. The New Deal Congress authorized federal agents to enter coal mines to look for health and safety problems. Negative findings in these early inspections carried no sanctions, but the publicity that accompanied the resulting reports gradually affected public opinion. Miners’ unions followed the government’s lead and formed union-selected mine safety committees to inspect mines. The unions recommended safety reforms to management and ordered miners out of areas considered hazardous.

The authority of the Bureau of Mines was increased in 1952, when Congress created the Federal Coal Mine Safety Board of Review. Federal Coal Mine Safety Board of Review Federal inspectors began making annual inspections of mines except in areas where state-run safety programs had been approved. The federal mine inspectors could order the immediate evacuation of any mine they judged to be unsafe.

A disastrous mine explosion provided the catalyst for the most comprehensive and sweeping occupational health and safety legislation in American mining history. In November, 1968, seventy-eight men were killed in a coal mining accident in West Virginia. The chairman of the coal company involved conceded publicly that, given the industry’s poor safety record, much stricter health and safety regulations were needed. Profit was not a factor, he maintained, because the most profitable companies had the best safety records.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969) which Congress passed by nearly unanimous vote, provided for civil and criminal penalties for violations of the law and tightened requirements concerning methane gas and electrical equipment and wiring used in mines. The act prohibited underground smoking and the use of open flames and also mandated significant improvements in mine ventilation systems and underground shelters for refuge in case of explosions. The new regulations required shelters to contain stores of food and water as well as supplies of air. Efforts were also made to control black lung, a potentially disabling mining-related illness.

In 1973, the Bureau of Mines lost its responsibility for health and safety enforcement in mines when those functions were transferred to the newly created Mine Safety and Health Administration Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor. The Bureau of Mines retained its traditional responsibility for energy, metallurgical, and mining research. Four years later, all matters related to the safety of mine workers were brought together in the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (1977)

In September, 1995, Congress voted to close the Bureau of Mines and transfer many of its functions to other federal agencies. The U.S. Department of Energy Department of Energy, U.S. took over specific health, safety, and materials programs formerly run by the bureau, and the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management Bureau of Land Management, U.S. became responsible for minerals information activities.

The 1910 law that established the Bureau of Mines laid the foundation for ensuing developments in mine safety. The bureau encouraged the production of needed minerals, and its research and development work helped to make that production more efficient and profitable, but it was the bureau’s preoccupation with mine safety that received the most publicity. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, 305 coal mining accidents and 51 other (metal and nonmetal) mine disasters were recorded. In the Monongah coal mine explosion of 1907 alone, 362 persons died. In contrast, in the last quarter of the twentieth century only 14 coal mine disasters and a single other mining disaster occurred, taking a total 158 lives. The bureau’s mine safety research and advances in technology, safety regulations, and preventive measures contributed to substantial reduction of both the incidence and severity of mining disasters. Bureau of Mines, U.S. Mining;safety Workplace safety;mining

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dupree, A. Hunter. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1957. A classic, well-documented study of the relationship between politics and the development of science in the United States beginning with President Thomas Jefferson and continuing to 1940.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, Fred W. The Bureau of Mines: Its History, Activities, and Organization. 1922. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1974. The standard history of the early years of the Bureau of Mines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, David A. “Bureau of Mines.” In Government Agencies, edited by Donald R. Whitnah. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. A good basic summary of the history of the Bureau of Mines. Shows the relationship between mine safety and the increased authority of the Bureau of Mines. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, James Q., ed. The Politics of Regulation. New York: Basic Books, 1980. Deals in general terms with government regulation, not specifically with the Bureau of Mines. The most significant portions of the book address the relationship between politics and regulation.

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Categories: History