Breathing apparatuses were an important part of mine-rescue work beginning in the 1890s. Explosions, cave-ins, floods and fires were a constant threat in daily mining operations. Poor air quality resulting from such accidents led to fatalities on the job.

Indicators of inferior air quality include loss of consciousness, painful headaches and vomiting.

On March 10, 1906, more than 1,000 miners perished in an explosion at a coal mine near the French town of Courrières. Although it was the worst European mine accident in recorded history, French and German rescue teams equipped with early respirators saved several hundred men.

Some of the earliest companies and people that invented or manufactured respirator devices were Fleuss, Gibbs, Shamrock and Weg.

One of the best-known devices was the Draeger breathing apparatus imported from Germany. It consisted of an airtight helmet, breathing bags and a back carriage that included an oxygen cylinder and potash cartridge.

The device worked when the user exhaled air into the machine after closing the air lid. Traveling through a series of circulation tubes, the air passed to a potash cartridge that absorbed the carbon dioxide. An oxygen cylinder transferred oxygen to the helmet to be re-inhaled repeatedly.

The oxygen from the cylinder was as pure as that breathed in a local town. Excess oxygen was saved in reserve breathing bags to be used by the wearer during heightened physical activity. A pressure gauge carried on the chest enabled the wearer to monitor the oxygen supply.

The Draeger breathing apparatus solved a problem in earlier devices, which provided only limited oxygen. The Draeger unit provided about two hours’ worth of oxygen in an atmosphere of noxious gases found in underground mines.

Another benefit of the device was the ease of cartridge replacement. With earlier models the wearer had to go to a different location to obtain new cartridges. With the Draeger device, the oxygen cylinder could be replaced on site within 30 seconds and the potash cartridge replaced in less than 4 seconds. During that time the openings in the apparatus were closed by self-acting valves, which kept out harmful gases.

These improvements to the Draeger apparatus allowed men to work more than seven hours, limited only by their own endurance. This was especially significant during mine rescues, when time is critical. Several complaints about the early Draeger apparatuses included their weight — 38.9 pounds — and a mouthpiece that was both uncomfortable and inefficient.

After 1910 more European breathing apparatuses such as the Draeger saw use in American mines due to their success rate abroad. Arizona mines that stocked Draeger breathing apparatuses and accessories included the mine-rescue station in the Miami-Globe district; both the Copper Queen Co. and the Calumet & Arizona Co. in the Warren district near Bisbee; and the Ray Consolidated Copper Co. in the Mineral Creek district in Pinal County.

Teams of mine rescuers were assembled and trained to use these breathing devices. Those skilled with the Draeger safety equipment were nicknamed “Draegermen.” They also explored mines, recording areas of low oxygen and levels of carbon monoxide.

Draeger remains a world leader in mining safety technology, including a new self-contained rescue system along with new portable gas-detection equipment.

Take a tour with author, historian

Writer and historian William Ascarza is leading several tours organized through Pima Community College, including a Patagonia Mines and Ghost Towns Tour on Oct. 24, Historic Kentucky Camp and Santa Rita Mountains Backcountry tour on Oct. 29 and Fairbank, Dragoon Stage Station, Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate and Camp Rucker tour on Nov 5. Tours start at $99, which includes transportation. To register call 206-6468. For more information call 206-6579.

Sources: Arizona State Bureau of Mines State Safety Bulletin No. 9, Safety Series No. 1 (January 1916); “Breathing Apparatus in Mines” (Mines and Minerals, January, 1908); “Draeger Celebrates a Century of Mine Rescue” (Coal Age, December 2011); “Life Saving Apparatus for Mine Rescue Work” (Mines and Methods, December 1910); “Mine Rescue Station in Miami-Globe District, Arizona” (Engineering and Mining Journal, Jan. 3, 1920).

William Ascarza is an archivist, historian and author of five books. Email him at