The immigrants from across the globe who made Park City their new home in the 19th century brought new languages, customs, and ideas with them. One of the most influential new communities who helped engineer Park City’s mining success were those immigrants from Cornwall, England, whose achievements include the invention and implementation of the Cornish pump used to siphon excess water from the dark, damp mines.
Cornish miners were also responsible for introducing Park City’s most iconic ghosts to the town’s collective imagination—the Tommy Knockers.
By most accounts, Tommy Knockers were the ghosts of miners killed on the job. According to the Cornish, their spirits remained trapped in the mines, and made their presence known by tapping on the walls underground. The sounds not only gave the ghosts their name, but also served as a warning to their still-living compatriots. Superstitious miners regarded the mysterious knocking as an omen of impending death, and often left work sites where they heard the sound—never to return.
Stories about the Tommy Knockers persisted in Utah well into the early 1900s. By the 1940s, however, the legends had more or less gone by the wayside. Some historians attribute the decline in belief to improvements in working conditions in the mines. The Tommy Knockers’ ominous tapping was drowned out by mucking machines, and any shades or shadows of fallen miners were chased away by electric lighting.
No matter whether or not Tommy Knockers truly haunted Park City’s mines, they captured the imaginations of Cornish miners and their new American friends, who went so far as to immortalize them in stories and songs passed down from generation to generation. The excerpt below is from a Cornish folk ballad simply titled, “Tommy Knockers.” The words illustrate the mischievous spirits’ origins, and demonstrate just how seriously the living heeded their warnings.
It’s their tap, tap
like sounds of tiny liners,
Just a tap, tap, tap from souls
of dead miners.
For they’re locked in the rock wall
Those who found death down there,
An’ ‘tis the tap, tap of tiny picks
Which makes on end stand our ’air.
So we’ll leave the ’aunted place
For we won’t work where they be,
An’ wherever we ’ear their knockin’,
We sure will always flee.
For it means whoever ’ears it
Will be the next in line,
For the tap, tap, tap of the Knockers
is a last an’ awful sign!
To learn more about life underground in Park City, visit the Park City Museum. Be sure to mark your calendar for our next upcoming Local Free Day on November 12, made possible through the generous support of David Hoffenberg!
 Ronald M. James, “Knockers, Knackers, and Ghosts: Immigrant Folklore in the Western Mines,” Western Folklore 51 no.2 (1992),170.