Legacies of Toil and Stone: Uncovering the Early History of Mining in British North America

Latest update August 18, 2018 Started on July 27, 2018

How did the story of mining in British North America unfold? How did the transformation from primeval world to industrial power take place? My goal is to rediscover these forgotten mines and go deep underground to reveal their secrets.

July 27, 2018
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In The Field

The Crystal Mountain

One of the earliest regions of America to be prospected were the lands near the Hudson River. By the early 1600s the Dutch were sailing up and down the Hudson and were the first to colonize this region. It was also the dutch who had the most advanced knowledge of lead mining and smelting at this time. Tales of a crystal mountain in the lands west of the Hudson drew prospectors and adventures well before region was colonized. These legendary mountains are known today as the Shawangunks and even today quartz crystals can be found here in abundance. The Dutch knew that these crystals were a sure sign of valuable minerals and ores just beneath the surface.

We headed deep into the Shawangunk mountains to seek these lead mines and the famous quartz crystals that drew prospectors here over three centuries ago. With a little searching we soon came upon a tailings pile and then the adit to a mine. We explored this small mine and carefully examined the minerals evident in the rock. After exploring this small adit we continued to walk in the direction of the strike (the general direction of a the mineral deposit). We soon came to another adit with a waterfall flowing over the portal! We got a little went entering the one and were surprised to see tracks on the floor where ore cars once rolled, carrying out the rock. This adit was little disappointing however as no major vein of minerals could be found, we assumed it must have been purely exploratory. Although the mines we visited did not date back to the days of the original Dutch miners, we still gained a better understanding of what it was like to to mine the lead found in these hills. Seeing minerals and crystals locked in the rock certainly brought out our inner prospector and the discomfort of the wet and cold was no match for our drive to find the earths mineral treasures. A drive that those early prospectors must have been very familiar with centuries ago!

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The Sandy Hook Gold Mine

Today I went over to the Newtown Gold Mine to take a look. Here is what we know about it:

-“The first mention of any mining in Newtown occurs in 1764. In that year John Stanley Blackwell of New York leased a tract of land in Sandy Hook on what was then called Mt. Pisgah.”

-“its location appears to be on the west bank of the Pootatuck River near Black Bridge. Blackwell was given the right to extract, “ore, mines, minerals, and fossil bodies of every sort and kind now discovered or to be discovered,” for a period of 40 years.”

-“The Redding author and historian, Charles Burr Todd, wrote an essay entitled, “Mining in Connecticut,” which was reprinted in his 1906 book, In Olde Connecticut. In it he discusses the various mining activities of southwest Connecticut including a gold mine at Sandy Hook which was supposedly “worked by British soldiers in the Revolution and casks of its ore sent to England for treatment. From one pound of its ore 72 cents in gold and 11 cents of silver were taken, if the assayer is to be believed.” Unfortunately Todd cites no source for this and the fact that he has British soldiers actively and openly working in Fairfield County during the Revolution, apparently unmolested by the local militia or Committee of Safety, gives this quote the strong ring of local folklore. [Newtown was a center of Tory activity during the war, though].”

-“In his report of 1837, Charles Upham Shepard notes that on the bank of the Pootatuck River in Sandy Hook, there was a tunnel dug through a quartz vein. He also noted it was locally referred to as a silver mine and in it he found traces of galena (lead ore with a metallic sheen) and iron pyrite better known as fool’s gold. Is it possible John Blackwell, while working his 40 year lease, managed to burrow into this quartz vein and retrieve some of the silvery lead ore along with the surrounding fool’s gold? It is not too difficult to see the rumor of such a gold and silver strike taking on a life of its own and, with the usual tendency of local folklore, become grafted onto a more romantic tale involving the British army working in this area during a mythological Revolutionary past.”

-In 1889, according to a New York Times article, a 50’ deep shaft was cleared out with the hope of reworking it.

I found the old shaft but it was full of debris although the vein of quartz they were following could still be seen. I also found a short tunnel that was driven through the vein that the stream now flowed through. The vein or ore could clearly be seen here.

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Pre-Revolutionary War Copper Mines

I am attempting to find the remains of all Pre-Revolutionary War copper mines in CT for my film: Mines and Mysteries! Today Marc and I went in search of three mines.

We first set out to look for the Golden Parlour Mine. Here is what we know about it:

-On July 27, 1736 the mine paid George Bell 40£ (about $10,000 today) to sink a shaft twelve feet deep.

-On April 27, 1737 articles of agreement were drawn up to lease the mine to investors from Hartford and New York.

-“On the hill in the western part of Walnut Grove cemetery are the remains of an ancient working known as Golden Parlor Mine. There are two adjoining shafts still to be seen which were extended to a depth of twelve or fifteen feet. From the shafts, galleries or drifts led to the west a good many feet. “

-“In one of the shafts the present superintendent of the cemetery, Fred F. Bowen, found quite a nugget of copper and also the remains of one of the ancient iron hammers, probably used by the workmen in the olden days. “

-“There is a tradition that a cargo of ore was shipped to England and the vessel was lost at sea and the owners were so discouraged by this misfortune that the mines were abandoned…”

Could this have been the same ship that Samuel Higley (see previous post) lost his life on in 1737!

-“Dr. Hough was at work at the mines on his side of the hill 18 years later. At this time he was living in Haddam and the farm was the homestead of his son, William Hough, Jr., the blacksmith. On March 21, 1755, the son mortgaged the farm to his father and this clause occurs in the deed: “The condition of the above obligation is such that if the above William Hough shall allow his said father free liberty at the mines on the west end of his home lot to dig for ore as he shall see fit, and shall have liberty to cut timber for the use of the mines or digging drains or whatever shall be needful for carrying on the work, and shall have liberty to pass to said mines, on the south side of his home lot, from the highway, to the mines for carting,” etc., etc…”

-“On Nov. 29th, 1757 Katharine [Whittlesey] bought of the heirs of Timothy Roys all right to the mines and minerals that had formerly been leased to the Golden Parlor Mining Co., and on December 4th following she bought of Timothy, Jr., 18 acres, which contained the mines in question. What she did with the property there is no record left to tell us.”

With a little searching we were able to find one of the shallow shafts. However it was filled with modern trash and the drifts (tunnels) mentioned above could not be found.

We then drove about 15 minutes east to find the Gaylord Copper prospect. Here is what we know about it:

  • “About 1710, John Parker Dug Two Trenches About 50 Feet Long, 15 Feet Wide and Deep Across Contact of Diabase and Sandstone.”

We hiked along the ridge and soon found these prospect pits. I was surprised to find the top of a purple color, hand-blown glass bottle and a small pointed chisel.

We then walked across the street to find the Cross Rock Mine. Here is what we know about it:

-“The original discovery of copper minerals in southern Connecticut was made about 1710 near the intersection of the crossed dikes of Chesire, which were referred to in early land records as the ‘cross rock’.”

Here we found a small shaft and a large depression that may be a badly eroded shaft.

Overall it was a very successful day!

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The Roxbury Iron Mine

The Roxbury Mine was one of the largest iron mines in the state of CT. This would be a perfect mine to investigate for our film: Mines and Mysteries. For several months we tried to get permission to document the mine but time and time again we were were denied. This is because the mine is now the state’s largest bat hibernaculum and categorically off limits to visitors. Could there be overlooked parts of the mine or forgotten adits? The mine was first worked for silver starting in 1750 by Moses Hurlbut and Abel Hawley. Could any of these small scale workings still exist far of the beaten path to the mine?

Marc and I just happened to receive the lead we were hoping for! John Pawloski, curator of the Connecticut Museum of Mining and Mineral Science, mentioned to us that there is an adit (horizontal mine entrance) far from the main mine that we may want to check out. We jumped in the Land Rover and and headed out.

The wooded hills of Roxbury feel almost primeval, rock ledges rise out of vernal pools and everywhere Hemlocks and Mountain Laurel shroud the work of those who sought to profit from this land. After scouring the woods for about an hour an almost completely obscured adit was found. Could this adit have been one of Hurlbut and Hawleys original excavations for silver? We explored the tunnel but found no traces of silver or iron.

We did however prove one thing- no matter how well you think you know a place never assume you have seen it all. We had been to Roxbury dozens of times studying the external mine workings and ruins and walking the woods. Finding this adit came as a complete surprise. History certainly has an interesting way of revealing itself when and where you least expect it!

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Exploring a Flooded Mine with an ROV

Imagine going back in time to a specific time and place and seeing that moment in history frozen in time. A scene of daily life that, at the time would have seemed very ordinary, but could today teach us much about the past. What would this scene look like? What tools and objects of daily life would be left? On July 28th we set out to explore the Croft Iron Mine in Putnam County, NY. This mine produced Magnetite ore from 1834- 1881. The miners excavated the vein or iron ore deep underground until one day they were told not to come into work because the mine had shut down. The pumps were shut off and the mine soon flooded with ground water.

Marc and I met up with Michael Girard from the New England Explorers. We plan to to reveal an underwater scene from the past with technology that the original miners could have only dreamed of: an underwater ROV. We caught a ride to the mine in the back of the land owner's pickup truck and roped down about 100’ into the mine. We entered the main haulage tunnel where rusted tracks can still be seen. The tunnel brought us to a series of deep flooded excavations where crude wooden ladders lead deep into a ghostly underwater world.

I set up the camera and tripod and Michael prepped the ROV. Marc and Nick inflated a raft to deploy the ROV from. Soon the ROV was on its descent down into the deep blue-green water. It wasn’t long before Michael began to have communication problems with the ROV. It then became snagged on a rock and had to be pulled up. The next attempt went well and revealed rusty iron artifacts at the bottom of the water. I was hard to make out just what it was but it could have been a storage box or chest surrounded with metal reinforcing straps. We again had issues with the ROV so it was brought back up. It was then that we realized that we had gone down deeper than the Go Pro camera and LED lights were rated for and both had failed.

We hope to return for a second attempt with a new and better ROV. It is hard to shake the sense of anticipation knowing that there are artifacts just waiting for us to discover. All we need now is the technology to do so!

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The First Ironworks in America

While researching the mining exploits of John Winthrop Jr. for our upcoming mines and mysteries documentary I learned of a blast furnace he constructed in Saugus, Massachusetts in the mid 1600s. Today there is a reproduction blast furnace built just like the original, so I took a trip up to the Saugus Ironworks to see how iron was made in the 1600s.

in 1642 Winthrop formed an investment group called the Company of Undertakers of the Ironworks in New England. This was one of the first major industrial investments in the colonies. He picked a great site for the project near the Saugus river, an ideal shipping route to bring in the raw materials to build his furnace and for shipping his iron to market. Although the ironworks proved successful at first it did not produce the profits that the investors hoped for and by 1670 it was shut down and soon lost to history. That is until 1950 when archeologist Roland Robbins began excavating the site. Amazingly preserved artifacts were recovered including the original 500 pound trip hammer and even a huge oak anvil base. These artifacts were crucial in understanding how iron was produced here in the 1600s.

Just outside the reconstructed blast furnace, iron was being cast, although on a slightly smaller scale than in Winthrop’s time. Using a modern furnace, present day iron workers melted iron and poured it into a special mould made of sand. I can just image Winthrop anxiously observing a similar sight when iron first freely flowed from his blast furnace. And with that first stream of molten iron, industrial America was born. This land was a blank canvas for one of the most industrious men in early American history. He had all the raw materials of a new continent at his disposal and he certainly wasted no time in putting them to good use!

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The First Copper Coins Minted in America

In 1737 Samuel Higley minted copper coins in Simsbury, connecticut. His Higley Coppers as they are known today were the first copper coins minted in the colonies. As legend has it Higley would use his coins to pay for a drink at the local tavern. The tavern keeper eventually grew weary of accepting his homemade coins.

I need to recreate this scene for our upcoming documentary, Mines and Mysteries so we set my house up to look like a colonial tavern. Marc gets in character as Samuel Higley and Miner Mike as the tavern keeper. The scene is set!

Samuel Higley walks in to the tavern ready to purchase a drink with his newly minted currency. We elected to use a good strong ale as Higley’s drink. The shoot gets off to a rocky start, we do take after take to get it just right as our supply of beer dwindles. The shoot ends up being a huge success and we get all the scenes we need for the documentary!

Samuel Highey has gone down in history as the first to mint copper coins in the colonies. Higley died shortly after he began minting his coins aboard a ship bound for England loaded with copper ore from the colonies. Even after his death his famous coins continued to be made by a mysterious minter until 1739. Today original examples of his coins are highly sought after with some examples bringing over $100,000 at auction. If only Higley could see what his coins are worth today I think he would be proud!

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Expedition Background

When I imagine America during the industrial revolution, I imagine billowing smoke stacks, clattering steam engines, locomotives speeding across the landscape. It was a fascinating time, an age of invention, manufacturing and metals. But I’ve always wondered how did a land founded by Puritan agriculturists go on to become a manufacturing superpower? How did this transformation take place? I began to look deep into this question. I researched the explorers who sought gold and silver in remote lands, settlers who prospected for useful minerals and businessmen who gambled their personal wealth on risky ventures. I realized that it was the toil and hardships wrought by these visionary men, coupled with the presence of accessible ore reserves that helped set the stage for success during the industrial revolution. I also realized that this is a story that is worth telling. Today, many of the sites where these stories took place have been forgotten and reclaimed by nature. It is my goal to launch an expedition to find these places and document them in a film called Legacies of Toil and Stone. I hope to explore sites like Frobisher’s mines on Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic, and forgotten colonial copper mines hidden just beneath our feet in rural Connecticut. My goal is to go where no person has tread in possibly hundreds of years to gain valuable insights into not just history and geology The expedition will use 21st century technology to explore and document these historically important places.


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