Underneath The Ground

Vermont’s visage is one of scenic mountains and an eye magnetic lack of industry, which makes the state a notable contrast from its neighbors. But a few decades ago, our Green Mountains were combed with industry that depended on the state’s naturally occurring topography and it’s profitable innards. Many of the state’s rural areas have once been cannibalized for their precious commodities that lay underneath the ground, and if you look below the surface, many small communities still bear the scars from irresponsible practices and their related pollution.

No one is quite sure how copper was discovered in Vermont, but according to hazy hear say, it’s inception to the state economy was pretty much circumstantial. Legend says that farmers and land owners in what’s now Orange County began noticing the indicatory rusty discoloration in snow drifts on their properties while out tapping Maple trees or out while fox hunting towards the late 1700s. That discovery ensured that a few decades later, businessmen were compelled to begin mining for copper in Vermont’s newly emerging copper “belt”. Though the boom was contained in a pretty small area limited to southern Orange County, its mines became fabled for a brief time for their voluminous outputs that took insufferable work to tease out, one of them becoming the largest copper producing mine in America for a brief time.

Vermont’s copper belt, in Orange County | USGS

Vershire’s Ely Mine was said to have a more intriguing discovery. It was said that as early as the late 1700s, inconspicuous trails of sulphury smoke and fireballs were seen over the forests of John Richardson’s farm on Dwight Hill in Vershire. But it wasn’t until after a rainstorm in 1812 that would clear up any speculation, when his daughter Becky stepped on and sunk up to her knee in a mound that looked like a “burnt outcropping” while walking the property. Realizing she was stuck fast, she began to holler for help. When she was pulled out, her leg was found coated in an orange mud and the hole filled with an odorous sulphury mess.

Encouraged by this colorful evidence, in 1820, a group of local farmers got together and formed The Farmers Company and began purchasing mineral rights in the area in order to produce copperas. By 1833, the aforementioned Richardson farm was surveyed by an Issac Tyson, described as “probably the leading industrial chemist of the day”. Tyson was the first to attempt drilling at what would be known as the Ely mine. Around 1833, he started boring an adit (a horizontal tunnel) to intersect the vein from the southern side of the hill, but two years later and ninety-four feet without striking ore, Tyson’s partners lost faith in the project (possibly influenced by the financial panic of 1834) and pulled out despite Tyson’s protests.

But by now, the tantalizing word that copper was underneath Vermont’s hills was out, and more people wanted in. In 1854, The Vermont Copper Mining Company was created and immediately picked up where Tyson left off. They purchased the property for $1,000 and ironically, they only needed to dig an additional four feet in Tyson’s discontinued adit to strike the vein he was looking for.

One of the original investors in the mine was a New Yorker named Smith Ely, who would eventually take control over the mine and company after the civil war, which produced a huge demand for copper. With a new national ban on foreign copper, the need for domestic production stirred an uproar. Under Ely’s leadership, the mine that now wore his last name became a significant operation and would grow to become the largest copper mine in the United States for a time, reaching a peak employment by November 1881 – of 851 curious and voracious miners.

Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. | UVM Landscape Change Program

Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. Cornish miners specifically had a reputation for being rough, rowdy and reckless, which made them sought after employees for many American construction feats. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. I especially enjoy the miners hanging out the second story windows. | UVM Landscape Change Program

A group of men wearing long pants and shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. | UVM Landscape Change Program

A group of men wearing long pants and long shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. Conditions were dangerous. Old records tell of miners packing their ears with cotton to prevent themselves from going death from the loud noises of the drilling. There was no workplace safety protocols and no protection, so miners often had to think creatively when they were concerned with prognostics. The men who were employed in the industry were often just as tough as the harsh environment they worked in. Some old timers who actually recall the copper mines stoically allude to just how obscene they were, described as the sort of place where a man did what he had to do.| UVM Landscape Change Program

A group of men deep down in what they called "The Back Stopes", or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. | UVM Landscape Change Program

This compelling photo shows a group of men deep down in what they called “The Back Stopes”, or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. It definitely takes someone with a particular cast of mind to labor in conditions like this | UVM Landscape Change Program

This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program

This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program

This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which is most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program

This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which was most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program

A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides dumped with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation.

A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one that would eventually be made of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides melding with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation. |UVM Landscape Change Program

The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it's name to Ely in 1878, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine fell on financial troubles it would never recover from.

The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it’s name to Ely in 1878 because of the huge financial success of the mine, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine began to spiral into bankruptcy. Not to be confused with the village of Ely, where the copper was loaded into trains and shipped to Boston. It still retains it’s name today and can be found at the junction of VT 244 at Route 5 in Fairlee, though now days it’s little more than a few old farmhouses near some railroad tracks. | UVM Landscape Change Program

In 1876, Smith Ely’s grandson Ely Goddard would take over the mine. His first act of business was to change his last name to Ely-Goddard in honor of his grandfather. His next act would be to  make himself more at home, by constructing himself a lavish vanity project in the middle of the village; a mansion which he named Elysium (pictured in the photo above, the white building with the central copula), a reference to the ancient Greek concept of the afterlife, and perhaps demonstrating some of his exaggerated swagger with a play on his last name. The mansion was regarded as one of the finest feats of architecture in otherwise hardscrabble orange county, and soon became a place where grand parties would be held where Ely-Goddard’s rich friends from New York, Newport RI and as far away as Paris would come and have nights of debauchery while the miners whose dwellings encircled the mansion enclave were close to starving.

The Ely’s entrepreneurial spirit earned them some lauded accolades in the Green Mountains, including Ely-Goddard being elected to the house of representatives in 1878, and the company lawyer Roswell Farnum being elected governor in 1880, which was no doubt a period that was very kind to the mining industry. Or maybe I’m just being cynical.

The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds, giving off sulfur fumes, and was then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick. A chimney flue ran up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far away. A contemporary description says that "the country around the village is ... completely destitute of vegetation....For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds." (To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.)| UVM Landscape Change Program

The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds that gave off vile sulfur fumes and then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick (the long rectangular building pictured above). Tall brick chimneys were built up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far enough, as most of the smoke pretty much permeated around the slopes and the village, creating acid rain which decimated the landscape around the mine. A written historical account of the pollution I was able to dig up says that “the country around the village is … completely destitute of vegetation….For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds.” To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.| UVM Landscape Change Program

This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a wasteland of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program

This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a fetid place of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program

A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900, after the mine's abandonment. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program

A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900. Eventually, they built buildings on top of the huge tailings piles because they grew so large. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program

But having an upper hand in politics couldn’t save the mines against more profitable opportunities out west. As a result, the price of copper began to fall as domestic supplies increased. Mining in Vermont was hard. The deposit veins produced little copper that required more work than payoff to access, and most mines were far away from convenient transportation corridors. In 1881, Smith Ely sold his shares in the mind to Ely-Goddard and the newly in the picture Francis Cazin, a German engineer who planned on saving the mine by profusely dumping money into it. But it didn’t work, and Ely-Goddard blamed and fired Cazin, who sued the company in retribution.

On June 29th, 1883, all the bad financial investments and a newly emerging series of lawsuits caught up with the company. By now, the Ely mine boasted the largest copper mining shaft dug in Vermont, unconfidently considered to be anywhere between 3,400 feet, to 4,000 feet deep. For a comparison, our largest mountain, Mount Mansfield, is 4,395 feet. But despite the efforts, only about 3% of what miners were carving out was actually marketable copper, and the cost of operations, such as hoisting apparatuses, pumps that kept the shafts from flooding and the tons of wood needed to burn to keep the smelting processes going, had drained their bank account.

Their solution was posting a sign telling miners that the mines would be closed until they agreed to take a pay cut, which of course didn’t go over so well. The miners who had already gone two months without pay, revolted in what is sometimes called The Ely War, which is both considered the most important instance of labor unrest in Vermont and to my surprise, almost never talked about. Having already worked for months without paychecks, the miners had reached their limits of toleration and went on strike. They raided the company store, started destroying company buildings in the village, acted without foresight and broke the pumps that kept the shafts from flooding to make the mines unprofitable for the owners, and stole all the gunpowder and threatened to do further extensive damage with it if they didn’t get their pay.

To add insurance, they all marched to Smith Ely’s house in West Fairlee chanting “bread or blood!” The startled Ely, who was desperate to get the angry mob off his lawn, assured them that they would all get paid. But instead, he sent out a distressful telegram to governor Barstow and the national guard was deployed to arrest the rioters.

The militia marched into Copperfield underneath the stars, found the strike leaders and arrested them in their beds. As the sun rose above the martian landscape around the mines and the other miners awoke from their beds, they saw their strike leaders indignantly being marched down the main drag in irons. The so-called Ely War was over. Another interesting account I found online told of a different, more earnest story.

On the morning of July 6th, 184 members of the national guard marched into Copperfield expecting to find an unruly mob of miners waiting for them but instead found eerily quite buildings built upon slag pile debris. The miners, who were waking up by then, noticed the national guard soldiers walking around town, and went out to converse with them. After telling them their grievances, the national guard sympathized instead of incarcerated, and gave the miners all their food rations before getting back on the train.

As these stories often end, the miners were never compensated, and the company went bankrupt by 1888 because ironically, they weren’t able to meet their obligations because of all the damning facts pointing  to the company’s inevitable death. And, the mines were now underwater.

Because the mine was now virtually useless, it changed ownership a few times with hopes of re-opening before becoming permanently defunct by 1920. Elysium was sold for $155 and moved to Lake Fairlee, which can still be seen today off state route 244, and the Copperfield Methodist church can now be seen in tiny Vershire village off state route 113, while the rest of the buildings became forsaken and slowly disintegrated to dust.

This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it's abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands. | UVM Landscape Change Program.

Some urban exploring far before my time! This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it’s abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands, regardless of glassless windows, slumping roof and walls that were more hole than wall. | UVM Landscape Change Program.

An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program

An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program

My friend Eric, a close friend from my college days, grew up in West Fairlee down the road from the Ely mine, which is how I found out about the place to begin with. So in the dying days of 2015, as the temperature dropped precipitously, we set out in his Subaru to go walk around his old high school stomping grounds.

Driving down state route 113 with Montreal’s Stars playing softly from his iPod, we entered tiny Vershire, a name that’s an agglomeration of Vermont and New Hampshire, and is either pronounced “Ver-shur” or “Ver-sheer”, depending on who you are. It seems like it’s a trivial bone of contention between Vershire-ites. After the closer of the Ely mines, Vershire lost scores of its population until it dwindled to just 236 inhabitants in 1960, making it the smallest town in already low populated Orange County. According to the 2010 census, the population has since grown to 730.

Off the town’s main drag, which is the destitute state route 113, there is an easy to miss intersection with an evocatively incongruous name; Brimestone Corner. While I’m not sure of the story behind this curious name, I have my own theory. There are plenty of locales in Vermont named after the Christian personification of evil, such as Satan’s Kingdom on Lake Dunsmore, and Devil’s Den in Mount Tabor, to name a few. Superstitious settlers gave the suggestive geography their names years ago, when remote and rough patches of wilderness were foreboding, shadowy and full of rocks which made farming almost impossible. It seemed to make sense to them that the Devil himself called these places home. However Brimstone Corner got its name, I love the fact that it still appears on modern day map engines like Google.

Brimstone Corner

Google Maps.

I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont's copper belt is little more than a ghost, it's residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like "Copperas Brook" and "Copper Flats" near South Strafford are a testament to what created the region.

I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont’s copper belt is little more than a ghost, it’s residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like “Copperas Brook” and “Copper Flats” near the Elizabeth Mine Superfund Site in South Strafford are a testament to what created and later haunted the region. | Google Maps.

Death often ends a story, but in the cases of some forsaken places, they can also extend a bit in their celebrity. I’ve covered a few of them in this blog, and the Ely mine would fit right in I’d say. Exploring the historical oddity with Eric also meant that I got some of the inside details of it’s strange and seemingly nefarious local lore that has more or less simultaneously garnered such a reputation and earned it some infamy with area youth, curious visitors and allegedly bad dudes that aren’t necessarily connected to the mafia.

There’s a corollary in the world of abandoned mines that the empty real estate is a great place for humanity’s more ghastly truths. Apparently sometime in the early 2000s, vicinity pets began to go missing, mostly dogs. Eventually, curious visitors to the mine found several decomposing dog corpses stashed within Ely’s dank mine tunnels. Later, the pieces would be put together and it appeared that local boys had been kidnapping and killing their canine victims. I also heard that human remains have been found underneath Dwight Hill as well, but I’m not completely sure of the veracity of both these tales.

In keeping with both traditions of mine shafts being a desirable place to dump unwanted variables or pesky things that could be considered evidence and sometimes buried secrets are difficult to keep buried, there was a local man who made good profit a decade or so ago, by kindly offering to dispose of rural Vermont’s endless junked tire population. Only, he was just dumping them at Ely, which was already considered a Superfund site that the time, and was somehow caught and penalized. A huge mound of tires still sits towards the upper part of the property that ring a beaver dam below a steep birch tree clumped ridge line. That part of the mine was eerily quiet, the only sound was our boots clomping through deceptive ground that was more mud than ground, the unmistakable odor of sulphury perfume inhaled by my nose that doesn’t belie the truth of the matter here.

Eric also recalls the plight of schoolhouse brook which formed the line diminishing edge of his backyard, and how he recalls fish swimming in its shallow waters as a kid, but as he grew and the river grew shades murkier, lifeforms were reduced significantly.

There was a strange beauty to the landscape though that also helped to establish the aura of mystery that tends to surround these sites. The ruins at Ely are a simple yet compelling depiction of our collective history here, a testimony to both prowess and irresponsibility. Not much remains at all of it’s legacy here because of a massive cleanup initiated in 2011, which I couldn’t help be a bit disappointed by, but in the end, there is something about these old mines and their stories that yield an irresistible intrigue to me. Oddly enough, I read that the property is also eligible to be inducted on the national register of historic places, but I’m a little lost as to what that distinction would actually do for the property.

Observing the beaver dam, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was around when the mines were active, or more of a recent addition after the chaotic operations became ghosts. Beaver dams are built to last by design, which makes them historical landmarks, and there are plenty of still existing ones that have actually predated many of our settlements.

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The mine’s presence in the area was immediate from the road. The former smelter area is a stained, stony wasteland of yellow colored gravel and stone foundations encroached by brush.

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With the November winds battering us in a spiteful fashion, we set out onto the huge property. A packed class D forest road lead us from the roadside up the hill towards the mine, passing a literal garbage dump along the way, containing everything from an old stove, literal hills of glass bottles, an old truck, and a gamut of relics from twinkie wrappers to empty boxes of bullets.

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This sludgy waterway of rust is called Ely Brook, which runs through the property and brings all of the waste into other area rivers. The EPA proclaims that acid mine drainage is the primary cause of pollution here, or, the outflow of acidic water laced with high metal concentrations from both within the mines and the large waste dump piles. The tailings on the property are rich in metals and sulfides. As water passes over and through the tailings, sulfuric acid is produced and the metals within the tailings are dissolved and mobilized.  In 2001, the Vershire wasteland got it’s designation as a Superfund site, which meant federal dollars went into cleaning it up. Or, more realistically, attempting to keep the place in a state of arrested progression, making sure it can’t pollute the area environment anymore than it already has. Cleanups began in September of 2011.

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The brawny stone walls of the former ore roast bed site still stand, despite the intrusion of new growth trees through it.

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According to the EPA, there was about 100,000 tons of tailings and slag piles left on the property. Though cleanup has gotten rid of the stuff nearest the road, towards the back of the property is still filled with gigantic dunes covered with mangy looking birch trees, the only arboreal growth that will take root here.

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According to a battered tin sign spayed with bullet holes near the road, The Ely Gun Club calls the shots for the huge property today, which allows hunters and gun enthusiasts to enjoy the property, which is practically the only thing you can do on it. We found much evidence of this on top of one of the tailings piles.

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From the top of one of the domineering tailings piles, we were treated to some great views of Vermont’s low profile hills, and in the distance, the gray saw tooth edged forms of New Hampshire’s brawny White Mountains.

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Some old foundations could still be detected amongst the birch trees and tall weeds.

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At first, we thought this stone-lined hole in the ground was an old well, but now I’m not so sure once I discovered that below the water’s surface, there were dark subterranean passageways that lead back beyond a discernible line of sight.

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The Ely mine shafts are dangerous and unpredictable. With so little experience, I opted against going that far inside. At least until I can head back with an experienced tour guide.

Though I didn’t cover the Elizabeth Mine in this blog entry because it’s already lengthy enough, it’s very much worth noting. It holds the distinction of being the oldest running copper mine in Vermont, running for 150 years before following the trend of Vermont’s other mines and closing for good in 1958. The property was also inaugurated into the Superfund family of sites, and underwent a massive clean up in 2010. But because of the mine’s unique historical status, parts of it have been left alone. Such as the mineshafts. Why? Because according to someone who wrote to me, this is the mine that supplied the northern/union army with copper during the civil war, which in itself is very cool.

Not much of anything remains of the Elizabeth, apart for a uniform green state historic marker on aptly named mine road in tiny South Strafford and a few uninteresting but politely demolished foundations. But it’s the colossal open cut mines, dubbed to the point as the north and south cuts, that still remain on the property that are worth the surprisingly steep and deceptive hike up scrapped rock faces where former tailings piles were left, to the edge to gaze down at these huge and dangerous big digs of showmanship. The south cut is known by cavers as quite the challenging adrenaline rush, and the north cut which is a more eroded copy of the south cut, is flooded and draws cliff jumpers and people looking for a place to cool off during the summer.

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The south cut and it’s adits in the winter of 2016, covered with layers of dangerous ice.

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Sources/For More Information

Lots of research materials went into writing this piece, including:

EPA Superfund Ely Mine Site | EPA PDF booklet on the Ely Mine, which features both a handy map of the site as well as a map that illustrates how the acid drainage runoff effects the area watersheds.

http://www.usgennet.org/usa/vt/county/orange/vershire/

A short history of the Ely Mine by Paul Donavan

The Ely War, VPR | The Ely War, Virtual Vermont Internet Magazine

The blog, Vermont Deadline, which I just pleasantly discovered.

Paul Donavan, a Vermont mine enthusiast,  has a very cool website that includes his photographs of his ventures into the mines, as well as a great drawn map of Ely mine’s subterranean passageways. This gave me a good idea of the lay of the land. **I’d especially recommend my favorite of his photos, a set of slimy and disused rails still can be found underground in the Ely mines.

UVM Landscape Change Program, which is becoming one of my go-to sites for historical photographs and Vermont history.

I was very interested in exactly how copper was made, and got a good amount of information from this site

For other copper or Vermont enthusiasts like myself, you might enjoy this good documentary on copper mining in Vermont:

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