The lucrative, largely forgotten history of copper mining in Vermont
About a mile past the general store in West Fairlee is a nondescript stretch of woods. There, a dirt road leads up a forested hillside.
“If you drive along that road now, you'd never know that there was anything there,” said Susan Bibeau. She's an amateur historian who lives a couple miles away.
“In the woods, there's remnants of the foundations of houses," she said. "But otherwise, you wouldn't know.”
Bibeau started looking into this history when she bought her house in 1989. She got really into it— eventually earning a master’s degree at Dartmouth College.
In this spot there was a whole village: Two churches, two drug stores, a hardware store. There was a doctor's office, a post office, and a jeweler. A butcher, a bank, a barbershop, and a candy store.
“They even had a big building that held an auditorium,” Bibeau said. “They would bring in entertainers. I mean, no question, this was a boom town that went bust.”
The Ely copper mine employed nearly 900 people here in the late 1800s. Kids as young as 10 would go to work in the mines during the day, then attend school at night, in a two-story schoolhouse.
The mine here was one of several copper minesalong a 30-mile stretch of Vermont’s Orange County. Nearly 150 million pounds of copper were pulled out of these hills over the course of a century.
"No question, this was a boom town that went bust."Susan Bibeau, West Fairlee
Most of that labor was done by immigrants from places like the U.K. and Ireland, according to census records from the 1800 and early 1900s.
“They all came over because the mines that they had been working in, in Cornwall and Wales, started to fail,” Bibeau said. “They had to continue to migrate to where mines were prosperous.”
One of those workers was Pearly Magoon, whose family migrated from Scotland. He worked at a mine in Corinth in the early 1900s.
“He did something with the horses,” said his grandson, Gary Magoon. “Apparently they had to haul the ore carts out of the mine. There was a place where the horses would stay, and they’d actually walk in and walk out of the entrance to the mine.”
Mining was dangerous, dirty work. Men labored in 10- or 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.
Miners worked by lamplight, blasting rock hundreds of feet underground. Several died in cave-ins and from other accidents.
“They worked on a buddy system,” Bibeau said. “You weren't allowed down there just by yourself because it was just too dangerous.”
Above ground, workers operated heavy machinery to crush the rock. Others fed the mineral into massive coal-fired furnaces to extract the copper.
The stench was awful. Fumes that smelled of sulfur were "suffocating at times,” according to a letter from 1882. The smoke killed nearly all the vegetation for a mile around. Farmers in the area sued the Ely Mine after their crops kept dying.
Around this time, activity at the mines slowed. Copper prices fell and new, more productive mines opened further west.
In the 1880s, the Ely Mine couldn’t afford payroll for months. So the workers went on strike and threatened to ransack the town. It was a big deal. Vermont’s governor called in the National Guard. The news made theNew York Times.
“They were afraid it was gonna erupt in all kinds of violence and destruction of property,” Bibeau said. “That never happened. Instead, they all got drunk.”
In the years after, mining activity in the area continued in fits and starts, but nowhere near at the scale it once was.
That's until the 1940s, when World War II spurred more demand for copper. A mine in south Strafford — the Elizabeth Mine — reopened for several years.
One of the miners there was Frank Godfrey. He started in 1955, when he was in his early 20s. He spoke with Bibeau at his home in Fairlee in 2010 about what it was like in the mines.
“There was a draft coming through all the time. And damp.” he said. “You didn’t have five minutes that your clothes weren’t damp, your overalls and underwear and everything, but you kept going.”
"I just wanted to make everybody aware of – that this existed and that these people existed here."Susan Bibeau, Fairlee
Godfrey, and all the workers Bibeau interviewed, have since died.
Most of the other miners who came before them, and their families, had left Orange County decades before.
Many moved west to mines in Colorado and California. Some went as far as Mexico and South Africa. For others, though, it's hard to know what happened. For Bibeau, it's almost like they were never here.
“It's sad, which is probably one of the reasons why I was so intent on getting the story out," she said. "I just wanted to make everybody aware of — that this existed and that these people existed here."
All that’s left of the copper mines now are the old, crumbling shafts, hidden in the woods.
And the mining waste — huge mounds of toxic, orange dirt the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to clean up.
Those, finally, could be gone as soon as the end of the decade.
Video by Kyle Ambusk.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.