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The lucrative, largely forgotten history of copper mining in Vermont

An old timey photo of a village center surrounded by largely deforested hills. At least a dozen buildings are visible.
Special Collections, Bailey/Howe Library, colorized by Kyle Ambusk
/
University of Vermont
There was a booming village in the town of Vershire in the late 1800s. It had several churches, drug stores, a hardware store, a doctor's office, a post office, and a jeweler. Nothing of the village remains at that site, besides a small cemetery and crumbling foundations in the woods.

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.”

Read Part 1 of this series: The last of Vermont’s abandoned copper mines are finally slated for clean up

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

Five miners all wearing vests, ties, jackets and hats. They sit on the floor of the mine, behind them there is a wall that is covered in a white layer.
Collamer Abbott Collection, Colorized by Kyle Ambusk
/
University of Vermont Archives
The Ely copper mine in Vershire employed nearly 900 people in the late 1800s. Many were immigrants from Ireland and the U.K.

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.”

Abagael Giles, Kyle Ambusk
/
Vermont Public
Some remnants of the Ely Mine are still visible along the roadside and in the woods.
A crumbling brick foundation is visible in the woods, surrounded by yellow leaves.
Kyle Ambusk
/
Vermont Public
A crumbling foundation in the woods of Vershire, where the village of Ely once stood with over 150 buildings.

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.

A black and white photograph shows a man sitting inside a big factory.
Collamer Abbott Collection
/
University of Vermont
The smell of sulfur was said to be suffocating at times. The fumes killed nearly all the vegetation for a mile around. This photo shows a blast furnace under construction at the Elizabeth mine in Strafford around 1907.

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.”

A woman sits at a table, holding papers in front of a computer
Lexi Krupp
/
Vermont Public
Susan Bibeau started looking into the history of the Vermont copper mines when she moved to West Fairlee in 1989, only a few miles from the Ely Mine.
Two old maps sit on a table. A woman's hand is touching one of them.
Lexi Krupp
/
Vermont Public
A map from 1876 shows the Ely mine and village.

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.

A man in a yellow vest stands on the top of a ridge looking down on mountains in fall.
Abagael Giles
/
Vermont Public
EPA officials have said clean up work at the Ely mine is supposed to begin later this spring. The mine was declared a Superfund site in 2001 because of the mining waste leaching acid runoff and heavy metals into surrounding streams.

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.

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Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.