Expo presents history of Vermont’s copper mines

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(Host) An old railhead on the Connecticut River in Fairlee still bears the name of Ely, but the nearby mining town with the same name is long gone. Its history isn’t, though, and the days of the copper industry will come to life again at the annual History Expo this weekend.

VPR’s Steve Zind examines the story behind one of the many historical society exhibits:

(Zind) In the early 1800s, a young girl walking on her family farm came upon a spot where the earth was pushed up. The ground underneath smelled of sulfur. Soon the farm was no more. In it’s place stood a bustling copper mine and a thriving village named for one of the mine’s owners.

Fifteen-hundred people once lived in Ely, Vermont. For them, the mine was both a livelihood and a curse. It produced hundreds of jobs. It also produced of clouds of sulfur fumes. Long, ten-foot high banks of ore were burned for months to remove impurities.

Roger Bailey of the West Fairlee Historical Society says Ely was the only mining town in the East to be located practically on top of the mine.

(Bailey) “There was a doctor that lived in West Fairlee by the name of John Goodrich Henry and he writes in letters that he sent to his fiancee between 1881 and 1883, and he talks about how bad the odor was.”

(Zind) Bailey says the sulfur from the mine contaminated the ground all around Ely. Residents had to bring in food because they could no longer grow their own. People came from as far away as the British Isles to work at the Ely mine.

(Bailey) “They came from Ireland and Cornwall. And these were very experienced miners, these were itinerant miners. And after the mine closed down, they went someplace else.”

(Zind) In the early 1900s, the mine closed. Bailey says all that remains of the village and the mine are overgrown cellar holes and tailings in the woods of Vershire.

Ely was one of three copper mines that once operated in Vermont. The Elizabeth Mine was the largest and the last to close. A vertical shaft descended 1,000 feet at the South Strafford mine. At the bottom, miners hollowed out a cavern 200 feet high and a mile and a half long.

Stuart Bacon and Larry O’Donnell worked at the Elizabeth mine in the 1950s. Their reminiscences are sprinkled with talk of mucking machines, grizzlies, powder monkeys, nippers, drifts, and jacklegs. Two hundred people worked three shifts at the mine until it closed in 1958.

(Bacon) “It was a hell of a gang, you know. It was like brothers. They were just like brothers, all of them.”
(O’Donnell) “Very seldom did you have any animosity between the miners.”

(Zind) Bacon and O’Donnell remember a number of accidents and one death during their time in the mine. The work was wet, dark and dirty. It wasn’t for everyone.

(O’Donnell) “People weren’t standing in line to go to work in the mines because most of them didn’t understand what it was all about and they didn’t like the idea of being underground.”

(Zind) O’Donnell says if he was younger and the mine was still open, he’d work there still. Bacon agrees.

(Bacon) “I liked it, actually. They say once a miner, always a miner.” (Laughs.)

(Zind) Six towns are collaborating in a presentation about the Orange County copper mining district this weekend at the Vermont History Expo at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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