From a Thomas Edison invention to the solving of a 50-year mystery, local mines are rich with stories
By James Kelly and Michael Turton
James Kelly lives in Garrison and grew up near Manitou, the area where, in the 1800s, the Highland Chemical Works produced sulfuric acid from iron pyrite mined at the Philipse Pyrite Mine at Anthony’s Nose. Kelly has been exploring area mines since he was 12. Last fall he and Michael Turton hiked down Sunken Mine Road in Putnam Valley and explored some of the remnants of what was once a booming mining industry. This story is a result of that hike.
Remnants of the past
Hikers who trek the trails throughout Philipstown and Putnam Valley often come across clues to the area’s rich history. It may be a rock wall deep in the woods that once marked the edge of a farm field or a partially damned stream that reveals a former mill site. In the 18th and 19th centuries, mining thrived here, and the remnants of that once vital industry are also still visible in the form of giant caverns blasted in the rock, rusted equipment, huge piles of tailings or an abandoned rail bed.
Although agriculture was the predominant business in western Putnam County until the early 20th century, the rocky soil and mountainous terrain were far from ideal farming conditions. The best farmland lay to the north, in Dutchess County, and to the south, in Westchester.
Native peoples and early European settlers knew that the mountains contained mineral wealth. Settlers hoped to find gold and silver. There are many stories of silver, gold and copper mines being opened. Unscrupulous sellers with claims that their lands contained precious metals duped hopeful prospectors into buying worthless properties. These legends have persisted, although precious metals have never been found in paying quantities in western Putnam County. But what was discovered was practical: iron, arsenic, sulfur, graphite, emery and lead were all mined or prospected for here.
Early mines & the Philipse legacy
The earliest records of exploration for minerals date from the 1730s. In 1756, Beverly Robinson granted permission to Jacobus Boss and John Burnett to “dig and search for mines for 21 years.” The arrangement required payment “for the first year, two fowl;” for the next 10, “one quarter of the ore;” and for the following nine years, “one third of the ore, to be delivered at the docks in Cold Spring.”
The Philipse family, for whom Philipstown is named, was granted mineral rights in the area in perpetuity by England’s King William III. A legal dispute over ownership of the Hopper, or Canopus Hill Mine — the iron mine that in 1921 was the last to close in Putnam County — was significant because it established that the heirs of Philip Philipse were entitled to one third of the mineral rights in all of Putnam County – and still are today.
More than a dozen mines
The Reading Prong is a huge iron vein stretching from western Connecticut to Reading, Penn. It runs southwest through Putnam County from where Route 84 crosses the New York-Connecticut border to Peekskill Hollow and Anthony’s Nose. Most of the iron mines in our area were opened along that path. Running southwest from the Canopus Lake at present-day Fahnestock State Park, mines included the Canada, the Pelton Pond, the Philipse Ore Bed, the Sunk, the Hamilton, the Pratt, the Denny, the Coalgrove, the Gouverneur Kemble, the Canopus, the Croft, the Todd and the Philipse Pyrite — more than a dozen mines.
The Canada, Pelton Pond, Philipse and Sunk Mines, beginning at what is now the Fahnestock State Park boat rental on Canopus Lake and ending at Sunken Mine Road, are some of the oldest. Pelton Pond is noted as early as 1788. Most of the ore raised in these mines was taken by horse and cart on the Cold Spring Turnpike, now Route 301, to Cold Spring to be smelted at the West Point Iron Company’s blast furnace, located on what is now Dockside Park on Cold Spring’s riverfront.
Some of the ore was smelted at small bloomery forges, such as Joel Bunnell’s forge, in Bell Hollow on Canpous Creek. The hamlets of Odelltown and Dennytown sprung up around these mines. Schools, rooming houses, stores, a Methodist church and numerous buildings associated with the mining operations could be seen along Sunken Mine Road in the 19th century.
Forbes and high-quality ore
The West Point Iron Company (WPIC), in association with the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, processed ore from these mines from 1817 to 1874. Paul S. Forbes, whose relatives included railroad magnet J.M. Forbes and W.H. Forbes, president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and whose descendants include Sen. John Kerry, bought the mines from the WPIC on Sept. 22, 1864.
Forbes opened a narrow-gauge, horse-drawn railway that ran from the Sunk Mine to a point near where Dennytown Road and Route 301 now meet, then known as “Dump Hill.” After dumping their ore, the empty scows would return to Sunk Mine by gravity with the aid of a pry bar. From Dump Hill, the ore was taken by horse and cart to Cold Spring for smelting or shipping.
The ore was considered to be some of the best in the country; it was mostly 50-60 percent pure black magnetite. One ton of ore produced 1,000 pounds of pig iron. During the Civil War, many men and boys, mainly of Irish, Scottish and English heritage, worked in shifts around the clock to supply the West Point Foundry for the war effort.
In 1874, despite an economic panic the previous year that especially depressed railroads, banks and the iron industry, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company (PRCIC), the nation’s largest producer of anthracite coal, purchased the Canada, Sunk and Denny Mines. A narrow-gauge rail bed was laid between the Canada and Sunk Mines; however, it was never used and today is part of the Appalachian Trail. The Canada Mine closed in 1876, and the Sunk Mine operated sporadically until the mid-1880s. The discovery of highly accessible ore in Minnesota and Michigan sealed their fate.
Thomas Edison to the rescue?
The mines in Putnam Valley got a second lease on life when Thomas Edison, who in 1880 had patented a magnetic ore separator, leased the Canada and Sunk Mines from the PRCIC, a company that was more than happy to earn revenue from what had been a losing investment. Edison’s invention worked by first pulverizing ore into powder, then dropping it out of a hopper past a strong electromagnet. In theory, the magnetite would be separated from the rock when it passed the magnet. The two components would drop into separate troughs below. The powdered, purified ore would then be pressed into bricks for shipping and smelting.
Edison believed that his invention could revive the failing mining industry in the east. He had already built an ore separator in Ogdensburg, N.J. He planned to build a narrow-gauge railway though the Canopus Valley to tie in with the existing 6-mile railway that connected the Croft and Todd Mines with the docks and blast furnace at Annesville, site of the present traffic rotary at the intersection of Routes 9 and 6.
Edison spent a great deal of time and money preparing the project. He brought in pumps and boilers to de-water the flooded Sunk Mine. Many of the men he hired had worked in the mines before they had closed. He had one million railroad ties cut for the proposed railway.
But Edison faced one setback after another. His operation in Ogdensburg was hemorrhaging money. His ore separator did not work well. He pulled out of the venture in 1894 in the midst of an economic depression.
In 1915, PRCIC sold the 1,000-acre property to Clarence Fahnestock, whose brother later donated the land to the Taconic State Park Commission, helping to create the state park that today bears the Fahnestock name.
News headlines and 50-year mystery solved
In the 1930s and 40s, Westchester county historian Allison Albee, along with noted Peekskill mineralogist Peter Zodak, explored, researched and mapped the Putnam County mines. Albee interviewed many old miners and their families, getting firsthand accounts of daily life in and around the mines and tours of the abandoned mining operations. He also compiled old newspaper articles and tax records. The Putnam County Historian’s Collection in Brewster now houses his voluminous notes and scrapbooks.
Newspaper articles in Albee’s collections chronicled the deaths, disasters and injuries that occurred in the mines. The following is a small selection of some of the unfortunate events:
Nov. 29, 1873: Mrs. William Treazy tried to commit suicide by jumping into a mineshaft at Sunk Mine. She cited “cruelty of husband” as her reason.
Nov. 21, 1874: Thomas Wells, miner, had his leg crushed by a falling rock at Sunk Mine. He was taken to Dr. Lent’s surgery in Cold Spring (the former Lady of Loretto on Chestnut Street) for amputation. He died when co-workers who were caring for him accidentally overdosed him on morphine.
March 29, 1875: Thomas Richards was killed at the Croft Mine when he drilled into an unexploded charge.
Oct. 23, 1875: John Odell, miner, lost his arm in a blast at 4 a.m.
One of the more fantastic stories involved a young man, E.M. Hopkins, who, while picnicking with his girlfriend in 1887, decided to do some exploring in the recently closed Sunk Mine. He discovered a secret room that contained piles of silver plate jewelry and decorative items, as well as a trap door leading to the cabin of a hermit named Marshall, thus solving the mystery of a 50-year crime spree in Garrison, Cold Spring and Putnam Valley.
The end of an era
By the early 20th century, mining in Philipstown and Putnam Valley had ceased. The Canopus Mine was the last to close, in 1921. With the discovery of abundant and accessible ore in Minnesota and Michigan, mines in western Putnam County had become obsolete, although they were never fully depleted of ore. Extraction was difficult and proximity to railroads was far from ideal.
The Highland Chemical Works, which produced sulfuric acid from iron pyrite, mined at the Philipse Pyrite Mine on Anthony’s Nose, closed in 1913. It had employed as many as 300 people and was located near the present-day Manitou train station, formerly Highland Station.
As with the old abandoned farms of our area, nature quickly went to work reclaiming these industrial sites. Today, it is difficult to visualize what they looked like at the height of their operations. Learning about the mechanics and implements of 19th-century mining is invaluable in understanding what sort of structures and equipment sat atop the many foundations that surround the mines. Former mine sites, quieted by nature and years of inactivity, are fascinating, if not eerie, places to visit.
A word of caution
The old mine sites are extremely dangerous. Most are very deep and filled with water.
Marked, public trails offer the safest way to catch a glimpse of the bygone mining era. From the trail around Pelton Pond in Fahnestock State Park, an old mine vent is still visible in the middle of the pond. The Old Mine Railbed Trail runs from Sunken Mine Road off of Dennytown Road to Route 301. It follows the old rail bed and ends at the spot once known as Dump Hill, where for years ore was piled. Part of the Appalachian Trail, where it traverses Fahnestock State Park, was once planned as a narrow-gauge railway to serve area mines.