Connecticut is rightfully called the birthplace of American mining. This may come as a surprise to many people, but there are over six hundred abandoned mines within the borders of Connecticut. This mining was started in precolonial days by the Native Americans when they first arrived in Connecticut as the glacier melted away over ten thousand years ago. The Native Americans mined such rock and mineral resources as was needed to support their civilization. This included flint, iron oxide, clay, quartz, steatite, mica, and many others.
The coming of the Whiteman in the early 1600’s was the beginning of the modern mining industry where the colonials mined what they needed to support their colonies. This created a profound change in the mining industry that was to have a worldwide impact in the future. The father of the American mining industry was John Winthrop Jr. an early governor of Connecticut who started an iron mine and blast furnace in North Branford in 1651 that continued to make iron until about 1680. The ore that he mined was bog ore that came from the area of present day Lake Saltonstall in North Branford.
It wasn’t until 1736 when the iron mine at Ore Hill in present day Salisbury was discovered that iron once again was produced in Connecticut. Although the first iron from this ore was produced in Ancram, NY by Phillip Livingstone it wasn’t to long before someone would build a furnace in Connecticut. That was Ethan Allen who is remembered for his taking of Fort Ticonderoga in the early part of the Revolutionary War. Allen could be remembered just as well as one of the founders of the American iron industry.
During the Revolutionary War the furnace he built at the outlet of Lakeville Lake supplied cannon and cannon balls to the Continental Army. It was considered so valuable that George Washington kept a whole Regiment of Colonials nearby just to protect the furnace from the British. If this furnace had not been available to the Colonials the Revolution probably would not have succeeded. Another product of this furnace were the links in the great chain that Washington caused to be stretched across the Hudson River to keep the British from going up the River. This chain was eventually captured by the British who used it successfully at the Siege of Gibraltar. Today it is kept at the Tower of London. The few links that remained in American hands are at West Point. This same mine remained active until 1923 a period of almost two hundred years. It has been estimated that over seven million tons of ore were removed during its lifetime.
Iron was the most important metal mined in the early days of mining in Connecticut, but that was not the only one produced. Copper ranked next with a history lasting almost as long. This was first discovered in 1712, and was actively mined for many years by Dr. Samuel Higley who was a MD from Yale; he was also a blacksmith. Among his many firsts was the minting of the so-called Higley Penny made from copper mined at Mine Hill, and the making of the first steel in the Colonies.
This making of steel at this early date was also to have a profound effect on the American Revolution. Richard Smith had an active steel making works located at Robertsville Connecticut. Although he was visiting England when the war commenced the works were taken over by the State and continued to produce steel throughout the war. This steel was used in the boring head cutters used to bore out the barrels of the cannon produced at Salisbury. It was truly a secret weapon of the Revolutionary War.
Although there were several copper mines located in the state the most important was at Bristol. This mine tapped into a really large deposit of copper that was very rich. The dominate ore at this mine was Bornite which even today graces the collections of practically every major museum in the world. The mine reportedly reached a depth of 1800 feet, and although the mine was closed in the early 20th Century the property is still owned by one of the large copper mining companies.
The next most important mineral to be mined in the 1800’s was barite from Cheshire. At that time most of the barite in the world came from these mines. It is known that there were several miles of diggings reaching as far into the ground as several hundred feet. Today the legacy of these mines is apt to be a sinkhole suddenly appearing in some unsuspecting resident’s back yard. This has become such a problem that the State of Connecticut recently held public hearings in Hartford to examine the issue of abandoned mines in Connecticut.
Some of the other metals mined in Connecticut have included bismuth, lead, cobalt, tin, beryllium, silver, nickel and platinum group minerals. That does not include non-metallic resources including feldspar, quartz, mica, dimension stone, limestone, sandstone and gemstones.
Connecticut is the home of many firsts including those in the mining world, and it may become active again as a mining state with the advent of modern technology capable of finding the resources.