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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Mine that made America

Portrait of George Washington - Peale 1776

By the looks of the place today you’d never suspect that Salisbury, Connecticut made it possible for us to be a free nation rather then a colony of Great Britain this was because nestled in the hills of Salisbury was a deposit of iron ore so rich they mined it for almost two centuries from 1736 to 1923 when the mine suddenly was flooded by rushing waters.  The mine itself never did produce any gold but it did produce the best iron ore in the world, and this iron was perfectly suited for the production of cannon.  In fact they called it ordnance iron.

The iron deposits at this mine called “Ore Hill” hundreds of millions of years ago when an island arc formed in the Iapetus Ocean, the father of the Atlantic Ocean, off the east coast of what then was North America.  From these volcanoes rained eruption debris that rained down onto a vast coral reef that fringed North America forming a sediment made up of volcanic ejecta and weathering products from island arc.  The island arc was very similar to today’s Japan that formed a back arc basin between the islands and the mainland similar to today’s Sea of Japan.

This sediment was very rich in iron, and was also interbedded with limestone that eventually underwent metamorphism during the Taconic Orogeny forming the Walloomsac formation of schist stretching along the eastern border of New York State from Vermont to New York City where it underlies the New York Stock Exchange.  Throughout its length this formation is studded with rich iron deposits like plums in a plum pudding.  There were many iron mines along its length with the largest at Ore Hill in Salisbury, Connecticut.  Year’s later scientists from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington declared the ore from Ore Hill was the finest ore in the world.

It was in 1728 when a group of surveyors from Hartford that first noted the presence of iron in Salisbury, but it was Ezekiel Ashley and John Pell from nearby Sheffield, Massachusetts that discovered the ore on Ore Hill in 1731.  Mining began almost immediately with the ore going to a furnace established by Robert Livingstone in Ancram, New York seven miles to the north.

The Salisbury blast furnace was built by Ethan Allen of Ticonderoga fame, Samuel and Elisha Forbes and Col. John Hazeltine built the first blast furnace in Salisbury at the outlet of the lake in Lakeville.  The furnace changed hands several times finally falling into the hands of Richard Smith an Englishman who also had a “Finery” in Robertsville, Connecticut, the first place in America to make steel on a commercial scale.  Smith was in England when the Revolutionary War broke out forcing him to stay there until the war was over.

The Connecticut Colony seized the mine and furnace in the name of the Committee of Public Safety and the governor of Connecticut, Jonathon Trumbell persuaded Squire Samuel Forbes to come out of retirement to cast cannon for the colonial army.  Squire Forbes agreed, and in the first six months of the war cast 850 tons of cast iron cannon for
George Washington.  Throughout the war the Salisbury Furnace cast around 850 cannon ranging in size from four pounders to thirty-four pounders.  None of them ever burst!  The rest of the colonies produced six cannon most of which burst when they were fired.  

Molly Pitcher swabbing a cannon made at Salisbury, Connecticut - The Arsenal of Democracy

When George Washington took over command of the Continental Army there were a total of six cannon in the whole thirteen colonies, and they were up against the British Army the most powerful in the world at the time that had plenty of cannon of all sizes.  Were it not for the effort of the iron workers from Salisbury the chances of beating the British Army and gaining independence were virtually nil.

The mine went on to produce the guns and fittings for the USS Constellation and Constitution that fought in the war of 1812.  The mine produced the iron for the US Arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts and Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Later the same mine produced the iron that made railroad wheels that put the entire nation on wheels, and a good share of the world too.  The final moments for the mine were when it flooded with a sudden inrush of water in 1923.  Today the mine is a small pond on the right side of Rt. 44 between Lakeville and Millerton, New York.

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  1. Great article, John! It makes one wonder why more of these deposits have not been discovered!

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