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Monday, December 30, 2013

Vershire Copper Mine - Abandoned Vermont

Vershire is the smallest town in Orange County, with a population of just about 600 people.  The copper mine is now a ghost town. 

A gentleman by the name of Lenox Titus settled  the town of Vershire in 1779 as its first permanent settler.  In August of 1781, Vermont granted the 21,961 acres that were to become the Town of Vershire to *Capt. Abner Seelye and "and sixty-four associates".  Vershire was originally named Malden, but was changed to Vershire as an amalgam of Vermont and New Hamshire.  (If you are local, you would pronounce the name "Ver-sure", with the accent on the first syllable.)

*Captain Seelye, originally of New Hamshire was of Warner’s Continental Regiment, 5th July, 1776; resigned 1st June 1778; Captain Vermont Militia in 1781. 

Vershire was also known as Copperfield, because of the discovery of a copper mine on it's land. 

Ely Mine was said to have been discovered, was quite by accident.  You see, "Sometime during the second war with England" [1812], as witnessed by the daughter of the owner of the farm - Bessie Richardson Powell Wolcott - reported that a young lass who worked on the farm was in the orchard of her father's farm when the girl stepped into a mound of earth, that was raised up like a biscuit, and promptly sunk up to her knee into the ground.  When she extracted her foot from odorous sulphery mess, it was covered in an orange mud.  Bessie promptly reported this to her father, who's eyebrows certainly raised, as this  discovery could be indicative of something richer.  That farmer was John Richardson, who owned the property where the copper mine opened a few short years later.

Another story goes: "The copper mining industry in the region, which centered around South Strafford, the Ely mine in Vershire and the Pike mine in Corinth, began in 1793 when men tapping maples in South Strafford noticed a rust color staining the snow."

"The mine opened in 1809....At the Ely mine in Vershire, which began operation in the 1830s, unrest was common. In 1883, during the so-called Ely War, the miners, who were mainly immigrants from Ireland and Cornwall, in the southwest of England, demanded long overdue back pay and better working conditions. They threatened to blow up the mine unless their demands were met. Then-governor John Barstow called out the state militia to suppress the strikes. Mine safety didn't operate with the same level of checks and precautions that it does now.  Men drilled for copperas without any kind of ear protection, and packed their ears with cotton to try to mitigate the noise. None of the mines will ever reopen. But in Vershire, it’s still possible to see, partially hidden by trees and brambles, the remaining stone walls and cellar holes of the houses and stores that sprang up around the mine. The mines were abandoned long ago but their historic legacy remains."

Workers at Pike Hill Mine
Approximately 10% of Vershire's population back then, fought in the Civil War and 13 men never came home.  About 20 years after the War, the Vermont Copper Mining Company was founded in 1854.  A Mr. Smith Ely ran the operation and it actually became the largest copper mine in America at that time, with around 850 workers, which included a large population of Cornish immigrants, along with the Irish, German, French, Armenian, Italian and Canadian miners.  Some of the miners were as young as 10 years old!

It is hard to imagine today, in the sleepy hills of Vershire, that "more than 100 buildings were erected in the village that sprang up around the mine. There was a tailor, a photography studio, confectionery, meat market, livery stable, doctor's office, barber, millenary shop, library, and blacksmith. There were also Catholic and Methodist churches."

Smith Ely
In 1876, Smith Ely's grandson, Ely Goddard, took over the operation, changing his surname to Ely- Goddard in honor of his patron.  Ely-Goddard built a mansion called Elysium in the mining village, wore fancy clothing, and invited friends from New York, Paris, and Newport to parties, picnics, dinners, and dances. A private theatre put on shows and orchestra were imported form the cities. (The mansion was later moved to overlook Lake Fairlee and now can easily be seen from VT 244.)

The Elys also became a political force in Vermont. Goddard was elected to the House of Representatives in 1878 and 1880 and the company lawyer, Roswell Farnum, became Governor in 1880. In 1878, the citizens of Vershire voted to change the town name to Ely, a vote reversed four years later. But Ely Depot, where the copper was loaded onto trains after the drive down from the mine, has retained the name. It is located at the intersection of VT 144 and US 5.

 Meanwhile, the company was struggling. In 1881, Smith Ely sold his shares in the mine to Goddard and Francis Cazin, a German engineer. They poured money into the operation, but it did not regain its profitability. Goddard fired Cazin, who then sued the company. By 1883, lawsuits, poor investments, and the falling price of copper as western mines opened brought the company to a crisis. On June 29, 1883, the day before pay day, the directors posted a sign that the mine would be closed unless the miners would take a pay cut. The men, who had gone two months without pay, revolted in what is called the Ely War. They went on strike, raided the company store, and marched on Smith Ely's home in West Fairlee, chanting "Bread or Blood!" Ely met with the workers, blamed the mess on Cazin, and promised they would be paid. The miners, doubting this, seized the company gunpowder and stated that they would destroy all company property if pay were not forthcoming. 

Acting on the request of the Sheriff, the Governor called out the National Guard, sending 184 soldiers into town at dawn on Saturday July 6th. Expecting to meet an unruly mob, they found instead a quiet village, whose awakening inhabitants soon told of their grievances. The soldiers, disturbed by what had happened, gave their food to the miners and their families and marched back to the train. 

This was the most important instance of labor unrest in Vermont history. The workers, naturally, received almost nothing. The company was declared bankrupt and was sold at auction in 1888. The Cornish Methodist church was moved first to South Vershire and, in 1978, to Vershire Village, where it is now the community center and symbol of the town. The Catholic church became a laundry in West Fairlee.

Following the collapse, the mine changed hands many times and there were attempts to reopen it, to no avail. It is now owned by a British pension fund, which has offered to donate it to the state, which has refused the "gift." The mine is a Superfund site under the EPA, which tries to prevent it from contaminating Copper Creek and the groundwater that reaches into West Fairlee.

With the closure of the mine, Vershire shortly lost two-thirds of its population. Its soil was played out, the mine was closed, and it was far from transportation corridors. By 1920, it held fewer people than it had in 1791 and the numbers continued to drop until only there were only 236 inhabitants in 1960.

Ariel of Ely Copper Mine today
Since 1960, Vershire has grown slowly, to 560 people in the 1990 census. It is now the smallest town in Orange County, having wrested that title from West Fairlee in recent years."  

Source:  http://www.usgennet.org/usa/vt/county/orange/vershire/