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Documentary Looks at History Of Copper Mines in Upper Valley

  • Four miners, taken sometime in the 1950s, in a portrait at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

    Four miners, taken sometime in the 1950s, in a portrait at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

  • The Elizabeth Mine's above-ground buildings in Strafford, sometime between 1943 and 1958. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

    The Elizabeth Mine's above-ground buildings in Strafford, sometime between 1943 and 1958. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

  • A group of miners take a break in the lunchroom at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

    A group of miners take a break in the lunchroom at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

  • An ore car exits one of the entrances to the Elizabeth Mine in Strafford on the way to an above-ground processor, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

    An ore car exits one of the entrances to the Elizabeth Mine in Strafford on the way to an above-ground processor, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

  • Four miners, taken sometime in the 1950s, in a portrait at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)
  • The Elizabeth Mine's above-ground buildings in Strafford, sometime between 1943 and 1958. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)
  • A group of miners take a break in the lunchroom at Strafford's Elizabeth Mine, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)
  • An ore car exits one of the entrances to the Elizabeth Mine in Strafford on the way to an above-ground processor, post World War II. (Courtesy Phyl Harmon)

Phyl Harmon began her documentary about the history of the Upper Valley copper mines in 1995 by interviewing the last surviving men who’d worked in them. Many of those men have since died, but Harmon’s film, Riches and Remains: The Legacy of Vermont Copper Mining, will finally have its premiere tomorrow at the Strafford Town Hall at 7 p.m.

An oral historian working on a project about the mines for the Strafford Historical Society, Harmon was struck when talking to the men by “how much they loved the mine. I thought this would be a great film.”

Now 73, Harmon had a career as a physical therapist working with children at Dartmouth-Hitchcock before deciding she wanted to embark on oral history. While working on interviews for a documentary for the Strafford Historical Society about the old practice of ice harvesting, she realized the virtues of having images to go with the interviews. This spurred her to make a documentary of her own about the Old City Falls area of Strafford, called Strafford’s Old City.

Harmon’s research into the history of the copper mining industry in the region had partial origins in the controversy of the mid-1990s over the environmental damage caused by the Elizabeth mine in South Strafford. Although the mine closed in 1958, copper still leached out into the west branch of the Ompompanoosuc River.

Declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, the mine has undergone a lengthy process of cleanup and waste removal, with work still continuing. During the cleanup Harmon went out with a video camera to “shoot anything that was going on with the river and the cleanup.” She also documented the meetings the town held to debate how best to deal with the toxic waste.

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, Harmon said. The mine opened in 1809.

In the early days of the republic, the hunt was on for the metals and minerals that meant economic clout and independence. The first mineral to be mined in the region, Harmon said, was an iron sulfate called copperas. The discovery of copperas, which was used in dyes and inks, was considered so significant that President James Monroe visited the mine in South Strafford in 1817. At one point during the 19th century, Harmon said, what was renamed the Elizabeth mine was the country’s leading producer of copperas.

Labor relations differed from mine to mine. The relationship between workers and owners were good for the most part at the Elizabeth mine, Harmon said. “It was very much a company town,” where dances were held and the miners treated one another like family. But 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, Harmon said. Then-governor John Barstow called out the state militia to suppress the strikes.

The fortunes of the mines rose and fell with war, Harmon said. The Civil War, and World Wars I and II saw the mines reopen and go into high production as copper was needed for the war efforts. Overall, she said, the total production of all the Orange County mines was 140 million pounds of copper. Hundreds of men from towns throughout the Upper Valley worked in the mines.

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. Over the course of the history of all three mines, men died when portions collapsed. All three mines have been designated as Superfund sites by the EPA.

Yet, Harmon said, most of the men loved the work. “It was very similar to interviewing men who had fought in World War II, with the level of danger and heightened awareness. ... One of the men in the film talked about the brotherhood it creates. It forms this kind of camaraderie.”

Funding the documentary took her three years of approaching possible funders, Harmon said. “It’s not the sexiest thing to sell to foundations: defunct copper mines.”

In the end, the film was sponsored by the Mascoma Savings Bank Foundation, the Merchant’s Bank Foundation, the Upper Valley Community Foundation, the Woodbury Foundation, the Connecticut River Joint Commissions and the EPA. The EPA did not influence how she made the film, Harmon said. Plans are under way for possible screenings in Upper Valley towns, including West Fairlee, and perhaps on Vermont Public Television.

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.

“Riches and Remains: The Legacy of Vermont Copper Mining” will have its premiere at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Town House in Strafford. Admission is free of charge. Other screenings will take place in the fall.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.