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February 2011

Frontier Town

Lyon Mountain's days of ore

Photograph courtesy of Friends of Lyon Mountain and Railroad Museum

MRS. HARRICA WAS CRYING. When she’d been called to her classroom door on a cold day in 1957 and returned in tears, every third-grader knew what it meant: someone’s father, or brother, or uncle wasn’t coming home. The children watched as their teacher walked through the rows of desks, finally stopping in front of a girl whose father had fallen to his death in the mines.

Over nearly a century 165 men died in the Lyon Mountain mines. Hundreds more broke bones, lost limbs, were burned or blinded. In this single-industry town, a community tied tightly by blood and marriage, no one went untouched by tragedy. Still, day after day men disappeared into the dark, eventually hauling up more than 30 million tons of iron-rich ore. Chateaugay iron—famous for its high quality—was used in tanks and ships, motors and missiles, and cables for the Brooklyn, George Washington and Golden Gate bridges.

My father, Allen Kourofsky, was one of those kids hoping Mrs. Harrica’s tears weren’t for him. He said duck-and-cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis never frightened him. A vague threat of nuclear war was nothing compared to lying in bed listening to his parents prepare for the day, wondering if he was hearing his father walk out the door for the last time.

A Company Town

Two generations back, in 1907, Alexander Kourofsky arrived at Ellis Island, one of many Polish refugees fleeing the Russian draft. Fresh off the boat, Alexander signed on with the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company and traded barracks in Si­beria for a stint in frosty Lyon Mountain, near the northeastern border of the Adirondack Park.

Saranac forge owner Andrew Williams and lawyer Smith Weed established Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company in 1873, sinking a series of open-pit mines along a seemingly inexhaustible vein. By 1880 Lyon Mountain, de­scribed not long before as a small clearing with “two or three little log hovels” in Duane Hurd’s History of Clinton & Franklin Counties, New York, had become a community of 700—a jumble of cabins, with a hotel and two-story store, all owned by the company.

Workers came from around the world: Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Italy, Eastern Europe. By the time Great-grandpa arrived the hamlet was overfull, with immigrants from dozens of countries stuffed into too few houses. Most families took in at least one lodger and bigger establishments rented beds by the shift. Alexander kept no boarders; he and his wife, Melvina, filled their home with 10 children—not an unusual number.

Chateaugay Ore and Iron controlled everything in this isolated settlement, including the company-paid police force. Until 1904 wages were doled out in vouchers good only at the outfit’s often-overpriced store (although peddlers willing to barter also roamed the streets). After the switch to cash, workers had more freedom but rarely any savings. To supplement, especially during frequent layoffs, most hunted and kept large gardens and livestock.

Like their neighbors, Alexander and Melvina rented one of the com­pany’s poorly in­sulated log ca­bins, warming what they could with small coal stoves. Ninety-one-year-old Anna Chase, a Lyon Mountain na­tive, said many walked the railroad tracks collecting lumps dropped along the route.

Residents lugged water from sources spaced throughout town. A 1918 New York State health department report found that many wells in the community of about 1,500 were “not entirely satisfactory from a sanitary point of view,” placed as they were below homes with “heavily manured” gardens and “earth vault privies.” Officials also noted outhouses set over streams that ran through the village. It was more than a decade before the company began to offer residents pipe on a strictly do-it-yourself basis. (The Kourofskys installed plumbing in the late 1930s, although some families went without into the ’40s.) Not everyone took the lack of facilities sitting down—near the end of the 19th century the Swedes, at one time so numerous that First Street is still known as Sweden, began to leave en masse due to poor living and working conditions.

And there were other periodic rebellions. In 1880 a new foreman enforced a previously overlooked rule that measured a day’s work in feet drilled rather than hours labored. The strike that started on his crew grew into a four-day “general insurrection,” reported the Plattsburgh Republican. Finally a posse from Plattsburgh confronted the mob in front of the store; after a “decisive fight” three men labeled as ringleaders were arrested. Management offered the rest a deal: either get back to work or get the hell out of town. Operations resumed the next day.

Every strike, including a whopper in 1906 over a 25–35 cent pay raise, ended much the same way. Demands were re­fused, the law was called in and “troublemakers” were booted out. The routine didn’t change until World War II, when the government forced Republic Steel—the na­tional corporation that took over the mines in 1937—to negotiate with workers. Unionization followed soon after the war.

Wild, Wild East

Folks didn’t always get along in this lightly policed outpost packed with different cultures and dangerous work. In the aftermath of the 1906 strike a pumpman who remained at his post was called out of his house and slashed, “laying both cheeks open to the ears,” according to the Plattsburgh Republican. But feuds were often more personal. On his way into the mines one morning Great-grandpa passed a coworker who neglected to mention that a charge had just been set. Alexander escaped with ore sand embedded in his face.

Newspapers of the time were littered with accounts of shootings, stabbings, robberies and brawls. Anna Chase said her grandmother, who ran a boardinghouse and stitched injured men on her kitchen table, lived with a bullet lodged in her hip—a souvenir from those hot-tempered days. In Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town by Lawrence Gooley, one old-timer recalled, “When we were kids, we would find … some foreigner killed in the pasture.… After they got home from work they’d start drinking, and they’d all get fighting with one another. One would shoot the other and they’d drag him up to the pasture.”

Most incidents involved alcohol: a rowdy New Year’s Eve celebration degenerated into an armed skirmish between rival immigrant groups; a miner was murdered in his boardinghouse during a drunken debate over a mandolin; the Plattsburgh Sentinel screamed “Polanders on a Rampage” after a pair shot up a countryman’s lodgings and “indulged in some other acts of violence resulting from too much booze.”

Gooley writes that peddlers carting liquor through town were affectionately known as milkmen. But in 1908 some of the more sober residents, objecting to frequent alcohol-fueled fights, fingered Alex Feinberg as a habitual vendor; he was arrested in violation of the excise law and posted $1,000 bail. Unfortunately for the entrepreneur, the district attorney who tried the case spent the night in Lyon Mountain. As he walked out of the hotel in the morning, Feinberg was rounding the corner in a liquor-loaded wagon. The DA caught up with him at the next delivery stop—despite his “angry protest,” Feinberg was returned to jail, the Sentinel reported.

The mafia, known regionally as the Black Hand, operated in the town’s Italian community. Jerry Blanch acted as “padrone,” or boss, in the early 1900s; he recruited workers for the mine and helped new arrivals learn the system. The system, locals ex­plained in Tragedy of a Mining Town, amounted to Blanch getting a cut of everything. Anyone who didn’t cooperate was beaten, slashed, or simply disappeared. “The Black Hand was no secret,” said Victoria Robinson, a lifelong resident born in 1890. “We all knew about it and we were all scared to death.”

It was in Blanch’s establishment (called a “resort” in the Plattsburgh Sentinel) that a feud between workers previously employed down the road in Standish and old-timers from Lyon Mountain ended in murder. The victim’s body was left in a snow­bank until the sheriff arrived the next day; 12 reluctant witnesses were held for a trial that gripped the area for months.

The mine’s management wasn’t always above extortion or embezzlement. Jack Cartwright, who became superintendent in 1910 after running several rivals out of town, was rumored to take bribes for hiring and, if a miner was killed, pocket a percentage of the family’s compensation. “People took awful abuse from the head men in Lyon Mountain for a great many years,” said Robinson. “They were treated like dogs.”

When Joseph “J. R.” Linney started as mine superintendent in 1919, he took the reins like a matinee sheriff, kicking some troublemakers out of town and schooling others with his fists. He oversaw modernization in the mines, moving all operations to a main shaft with electric hoisting equipment and trams. Housing was improved and a new school went up, with a pool and large auditorium. Even so, Linney fought against unionization and refused to negotiate with em­ployees; his word remained law.

Dying for Ore

About 40 miners were killed in just the first decade of the 20th century. Many simply plummeted hundreds of feet, but others were crushed by ore cars, blasted by dy­namite or battered by falling boulders. In the earliest days workers stationed at the bottom of a hoist or a chute, where chunks of ore were hauled up or tumbled down, were more likely to be in­jured. Later it was drillers hitting undetonated dynamite—called missed holes—or getting trapped under roof collapses that made up the bulk of the fatalities. Rock bursts, sudden explosions of walls or floors due to pressure, were indiscriminate killers.

Regardless of an accident’s cause, the company generally cited worker error. In 1937 Thomas Kowalowski, 23, caught his clothing in a conveyor and was pulled into the machine. Superintendent Linney told the Plattsburgh Daily Press that he believed Kowalowski “put his arm around a guard on the conveyor pulley to clean it, which is strictly against company rules.”

Kowalowski’s family was denied compensation, but his mother fought the ruling. She was later awarded $24 a month, according to her daughter, Anna Chase. Anna’s father, Thom­as Sr., was also killed on the job, crushed by a mine car while she was still in her mother’s womb. Company policy decreed that a family lost their home if a miner died and there were no sons able to work—houses were reserved for employees. But the Kowa­lowskis took in boarders, so the family of six was allowed to remain.

When Alexander Penalis was killed in 1905, leaving three children and a pregnant wife, Helena, his brood was evicted. Helena moved to her parents’ house and eventually remarried. She lost that husband to the mines in 1922 and, within the next 15 years, both of her sons, Charles and Michael.

In Lyon Mountain every tragedy was shared—family supported family; neighbor cared for neighbor. One afternoon in 1949 my aunt Rita was gathering her six- and 18-month-olds to meet their father, Bernard “Subby” Siskavich, when she heard he was on his way to the hospital. The hose on a kerosene torch had popped off and sprayed him with oil, which then caught fire. Townspeople rallied: hundreds gave blood and a group of miners donated eight-by-four-inch patches of stomach skin. Subby survived for seven months.

End of an Era

My great-grandmother Melvina died of a stroke in 1936. With several children still at home, Alexander looked for a new wife right off. His charming first attempt, offering support to the widow next door in exchange for housekeeping, was rebuffed. (Even with two boys of her own to feed and limited means of employment, Mrs. Kwetcian stuck it out single. Although most widows re­married, some took in boarders or cobbled together odd jobs like selling berries and eggs or doing laundry. At least one operated a still.) Undaunted, Alexander traveled to Mineville for another Polish wife. (“Marry a Polish girl,” youngest son Walter recalled his father telling the boys. “They work good for you.”) Jenny fit the bill: shepherding teenagers, cooking and cleaning, canning and salting—“I never saw a woman who could clean a fish like her,” said Walter. She even brought in extra money hanging wallpaper in houses around town. But Alexander, a driller, died in his early 60s from “dust on the lungs” and Jenny didn’t stick around.

By then my grandfather, Joseph “Joker” Kourofsky, was married, and he and his wife, Eileen (a French girl), moved into Al­exander’s old cabin. Like many other boys in town, Joker had quit school early to start work. “At 16 or 17 they took you,” explained Walter. “The stronger and dumber you were, that’s the kind they liked.” Some young men needed a job to help their families, but others couldn’t wait to test themselves in the shafts. Anthony Shusda tried to get in with the company as a high-school senior. He worked one day before his foreman father got wind of it and sent him right back to class. “There ain’t nothing in here,” he remembered his father telling him. Shusda ended up in the mines after graduation anyway; he was underground when he was notified of his father’s death in an ore slide.

The mines were less dangerous in Joker’s day—and accidents decreased even more after unionization—but Grandpa tempted fate. The company had switched from dry to wet dril­ling in the ’30s; it cut down on the dust a miner inhaled, but it slowed him down, too. Since drillers were paid a bonus on output, Joker, with a growing family, stuck to dry. (Like his father, he died of lung disease in his early 60s.)

He also drilled fewer holes than most. It was quicker, though the resulting chunks were larger and more apt to jam the works. If a blockage occurred, a chute-puller blasted it out with dynamite attached to a long pole. Since the technique didn’t always work the first time, some pullers died crawling into the chute to place a charge themselves. Joker’s puller, Fred “Peanut” Cayea, retired from the mines unscathed and in good humor. “I’d go back today,” he said recently.

When Joker and Eileen were raising their eight children the town was much different from its wild-west days. At mid-century Lyon Mountain mirrored small-town America, excepting a siren that announced tragedy, or rock bursts that shook dishes through town. Republic Steel finally allowed residents to buy their houses and the company store had morphed into an I.G.A. Men finished up in the mines, changed clothes at the dry house (where filth-caked uniforms air-dried on pulleys) and headed to the beer garden—“I don’t think their wives saw them much,” said Aunt Rita. Crews spent off-hours dominating regional teams and intimidating umps on the baseball diamond; kids romped on the giant ore-sand pile in the center of town. And almost everyone had a nickname: Oats, Honey, Joker, Groobie, Chick and Corky in my family alone.

But Lyon Mountain’s boom days came and went with World War II. During the war, operations ran in three shifts seven days a week—1,000,000 tons of ore were pulled from the ground per year. Afterward, when orders slowed, people were thrown out of work for months at a time. “There were plenty of [layoffs],” recalled Anna Chase. Her daughter, Rosemary Wood, added, “You would hear there was going to be a layoff and you just got kind of scared.” The Cold War helped; many made extra cash during a slow period in the early 1960s when nuclear-missile silos were sunk throughout the North Country. “We each got our own toboggans that year,” said Wood.

In 1967 the mines closed for good, sending residents scurrying for work. My grandfather took odd jobs before landing a spot with the town of Dannemora. Chase’s husband, “Duke,” opted for a transfer to Republic Steel’s mines in Africa; he stayed overseas for 10 years, visiting home every two. Others found employment at Dannemora’s maximum-security prison, or took maintenance positions around the area.

Dad and his siblings, along with most of their contemporarys, went off to college and never returned. The I.G.A. disappeared, as well as the beer garden, the ice-cream parlor, the railroad. Residents continued to bleed away until 1984, when the Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility opened in the old school. Budget cuts will shutter that economic engine in January.

The mountain of ore sand at the center of town (now summited by teens searching for better cell reception) is one of the last holdouts, together with some quaint old-country traditions and a will to survive. “We’ve been like this all the time,” said lifelong resident Francis “Frenchie” Siskavich. “The mines left, the school, the store. We just have to take it on the chin and hope things work out.”

To learn more about the community and its industry, pick up Lawrence Gooley’s Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town and Out of the Darkness: In Memory of Lyon Mountain’s Iron Men (518-563-9469, www.bloatedtoe.com) or visit the Friends of Lyon Mountain Mining and Railroad Museum (518-492-7460) at the old D&H railroad station, open Wednesdays and Saturdays from June to October.

MINE LINE

1822: Lloyd Rogers acquires the tract that includes the Chateaugay Ore Bed. According to legend trapper George Collins discovers the rich deposit the following year.

1873: Smith Weed and Andrew Williams found the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company (COIC); a 13-mile plank road is built to Wil­liams’s Saranac forge. Until air-powered machines come into use in the late 1870s, two-man teams drill by hand—one holding a long iron bar, the other striking with a hammer. Horses haul carts up an incline to the surface. As the pits get deeper, whimseys (vertical spools of cable) hoist loads.

1875: Catalan forge opens in Belmont, at the outlet of Lower Chateaugay Lake. With­in a few years it produces 15 tons of blooms (blocks of iron) per day. Annual consumption of wood for charcoal tops 20,000 cords.

1878: First recorded death in the mines: Calvin Manley, a laborer, is struck by flying debris. The Lyon Mountain pits employ around 150 men.

1879: Narrow-gauge Chateaugay Railroad runs 17 miles to Dannemora. First train of Lyon Mountain ore arrives in Plattsburgh on December 18. Open-pit mining continues to a depth of 200 feet.

1883: Population of Lyon Mountain grows to about 3,000.

1885: Railroad extends to blast furnace in Standish.

1893: Chateaugay Ore wins an award for quality at the Chicago World’s Fair. Belmont forge is closed; all processing moves to Standish.

1903: Delaware & Hudson Company takes over operations; railroad is upgraded to standard gauge. 1906: Deadliest year in the mines, with 12 workers killed; 350-man strike for increased wages fails.

1907: Production at 400,000 tons of ore per year, 30 percent of total New York State output.

1914: Seven-year study of the Chateaugay Ore Bed concludes that the vein contains 15,000,000 tons of proven commercial-grade ore, with the possibility of 700,000,000 more. Plans are made for a deeper main shaft with electric hoisting equipment.

1919: “Number 1 Shaft” hits 1,685 feet; J. R. Linney becomes superintendent.

1922: Electric locomotives are installed along drifts (tunnels perpendicular to the shaft). In earlier years, live-in donkeys hauled carts of ore.

1924: All mining operations confined to the Number 1 Shaft.

1937: Ohio-based Republic Steel Corporation leases the Lyon Mountain mines.

1939: Republic Steel buys COIC outright. Standish blast furnace is dismantled; processing moves to Buffalo. Lyon Mountain– designed and –built “Iron Shoes,” the first all-metal bobsled, wins Olympic tryouts, though the 1940 Games are cancelled due to the war.

1942: Instruments in Toronto record a massive rock burst in Lyon Mountain.

1946: Unionized workers stage a six-month strike; Republic Steel settles.

1967: Operations close; final depth tops 2,000 feet.

1984: Former school becomes Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility. The prison, which employs about 100, is slated to close in January 2011.

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One Response to “Frontier Town”

  1. Adirondack Life Blog Archive » A Good Year at the IRMA Awards Says:

    [...] Feature category for her colorful look into Lyon Mountain’s rough-and-tumble mining past, “Frontier Town” (January/February). Creative Director Elizabeth Folwell’s article on canning, “Self [...]