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March-April 2016

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From Copperas to Cleanup–The History of Vermont's Elizabeth Copper Mine by Matt Kierstead. Milestone Heritage Consulting, www.milestoneheritage.com. 60 pages; 2014; $15 (softbound).

The Elizabeth mine in South Strafford, Vermont, is not well known among mineral collectors despite being the largest copper mine in New England. It worked a volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit comprised largely of chalcopyrite and pyrrhotite. The mine was operated intermittently for nearly 150 years, from 1809 to 1958, during which it produced about 50,000 tons of copper. The underground workings followed the orebody continuously for 7,800 feet along strike, and the long open cuts to the south extend the mine complex even farther.

Matt Kierstead's book records in detail the history and industrial archaeology of the Elizabeth mine complex. This study was carried out in conjunction with the cleanup of the mine area when it was designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Extensive waste piles from mining and milling were contaminating streams in the area.

Although it was necessary to remediate the problem, there was concern that the history of the mine should be preserved. Kierstead brought together scarce and previously unpublished information about the Elizabeth mine, including photos and interviews with Vermont residents. His company also documented the physical remains of early mine structures at the site during the EPA cleanup operation.

The first part of the book provides a helpful overview of the regional geologic setting of the Elizabeth mine ore deposit. This section is followed by a brief history of copper mining in the United States and a focused discussion of Vermont discoveries. The Vermont copper belt spanned 30 miles and included the Elizabeth mine as well as the Ely mine in Vershire and the Eureka and Union mines in Corinth. The latter two mines were the smallest and ceased operation after World War I.

Kierstead informs us that through the early 1880s, the Elizabeth mine was worked for both copper and “copperas,” the latter being an iron sulfate belonging to the melanterite group. Copperas is not a familiar substance to most people today, but in the past it had many industrial applications. At the Elizabeth mine it was produced by roasting and leaching heaps of iron sulfides.

Later chapters detail the production of copper ore and techniques developed at the Elizabeth mine to enable on-site milling and smelting. The mine output rose during war times, especially during World War II and the Korean War, and recorded its maximum profit in 1955. The copper mining history occupies nearly half of the book and is probably the part that will be of greatest interest to mineral hobbyists.

There are many superb photos of mining in progress, the mine buildings and community, and the miners themselves. They cover a long time span from the 1800s to the most recent mine activity. Sidebars describe the miners' lifestyles, safety issues, smelting techniques, and other topics. The book is further enhanced by detailed maps, panoramas, and cross sections that help the reader visualize the full scope of the Elizabeth mine workings, both at the surface and underground. These graphics and some large photos are nicely presented in a landscape orientation, so the resulting dimensions of the book are 11.0 inches wide and 8.5 inches high. The publication may be hard to fit on shallow bookshelves, but its proportions are compensated by the clarity of the figures.

The final part of the book is notable for showing how the EPA cleanup of the mine site was done in consultation with Vermonters who wanted to preserve the historical legacy of the Elizabeth mine. The mutually supportive effort of concerned parties facilitated the archaeological survey. A few mine structures and foundations were retained despite the extensive remediation needed over most of the property. This book is one of the most interesting and educational results of the project. It provides a vivid comprehensive history of the Elizabeth mine that was lacking until now.

(Note: The entire mine site is on private property, and at this time some parts of it are still subject to final cleanup work. Public access is not available, but an overlook with interpretive signage is planned.)

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