Hudson Valley Iron-Ore Mining Industry: A History of Sterling Forest

Heavy metal: Sterling Forest was once the center of the Valley’s rich iron-ore industry



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ironworksDeteriorating buildings from the ironworks as they appear today

Danger zone

Though mine owners raked in the cash and lived comfortably, it was a different story for the workers. “At Sterling, miners got paid by how much ore was taken out,” explains Bayne. Once they ventured into the mines to excavate the magnetite, they would light black powder or dynamite and “run like hell,” says Bayne. “After the blast they went back in and picked up all the pieces.” But this often led to health hazards: Inhalation of nitroglycerin from the explosives gave workers massive headaches. Later on, the company used drills, which earned the nickname “widow makers.” Says Bayne, “Magnetite is a crystal-like substance, so when you drill it the smoke that comes out carries the crystals. When the miners breathed it in, it would eventually tear their lungs apart.”

And of course, the most obvious peril was the risk of cave-ins. Bayne says that though records from mining companies are sparse (“because who wants to talk about the people you killed?”), fatalities from collapses and falling debris were quite common. One such incident actually brought down an entire company. In Brewster, on the eastern side of the river, lies the submerged remains of the once-prosperous Tilly Foster Mine. The mine opened in 1853 and hired large numbers of immigrants, who were often known by numbers because the owners couldn’t pronounce their names. A mine collapse in 1895 effectively ended its operations. Walls caved in, killing 13 miners — many of them identified only by their number in the New York Times news report of the disaster — and the business never recovered. Eventually, a reservoir flooded the property.

See gallery below to view more photos of abandoned mines in Sterling Forest.

Take a hike

The forge fires have long since cooled, but remnants of the mining industry still dot the local landscape. Many are accessible on nature hikes in our parks, which the public is free to explore. “There are at least 20 known mines within Bear Mountain State Park,” Edward Lenik says. “Some were just exploratory pits, which you can find hiking.” Bigger mines, such as the Pine Swamp and Hogancamp in Harriman State Park, are favorites of hikers today, he says. (The Pine Swamp mine was owned and operated by the famous Parrott brothers, Robert and Peter; their ore was used to make the Parrott guns that helped the Union Army win the Civil War.)

Doc Bayne leads tours through Sterling Forest State Park, including one to the mines, a favorite of his that weaves through the Lakeville ghost town. “We follow the Lakeville Ironworks Trail, walk past the furnaces, stop by the Wildcat Mine and point out the old town buildings — well, their foundations, anyway,” he says. He possesses a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and is in fact writing a book about Townsend’s chain entitled The Chain that Saved America, because, as he says, “Sterling Forest has such a gift of iron history.”

» Hike Bear Mountain State Park

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