Lyon Mountain The Tragedy of a Mining Town

Bloated Toe Enterprises, 2004 $20, softcover, 290 pages
Bloated Toe Enterprises, 2004
$20, softcover, 290 pages

A stretcher and a bobsled repose in Lyon Mountain’s former train station, which is slowly undergoing restoration for a museum. Both were made from ore wrested from the ground beneath. Together they symbolize how the people of this mining town worked and played on the edge.

Lyon Mountain Village in 1948.
Lyon Mountain Village in 1948.

The bobsled, dubbed “Iron Shoes,” would have carried its Lyon Mountain team in the 1940 Winter Olympics had not war in Europe canceled the games. The stretcher was called into service whenever a miner was injured or killed on the job; judging from the research Lawrence P. Gooley has done for his new book, Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town, it got more use than it should have.

Gooley’s book, which he has self-published with his partner, Jill C. McKee, is a frank, no-holds-barred, often first-person excursion into an aspect of Adirondack history that many of us neither know well nor appreciate. Lyon Mountain and its environs produced the best iron ore in the world for over a century; the cables that hold up the Brooklyn, George Washington and Golden Gate bridges have Lyon Mountain iron at their cores.

At its peak in the late 1880s, Lyon Mountain had more than 3,500 people, making it the second-largest community in the Adirondacks after Saranac Lake. It was second to none in ethnic diversity, with Swedes (one neighborhood is still known colloquially as Sweden), Poles, Italians, Russians, Croats, Irish, French Canadians, Norwegians, African-Americans, Hungarians, Danes, Mexicans,Welsh, Judeans, Lithuanians, Syrians and others living and working together, if not always harmoniously. Many had been recruited en masse right off the ships at Ellis Island.

“In the space of a few short weeks,” Gooley writes, “entire communities sprang up [in Lyon Mountain], each with a distinct national flavor reflective of life in some foreign land.” This was a classic company town, complete with what many called tyrannical bosses, rows of identical company-owned houses, a company-owned store that tolerated no competition, and one employer who blamed the workers for nearly every accident, coldly replaced them when they were injured, fought unionization bitterly and only grudgingly put heat and indoor plumbing into the houses rented to employees.

A miner loads a tram car with iron ore.
A miner loads a tram car with iron ore.

Gooley’s slant is revealed in his subtitle. His focus is not on the mines—we learn only what’s necessary here of ore discoveries, ownership changes, management strategies and so on—but on the miners, who lived and worked and suffered and, too often, died too soon in Lyon Mountain. He concentrates on the period from the 1870s, when things really began to pick up, to 1940; from that time on, conditions improved for the miners so that hardships for them and their families were not nearly as pronounced, while, paradoxically, production declined until the mines closed for good in 1967.

Lyon Mountain was the hub of a bustling mining operation that stretched as far north as Lower Chateaugay Lake (there’s still a nearby crossroads called “The Forge”) and as far south as the hamlet of Standish. In his early chapters, Gooley outlines the beginnings, noting the opening of Clinton Prison, established partly to create a captive labor force to retrieve ore found in Dannemora Mountain, and the coming of the railroad as factors influencing the development of Lyon Mountain. Fluctuations brought on by general economic boom and bust, world politics (wars were good for business) and competition caused the town’s fortunes to rise and fall.

And then there was J.R. Linney. Gooley devotes a chapter to this controversial mine superintendent, who ruled Lyon Mountain like a feudal lord from the end of World War I through most of World War II. Lyon Mountain was a wild place when Linney arrived, with alcohol-fueled ethnic brawls, knifings, gang murders, extortion and other devilry in full swing. The Black Hand, a Mafia-like semi-organization, was the law. “J.R.” —that was all the name he needed—was brought in to impose civil order, and to this day there are those who say he was ruthless in doing so. Others viewed him as a benevolent despot who organized social events for the miners and their families, bought a bus for the regionally popular Lyon Mountain Boys Band and saw to the construction of churches, a school, playing fields and sidewalks.

He was also brought in to reduce the fatality rate. That he did not do, perhaps because his third charge was to maximize company profits.

It is to those who toiled in the mines, though, that Gooley devotes the bulk of his book. Their ethnic dynamic, he notes, “directly challenges the notion [of our] vast Melting Pot.” Packed into close quarters, often not understanding each other’s languages or ways of living, they endured a series of culture clashes. Further, because many of them spoke no English and had little or no education, they were ripe for exploitation. Many were among the “birds of passage” in America in search not of a home but of money, which they would save and take back to their homeland after a few years; these people, Gooley indicates, had no desire to assimilate.

One thing the miners had in common, though, was that they got killed or maimed with disconcerting regularity. Gooley’s chapters on working conditions and what they wrought on people are not for the queasy. Told mostly in the words of those who survived, they recount 12-hour shifts in dark tunnels too low for a man to stand upright in, almost no training, no days off (not even Christmas), unprotected 500-foot shafts, poisonous gases, devastating encounters between drill tips and undetonated dynamite, and the inexplicable rock bursts wherein a tunnel floor might without warning explode and plaster itself and everything between against the ceiling (“If you were at home, you could hear the dishes shaking on the shelves,” recalls Floyd Bracey). If the floor didn’t heave up, the ceiling might come down, eviscerating a man or crushing him into what Bracey describes as “pieces like pancakes.”

The company supplied hardhats, but all other safety gear the miners were required to purchase themselves, on wages that hovered around $2 a day during the 1920s. It should come as no surprise that, as Gooley puts it, there weren’t many “old miners.” Said one who did survive, “We could face the long hours, the hard work, and the danger, but the hardest part was facing up to the likelihood that most of us would never have the chance to grow old.”

Pictures of tombstones, some inscribed in foreign tongues, bring this all home. Juzef Golembiewski’s indicates that he was 19 when he perished. Older victims left wives and children, for whom the company did next to nothing.

All is not grimness in this book. For years, the town produced outstanding baseball players. Through much of the 20th century, Lyon Mountain “was known as much as a baseball town as a mining town,” Gooley writes. A thousand fans or more would turn out to watch games against other Clinton County town teams; Clinton Prison also provided an intense rivalry. Some players went on to sign major-league contracts.

If this book were to become a movie, it would probably rate an “R” for graphic violence and gore. But it is greatly to Lawrence Gooley’s credit, and to the honor of those who lived their lives, and lost them, in Lyon Mountain that he does not sugarcoat the realities of life in that hardscrabble Adirondack town.