Mineville’s No. 7 iron ore plant slated for demolition; community hopes for new use of property
By Tim Rowland
Metal was in such demand during World War II that Americans unbolted the bumpers from their cars and sent them to be melted down into tanks, guns and ships. Starting this month, one of the last great Adirondack vestiges of this desperate scramble for steel will itself be sent to the scrapheap, as crews began to dismantle the mammoth No. 7 concentrating and sintering plant on Switchback Road in Mineville.
Frantically assembled in the first year of the war — along with a community of hundreds of homes and a school to support it — Switchback was completed in 1943 and churned out 340 tons of raw iron an hour to be sent to blast furnaces in the Midwest.
The plant is not visible from the road, but its byproduct, a 12.5 million ton pile of sandy waste, can be seen for miles around. The best view of the entire operation is from the summit of nearby Cheney Mountain. Demolition is expected to last through the year, said Jeff Harding, who is supervising the demolition for Solvay, a global materials and chemicals corporation that bought the company that owned the plant.
“The driving force behind this is safety,” Harding said. “We get trespassers weekly.” In partnership with the state, Harding said the site was carefully photographed and documented for posterity. As the process evolved, Harding said he was moved by photos of all the men who worked there and the significance of their contribution to the war effort.
Republic Steel closed its operations for good in 1971, and most of the employees who worked at No. 7 are gone, said Town Historian Betty LaMoria. But Switchback (the name derived from the Z-shaped train track needed to ascend to the mine’s elevation) and the mining industry still have a strong hold over the community, which expressed sadness on social media when word of the demolition spread.
“It was quite a time, and a time that can’t be gotten back,” said Paul Tromblee, who watched the miners working at the plant, and remembers his parents’ warnings to stay away from the great, bottomless shafts that dotted the landscape.
Tromblee might be considered No. 7’s last employee, his job as site supervisor being to chase away the four-wheelers, the curious and the scofflaw historians who put themselves at risk at the site, which has grown more unstable through the years.
The iron industry in Moriah pre-dated Switchback by a century, when in its heyday it was known as Witherbee, Sherman & Co. Sherman Company men would wait at the docks in New York City and recruit arriving immigrants, who were hustled to Moriah, which melted iron ore and nationalities alike.
Labor Days were raucous affairs, Tromblee said, when the town shut down for a three-day party featuring parades and a variation of soccer known as “fireball,” in which opposing fire companies took to the streets to turn their high-pressure hoses on the ball — and each other.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, whose grandfather helped recruit Italians arriving on American shores to the industrial beehive on Lake Champlain, sees the demolition of No. 7 to be a potentially positive turning point.
With the liability of the old buildings gone, he said it will be more attractive to a company interested in the rare-earth minerals found in the mountain of tailings at the site. Harding said assays have shown the pile to be rich in elements essential to a number of electronics and technological applications.
The U.S. is trying to break its reliance on China for these minerals, which despite their name are not so much rare as they are widely scattered. Tailings piles are attractive targets because they contain the minerals in high concentrations. The problem to date is that extracting them is expensive and environmentally fraught, requiring great amounts of heat and toxic chemicals.
Pilot projects are working on solutions to this quandary, and Scozzafava said if successful they could give the 20th century industry a second life.
Beyond that, news over the demolition had sparked renewed curiosity in the gone-but-not-forgotten industry. “There’s a lot more interest now that it’s coming down,” LaMoria said.
The town is currently compiling a list of the nearly 100 workers estimated to have been killed in the mines over the years, and their names will go on a bronze plaque next to the new miner statue in the center of Port Henry.
Scozzafava and LaMoria are also hoping that this interest may also help in the recruitment of volunteers to staff the acclaimed Iron Center, a by-appointment museum located in a former Witherbee-Sherman-era carriage house and laboratory next to Town Hall.
Harding and Chuck Jones, environmental remediation director for Solvay-North America, toured the museum on May 16, taking in a room-sized diorama depicting the mining community in its heyday. “We’re doing everything we can to keep this place open,” Scozzafava said.
Editor’s note: This has been edited to take out a reference to the Department of Defense assisting in the creation of the building. The department was established after the plant was built.
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