Port Henry pays homage to mining past
By Tim Rowland
On the September day in 1971 when Republic Steel announced it was shuttering its Moriah iron mines for good, its impending departure left deep holes in both the ground and in the soul of a fiercely proud community of recent immigrants who had come to the shores of Lake Champlain to build new lives for themselves — and in the process, helped build a nation.
Now, the Lake Champlain town is hoping that another slab of metal — this one a finely crafted statue of a Moriah miner — can resuscitate interest in a colorful history that residents fear is in danger of being forgotten.
Work in the mines was brutal, and only a few of the men who labored nearly a mile beneath the surface of the earth are still around. And if the rest were to return the the communities of Port Henry, Mineville and Witherbee, they would scarcely recognize the communities in which they toiled.
Movie theaters and car dealerships have been replaced by thrift shops and subsidized housing. Drug use is prevalent. The last supermarket left town on the eve of the pandemic, most restaurants are gone or open only sporadically and the state, without offering a good reason, recently closed a successful prisoner reform camp, sapping the community of another 100 jobs.
These demoralizing episodes are not what Linda Haran, Gail Pilger, Tootie Mends and Linda Smyth want the community to be known for. So four years ago they put their heads together and came up with the idea of a fetching bronze statue of a miner to rally town pride and give pause to tourists who might otherwise have no clue that it was metal from the Adirondacks coast that built everything from the first U.S. Navy ironclad to the cables that suspended the Brooklyn Bridge.
As it would turn out, bringing the statue to life would take as much grit and determination as digging ore. Despite four years of setbacks, “We forged on, and I’m so glad we did,” said Mends. She helped unveil the statue Oct. 6 in a Port Henry pocket park, on the corner of Broad and Main across from the Lee House. “We had a dream and today we see it fulfilled.”
Sculpted by Joe Lupiani, a Vermont artist who has ties to the area — his first snowboarding adventure was down a pile of mine tailings — the miner stands pick in hand with a working headlamp.
Lupiani said he was personally proud his work will endure for a long time to come, and proud for the people who raised the $35,000 necessary to bring it to life. “Community funding a project like this is very, very hard,” he said.
“When no one thought they could do this, they did it,” said Lohr McKinstry, president of the Moriah Chamber of Commerce.
Aside from money, the groundwork was made more difficult by the pandemic, which limited meetings and fundraisers, and complicated the sculpting process. The statue had been planned for a traffic island at Port Henry’s main intersection, but twice in the past four years the island was pancaked by truckers who tried to negotiate the tricky turn, but didn’t quite.
Stephanie Frazier, one of about 40 people who attended the unveiling, said her grandfather came from Ukraine looking for a better life — but was almost immediately disabled at age 30 by a chunk of flying ore. “A lot of families had troubles like that,” she said.
Her father started out underground, but was moved to the railyard at Mineville’s Switchback mine after the repeated explosions cost him his hearing.
Local residents believe history can be a big part of the town’s renaissance, and if memories can support communities, Moriah has a solid foundation on which to build. Much grand architecture from the days that Port Henry was a thriving 19h century mining town remains, including the geological laboratory that now serves as the Port Henry Mining Museum.
Ore had first been discovered at the Cheever Mine north of Port Henry, which was leased in 1820, according to the U.S. Geological Service. The industry was fostered by the Witherbee, Sherman Co., and in an early 20th century history, Frank Witherbee calculated that the ore mined by his company would have filled a freight train stretching from New York to Denver.
But discovery of surface ore in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range dealt a blow to the company, as did failure to adequately modernize the plants.
Under the ownership of Republic Steel, the mines were revived during World War II, to the point that the federal government paid $5 million to build 1,000 homes and a school to accommodate 1,200 men and their 800 children.
One of the unsung products of Moriah, said Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, was its people. French, Poles, Italians and many more ethnic Europeans had communities of their own, making Moriah one of the greatest rural melting pots in the nation.
Some stayed, but many from Port Henry, Mineville and Witherbee eventually went on to find their fortunes in the developing nation. “A lot of people across the country have their roots right here in this community,” he said.