MAYBE IT IS THE SPARKLE that follows from discovering a translucent red gem shimmering in the light, or perhaps just the wild imagination of childhood, but there is certainly something edifying about taking youngsters on backcountry hikes in the region I call the Adirondack Park’s Garnet Woods. Amid the wild lands at the intersection of Warren, Essex and Hamilton counties is an area that was – and remains – a national leader in garnet mining. Remains of the centuries-old mining industry and the twinkle of red crystals still exist, if you know where to look.
On newly acquired state land are the underground garnet mine and tunnel of the American Glue Company that hitherto has been off limits to the public. They now present an educational opportunity in adventure for those with the skills, courage and sense of exploration to find them. Lacking any of those requisite skills, it pays to have a licensed state guide for an uncle.
Eight years ago I took my bright-eyed seven-year-old nephew Gabriel to North River’s tourist-based Barton Mines, and the nearby abandoned Hooper Mine. We were on a mission to observe and unearth garnet crystals. Last year, we repeated the 0.5-mile hike to the Hooper quarry so that Benjamin, Gabriel’s eight-year-old brother, could likewise prove his garnet-hunting abilities.
The red crystals shine brilliantly adorning rocks on the floor of the open-pit Hooper Mine. Benjamin bypasses the obvious small garnet fragments at our feet. He settles instead on a twenty-pound garnet-speckled boulder that he lifts with considerable strain.
To kids and adults alike garnets found in the wilderness constitute discovered treasure. The garnets themselves have very little commercial value. Most are too rough for use as gemstones and too lean for industrial use as abrasives. To be used in either capacity garnets must be liberated from the metamorphosed igneous rock on which they formed billions of years ago. This separation process, conducted in mills, crushes the surrounding rock. Such process actually began in 1893 within walking distance from the Hooper Mine by brothers, Frank and George Hooper.
We venture out to explore other sections of the quarry, including taking in the views of the Garnet Woods from the quarry rim. Benjamin struggles but is resolute in carrying his heavy bounty between both hands, his arms fully extended in front of him.
Hooper Mine was mined by North River Garnet Company, one of the four Garnet operations that abounded in this region during the Garnet Gold Rush of the early Twentieth Century. Today, Barton Mines Inc. remains the sole operator, presently mining on Ruby Mt. which we see in the distance. It is fitting that Barton remains in operation since in 1880 their founder, Henry Hudson Barton, was the seminal patriarch of the Adirondack garnet mining industry.
At the time sandpaper was in high demand by manufacturers of numerous industries, but was falling short of desired results. A need was recognized for greater abrasion across the fields including: producing high-end furniture in the woodworking industry; finishing, grinding and casting in machinery and appliances in the metals industry; scouring heels and soles in leatherworking; as well other industrial uses involving weaving, removing paint, and glass polishing.
Seeking to cure the soft deficiencies of sand, H.H. Barton, a Boston-based jeweler, experimented with gluing crushed quartz, flint and glass to paper. As sand is almost entirely a form of quartz, Barton looked at other minerals eventually settling on garnet as a superior abrasive mineral. As garnets rank on the Moh hardness scale between 6.5 and 7.5 compared to quartz at 6, he introduced “Garnet Paper” to the market to meet industry needs. A tip from a fisherman friend about the proliferation of garnets in the Adirondack Mountains led Barton to North River in 1882 to begin garnet extraction on towering Gore Mountain.
For the first decade Barton conducted his commercial garnet mining operation exclusively by hand via picks and shovels. After the Hooper Brothers opened mining operations they revolutionized the industry through the creation of the mechanical Hooper Vanning Jig in 1893. This allowed for crushing stone on site inside a mill. Explosives, mills, steam shovels, and subsequent mechanical innovations industrialized the Adirondack garnet mining industry in the decades that followed.
Further up the Hudson River, the region’s only underground mine was cut by the American Glue Co at the base of Caysey Mountain in Hamilton County. American Glue Co. – for glue is necessary for adhesion of ground garnet to paper in the production of garnet paper – built a large mill, powder houses, and ancillary buildings in the early 1900s. These lands were privately owned for more than a century, but came under state control with public access in 2014.
Through a series of reconnaissance trips in 2014 and 2015 I explored the American Glue lands in search of the mines. In the process I met Ed, a neighboring property owner, who told me of a herd path leading up Caysey Mountain where abandoned rail tracks and several metal cable cars can still be found off-trail. Ed and I joined forces. With time and with considerable research, we came to discover both the underground mine known at the time as Creol Mine, as well as a 200-foot tunnel shaft that I call Fields Tunnel after its designer, American Glue superintendent Charles Fields.
During the summer of 2015, I led Gabriel and Benjamin alongside their parents (Laura and Rob) to build upon our previous Garnet Hunting trips. Unlike our previous quarry trips, we arrive with helmets, lanterns and headlamps. Despite almost a century since its abandonment, the Miner’s Museum we experience “rocks” both my nephew’s world. It provides an authentic classroom showcasing the mining environment, better than any textbook could do.
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“HI-HO, HI-HO, IT’S OFF TO WORK WE GO,” I chant as we walk a dirt road at the start of our hike to Creol Mine and Field Tunnel. Fifteen-year-old Gabriel rolls his eyes, as nine-year-old Benjamin’s enthusiasm builds. Benjamin is already wearing his helmet, a sure sign of his excitement for what awaits. Their father Rob joins me for a stanza in singing the song of the seven dwarfs. Like the world of Happy, Sneezy, Bashful and Doc, we are all excited at the prospect of entering a scene only encountered in our imaginations and storybooks. I tease Gabriel that he best resembles the dwarf, “Dopey.”
After a time we veer into the side woods and begin a bushwhack. In previous trips I roamed aimlessly in search of the entrances. Now I have the route committed to memory. Our woods walk is just long enough for Benjamin to ask, “Are we there yet?”
When I arrive at the tunnel entrance I stop to wait for everyone to catch up. Off to the side, an oval crevasse of black darkness reminiscent of the mouse holes depicted in cartoons is framed by a moss-covered rock archway. I halt a ways before the subtle entranceway leading to the opening and intentionally avoid calling attention to it. This way each person upon arriving has the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves.
The Field Tunnel was meticulously carved out of the hillside to follow the vein of the garnet. It had been planned to connect with the Creol Mine whose entrance sits further up on the hill. If the joinder had occurred it would have formed a flat and easy method for removing the ore via a cable car track. After extracting 200-feet of rock, the miners reached an impenetrable wall of rock too difficult through which to dynamite.
The resulting shaft is therefore long enough to achieve exposure to the mining experience of ages past, but short enough to calm the anxieties that dark, underground closed spaces can play on the mind. Just ask Benjamin, whose jitters grew the farther in we went.
Unlike Creol Mine which involves a steep hill descent to the cave entrance, followed by a dark scramble to reach the cave floor, exploration of the Field Tunnel is completely level. The only obstacle is a puddle that extends 25-feet into the tunnel. A row boat has been stashed alongside the entrance to avoid water-logged shoes, but the water is too shallow to serve a purpose.
After snacking and affixing our helmets, I switch to sandals. The water is cold to the touch on my feet, but I tolerate the discomfort in dragging the boat through the wet section to give the family a dramatic and memorable entrance. Divided into two groups the rays of light from the tunnel entrance slowly fades as I, like the Greek myth ferryman Charon, lead each boatload deep into the underworld.
Taking Benjamin and Rob first, they both stand with glowing lanterns on dry ground as I return for Laura and Gabriel. Once reunited, our exploration begins. Gabriel quickly identifies some sparkling diaphanous gems in the rock wall. Benjamin finds a metal lantern hook and uses it to temporarily hang his lantern.
We proceed slowly, carefully studying the carved walls and ceiling. Soon we reach corroded rail lines, which both boys try straddling the rails walking with a foot on each rail. Laura follows, imitating the dual balancing beam act.
I let Benjamin take the lead as we approach the tunnel’s terminus. Here four rusted cable cars have been preserved amid rock rubble. One car is loaded with rocks of various sizes. Two cars are still attached to each other. We take turns climbing in the cars and taking each other’s picture.
Equal time is spent on the way out studying the walls, ceiling and floor for garnets. As the boys go ahead I walk with Laura telling her how pleased I am that she could join me on this adventure. Most of my family has no fathoming of what my constant treks to the wilderness involve.
Outside the tunnel, we cross a log over a stream and ascend a hill to reach the quarry. On our way both boys discover rocks with garnets exposed that they gather for souvenirs. Benjamin removes his helmet, loads his loot inside, and uses the chin strap as a handle.
The entrance to Creol Mine is picture perfect, almost like a church facade. Massive exposure of mined strata above a large opening augments awe. Squared off openings to the underworld below breeds mystery. Only Gabriel has the energy and confidence enough to attempt the scramble down with me to the mine bottom.
Despite some initial uneasiness with lowering our feet into darkness, Gabriel’s hesitancy is quickly replaced with astonishment at the grandeur of the mine from the inside. We turn left to enter a huge room. High up is a window to the outer world where Laura stands asking us to shine our lights on the multitude of shimmering garnet rock boulders at our feet, and to verbalize what we see.
We explore a small tunnel that dead ends abruptly before reversing direction. Metal lantern hooks are everywhere. A rusted railway curves around a bend leading us directly beneath the ground where out-of-sight Rob, Laura and Benjamin stand.
A 50-foot tunnel funnels off amid some rock debris.
I tell Gabriel that this was the site of a 1927 rock slide that resulted in the vein being abandoned. A year later all garnet extraction ended completely, in part due to the recession that became The Great Depression.
I motion for Gabriel to lead the way. He shakes his head at the same time his eyes communicate to me fear. I tell him there is nothing to fear by the rock avalanche from almost a century ago as I lead the way.
Reluctantly he follows. I applaud him and tell him that this is how confidence and character is gained.
I share my theory that if not for the impenetrable rock at the end of Field Tunnel that this tunnel would have connected. We crouch as the ceiling lowers. At the tunnel’s end is a treasure of a different sort than garnets, but one that still glimmers in the light. Here in the middle of July is a pile of snow and ice.
It is here that I relay to him how amazing the mine and tunnel looked in the middle of winter when I visited it with Ed last March. Ice sculptures and pillars were everywhere. Gabriel promises to come back with me in the winter to see them for himself.
On our climb out of Creol Mine Gabriel tells me how much he enjoys caving/mining and wants to do more of it. I tell him in return that his dwarf designation as “Dopey” is no longer appropriate. Now, he is acting more like “Happy.” In reality, it is me who feels happiest.
Michael “Happy” Kelsey has wandering in his blood and writes about his adventures at www.MikeKelseyAdventures.com. He can be hired to lead treks to the garnet mines and elsewhere through hire guide service at www.AWAYAdventureGuide.com or by email at AWAYAdventureGuide@gmail.com.