New Signs at Mine Hill Vividly Recall Roxbury's Industrial Past

By: Rebecca Ransom

ROXBURY-It's hard to imagine that as recently as the 19th century the dense, quiet woods of Mine Hill Preserve in Roxbury were home to a bustling early-American industrial community. A successful granite quarrying operation, a failed iron and steel forge, a railroad station and more than a dozen buildings-everything from a creamery to a brothel-thrived on Mine Hill in the years following the Civil War.

Almost as quickly as it had formed, however, the blossoming Mine Hill community disappeared. Today, all that remains of the virtual "ghost town" are remnants of the iron industry's vast roasting ovens and blast furnaces, which tower above the reclaimed forestland like great stone dinosaurs of an industrial past. To bring life to these abandoned industrial monuments and Roxbury's rich, fascinating and somewhat mysterious history, the Roxbury Land Trust, steward of the 360-acre Mine Hill Preserve, is unveiling nine new, self-guiding interpretive signs at Mine Hill's 19th-century iron making complex. The signs, which tell the story of the rise and fall of the town's iron and steel industry, will be unveiled during a special opening reception Saturday, June 9, at 4:30 p.m. at the preserve located off Route 67 near the Shepaug River. Julie Steers, executive director of the land trust, explained that several years ago a local survey conducted by the Yale School of Forestry and the land trust revealed that many people wished there were more educational and informational resources available on the history-rich preserves. In response to that feedback, the trust developed the idea for the interpretive, self-guiding signs. Mine Hill Preserve, one of the 24 preserves encompassing more than 3,000 acres that the land trust oversees, was chosen as the focus of the sign project based on its unique blend of breathtaking countryside and historical importance. In fact, Barbara Ungeheuer, president of the land trust, calls Mine Hill "our most treasured preserve." Funding for the signs, which measure three-by-four feet and are made of heavy-duty laminate material guaranteed to last for 20 years against the elements, was made possible through a grant by the Waterbury-based Connecticut Community Foundation. The signs are the result of a collaborative effort by several Roxbury citizens and members of the trust. Dariel Curren, a professional writer and vice president of the land trust's board of directors, gathered historical data and wrote the text for the signage. Complementing the written account are illustrations, which depict what Mine Hill might have looked like during the late 1860s, as well as pictorial renderings detailing the complex iron-and steel-making processes. Artwork on the signage was done by Roxbury resident and children's book author and illustrator Billy Steers. The layout was designed by graphic designer Carole Mackay. Ms. Curren noted, "One of the things I think is interesting about this project [is that] while there has been a lot of research and documentation done on Mine Hill, what hasn't been done before is the visualization of what it would have looked like in its heyday." The signs are being installed by Mr. and Mrs. Steers' son, Trip Venturella, a 17-year-old junior at Shepaug Valley High School in Washington, who is working with the land trust as part of his Eagle Scout project. In addition to installing the signage at the site, Trip has organized volunteer work parties to help clear the land of debris and invasive plants. As the signs will show, entrepreneurial colonists had been scouting Mine Hill for precious minerals as early as the 1720s. For unknown reasons, the early colonists didn't set up large-scale mining operations at the site. One legend suggests that a German goldsmith hired by Mine Hill claim owners to excavate the land made off with the bulk of Mine Hill's silver and precious metals. By the mid-1800s, however, Mine Hill was being eyed for an entirely different precious commodity-iron ore. In 1865, Shepaug Spathic Iron and Steel Company set up a major operation at Mine Hill, seeking what had been touted as some of the finest iron ore, comparable to European caches. The company built massive ore roasters, a puddling furnace, blast furnace, a "donkey trail" to transport the ore down the steep hill to the complex and labyrinth-like underground mining tunnels.

Over a half-mile of underground tunnels still exist to this day, but they are gated and closed to the public. Instead of being scouted for veins of precious iron, the tunnels are now used by the state Department of Environmental Protection for researching and studying bats. The tunnels are home to the largest bat hibernacula in the state-thousands of bats, including Little Brown Bats, Northern Long-Eared Bats, Big Brown Bats and Pipistrelles live in the tunnels from fall until early spring.

During the height of Roxbury's short industrial burst, hundreds of immigrant workers, mostly from Europe, settled near Mine Hill and found work at the iron making complex. To sustain the workers and the growing community, a host of small businesses, such as a post office, general store and, reportedly, two brothels, cropped up along Mine Hill. By the early 1870s, the Shepaug Spathic Iron and Steel Company, which had been plagued by a series of financial and manufacturing problems from the onset, was in serious trouble. In an attempt to salvage the business, the company changed its name and moved the majority of its operations to Bridgeport. Shortly thereafter, the operations at Mine Hill were shut down for good. Around the same time as the iron industry came to town, another industry cropped up on Mine Hill-granite quarrying. Unlike the doomed iron company, the granite quarries were quite successful and are still operating on Mine Hill to this day. Without the big iron complex, however, the once-flourishing Mine Hill community began to dissipate. The buildings were abandoned, picked-over by salvagers and many were eventually destroyed by the elements and the 1938 flood. The few original buildings that remain have been converted into private residences. After the iron and steel industry left town, a manager at the iron making complex bought the land. His descendents owned Mine Hill until 1978, when the Roxbury Land Trust purchased the property. The land trust registered Mine Hill with the National Register of Historic Places a year later. All that's left of the iron-making complex is the well-worn donkey trail and the massive, several-story-high roasting ovens and blast furnace, which the trust painstakingly restored in the 1980s. Though the town's industrial boom was short-lived and practically doomed from the start, it's not necessarily a bad thing according to many locals, who speculate had the industry thrived, Roxbury's landscape would look very different from the bucolic countryside it is today. "Maybe it's a good thing it wasn't successful," said Mr. Steers. "Roxbury could've ended up a big industrial town."


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