Mining in Downeast Maine—a case of "Extravagant Expectations"

By Terry Hussey

"I consider a gold discovery a great evil to Maine, since it invariably produces extravagant expectations," said state geologist C.T. Jackson in 1838.  According to Tom Jenkins, geology instructor and Assistant Professor of Professional Studies at the University of Maine, mining in Downeast Maine was indeed a case of extravagant expectations and few instances of success.

Jenkins spoke to about 40 members of the Milbridge Historical Society on January 9, about various mining ventures for base metals in this region.  Jenkins said in order for mineral deposits to occur in rocks; there must be a source, a way to move them around, and finally, a way to concentrate them.  All of these conditions were made possible because of the movement of the earth’s crust over the ages.

Jenkins said that plate tectonics explain the rock formations in Maine today.  The theory of plate tectonics says that the location of continents and oceans are continually changed and changing.  He likened the earth’s crust to the cracked shell of a hardboiled egg. The crust is constantly moving and shifting, with old crust breaking up and new crust being formed.

Jenkins said that in the Silurian period, 425 million years ago, the North American continent was very small because most land was submerged.  Maine was under water, and Quebec was the crust closest to us that was above sea level.  If it had existed, Maine would have been far below the equator.  During this period, the climate was first becoming stable.  First plants were appearing on the earth, and coral reefs were being formed.  Most of the rock and ore deposits in Maine was formed during this period.

Next came the Devonian period, 390 million years ago.  During this time, plants dominated the earth, and first vertebrates were formed.  This was the age of fishes and the time of the formation of the first coal. During this period, many volcanoes were formed creating the igneous rock we see here today.  By this period, the land mass had grown larger, but the Atlantic Ocean was a very small inlet.  Maine was still submerged.

The third geologic period Jenkins presented was the Jurassic Period around 195 million years ago.  By this time the continents were all pushed together.  Maine had moved north of the equator. Few Maine rocks were formed during the Jurassic period.

The metals in eastern Maine are found in veins.  Most common are rocks that yield galena, from which silver and lead are extracted.  Copper and zinc are also found. Quartz and calcite are usually the host rocks.

First Lead Mine in Lubec

Jenkins said that the first mine in coastal Maine was a lead mine in Lubec around 1832.  It is said that, the mine had 20-30 tons of pure galena ore right at the shaft opening.  It was found in veins as much as two and three feet wide.  Things were just getting started for this mine when catastrophy struck: the chief miner, a man named Featherstromhough (pronounced Fanshaw) went down with the ship Sarah out of Eastport.  The mine closed.  Jenkins said that as far as he knows, the ore is still there.  He has picked up nice samples of ore near the mouth of the old mine.
Jenkins told the historians that the period between 1878-1882 was a boom time for Maine mining.  In a great flurry of excitement, small mines and prospects were opened in many areas, primarily along the coastal volcanic belt.  Some of the activity came from miners who returned to Maine from the Gold Rush in the West.  He said there were many new shafts drilled, and lots of promotion.  There was ample opportunity to buy mining stock and a large number of credulous fools, ready to make a killing.  A few did well, but most did not.  In most cases, the ore veins were just not big enough to make mining profitable. The Maine State Mining Journal reported in 1880 that Maine was 18th of 20 silver producing states, so there was indeed some silver production here, but never a lot.

Reasons for Failure

One of the big problems with mining in Maine was the distance from Maine to a smelter.  The state had no ready source of coal, and bringing it long distances from Pennsylvania was expensive.  Sending ore to a smelter far away was costly.

Mines in Maine tended to be controlled by just a few families, and if there was a disaster at one place, other mines would close because they all drew from the same limited pool of money.  Two families, the Hamlins and the Darlings, were involved in probably 90% of the mines in this part of the state, according to Jenkins.

There was also a labor problem.  There was no supply of experienced miners to work the mines.  They could get off-season granite workers or even lumbermen, but few people with mining skills.  The real problem with mining in Maine, however, was that the veins were small.  There was limited technology to help get the ore from the ground, and it was too expensive for the amount of ore yielded.

The sudden drop in prices and general depression in 1883 caused most of the mines to close almost as fast as they had opened.  Sporadic activity continued until 1918 when production of base metals in Maine ceased for almost 50 years.

Sullivan had a number of silver mining sites during this period and in fact produced the first silver brick in the state.  It weighed 31 pounds and sold for $450.  Here too the mine was on its way to wealth when tragedy struck.  The shaft was flooded, and the mine had to be closed.  One can still see evidence of mine tailings in the area just south of the Sullivan Bridge.  Jenkins’ maps show silver was mined at nine different sites in Sullivan, as well as several in Hancock and Franklin.

From 1905-1907 a mine yielding silver and lead ore operated in Cherryfield, but Jenkins reported few details on its operation.

Mid-Century Success Stories Downeast

The next round of Maine mineral exploration occurred in the late 1950’s when large ore deposits were found in nearby Bathurst, New Brunswick.  Part of an ore body estimated at 4.5 million tons was worked near Blue Hill in 1964-65, and significant nickel copper deposit was drilled but not mined in Union.  The most famous operation was the open-pit mine in Harborside, between Brooksville and Cape Rosier where 800,000 tons of copper and zinc ore were mined between 1968 and 1972.

Probably the most successful Downeast mine was in Blue Hill.  It is said that a million tons of zinc-copper-lead ore were shipped from the Black Hawk mine there.  1,600 men were employed there at $1.10 a day.  You could make more as a carpenter, but it was a reasonable living.  The map distributed by Jenkins shows 21 different mining sites in the Blue Hill area.  No metals have been mined in Maine since 1977.

In summary, Jenkins said that $975,000 was invested in Maine mining.  OF this only $375,000 was invested by Mainers.  Only $35,000 was realized from the total investment.  Of course, he pointed out, all of that $975,000 was spent in Maine, so the state did have economic benefit from mining.  He quoted Frank Bartlett who said in 1882,  that never have more summer visitors come to Maine to watch the hauling of ores from our mines.  There isn’t that much to see, "but they can’t help admiring our beautiful scenery."