Seeing Peak Production At a Steep Price

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Copper oxide zoned quartz and schist
This is a typical example of copper oxide zoned with white quartz and schist from Bristol, Connecticut. (Yale specimen) (Image courtesy Bob Jones)

Editor's Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series about the Bristol Mine in Bristol, Connecticut. Enjoy the first article in this series>>>

Story by Bob Jones

Discovered in 1798, the small, but rich, copper deposit at Bristol, Connecticut, produced America’s finest chalcocite and bornite mineral specimens. It was America’s first important copper deposit. It also gave birth to what developed into important brass and clock industries in Connecticut. In its later years, it provided the material that enabled a major scientific discovery. Yale scientist Alan Bateman had engaged in a study of chalcocite, which was always thought to have formed as a secondary mineral. Bateman proved that chalcocite at Bristol was a primary mineral that had formed directly from hydrothermal solutions.

The deposit was initially found on property owned by the Yale family, to which Yale University namesake Elihu Yale belonged.

Digging Into the Copper Deposit

Part One of this series described how Theophilus Botsford investigated an unusual, green-

Willam Shaft joist and stamp mill photo
Ore was brought to the surface of the Bristol mine on a conveyor and was dumped into the mill (circa 1851).
(Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Society)

tinted stream of water that was killing the vegetation around it. Botsford actually found a vein of what was then called “variegated copper ore”, but never attempted to do any mining. That task was left to Asa Hooker, who leased the property in 1800. Small amounts of copper were mined, but by 1810, the mine had gone dormant, and it was not reopened until 1836.

The years from 1800 to 1810 saw small development of the deposit. There was another lull until 1937, when a major, 10-year development proved the deposit, and produced the first significant amount of copper, along with fine mineral specimens. Benjamin Silliman Sr., a chemist and professor at Yale University, visited the mine in 1839 and wrote a very enthusiastic report, which encouraged his professional colleges to invest in the mine along with him. But in 1846, lawsuits and excessive spending led to the mine closing. Within a year, the mine was reopened and entered its best years of ore and specimen production.

In 1847, Richard F. Blydenburgh and his partner, Hezekiah Botsford, obtained a long-term lease and opened the mine, and when Professor Eliphalet Nott of Union College, Schenectady, New York, purchased the mortgage, he got involved. By 1851, Nott was the sole owner of the Bristol copper mine. He appointed himself President of a newly formed Bristol Mining Co., and through the 1850s, increased production so dramatically that the mine experienced its halcyon years. In addition to ore, it produced some of America’s finest chalcocite and bornite specimens, which rivaled those found earlier in Cornwall, England. Other less-important species like chalcopyrite contributed to production, but chalcocite and bornite are what Bristol is most noted for among collectors.

Exploring Accelerated Output

To accelerate production, Nott hired Charles Moore Wheatley as mine manager. Wheatley, a naturalist, was not an experienced mine manager and was only in his early 20s. He was very eager, however, and would even work underground with his miners to learn the trade. Wheatley remained manager for only two years before moving on to the Perkiomen mine, in Pennsylvania. He also developed the lead mine at Phoenixville, which was noted for superb pyromorphite, wulfenite, anglesite, and other secondary collector specimens that are still sought by collectors today. When Nott eventually visited his mine, Wheatley had it running smoothly.

Nott was no shrinking violet. He liked his comforts and he liked to impress people. From Schenectady, he entrained to Connecticut, and from Middletown he traveled to the mine by wagon, but he did it in style! Instead of riding up with the driver, he had a huge, overstuffed chair fastened in the back of the wagon and sat regally, wearing a top hat, with a blanket wrapped around his legs. Contrast this arrival in the Bristol surroundings with the reaction of Charles Wheatley when he arrived in Bristol to take over mine management. In a letter to a friend, Wheatley vividly described Bristol and the area around it as “a wilderness."

Diverse Population of Miners

Blister copper ore
The 1800s-era Bristol copper mine was famous for chalcocite, but it did produce iridescent, botryoidal chalcopyrite, commonly known as “blister ore” or “blister copper”. (11.5 x 7.4 x 5.9 cm) (Image courtesy iRocks.com)

Nonetheless, under Wheatley’s management and Nott’s leadership, the mine embarked on its most successful production years. It also experienced some of its most tumultuous years.

The miners Wheatley employed were a mixed lot. There were “Cousin Jacks”, Cornish émigrés with vast mining experience. They were joined by Irish miners, who had immigrated to America in the wake of the devastating potato famine that began in about 1845 and lasted for seven years, to about 1851. A vast exodus from Ireland had brought a lot of labor to America, including the state of Connecticut.

The first conflict among the workers occurred because of religion. Cornishmen were Protestants, while the Irish were devoted Catholics. To add to the problem, the miners were only being paid 70 cents per hour, which they thought was not enough. Adding to the unrest, the Irish demanded Sundays off with pay so they could attend mass in New Britain. Wheatley adamantly refused. Eventually, the miners went on strike—the first miners’ strike in America. The strike got so heated that the miners actually plotted to kill Wheatley if he did not accede to their demands. This caused Wheatley to reach a compromise with the miners. He arranged for Father Luke Daley to come to the miners and conduct the first-ever Catholic church service at the mine.

Periods of Progress

In the 1840s, Bristol miners had sunk a shaft to reach the vein at a lower level and made crosscuts to open the vein. The vein, called the flucan by the Cornish miners, was not actually a hardrock vein. It is what modern miners call a “fault gouge”, where crustal movement had opened a fault between two rock types, and the resulting space was filled with unconsolidated material.

The rock types at Bristol were granite on one side and arkose on the other side of the fault. Arkose is an ancient sandstone that has been cemented together by iron oxide, giving it a reddish color. Arkose is visible as reddish outcrops in central Connecticut.

The arkose in the mine had been bleached by later-arriving mineral-rich hydrothermal solutions, which deposited the copper sulfides in the veins and pockets that formed the pay ore of the deposit. For that reason, chalcocite and bornite crystals found in the flucan had formed on bleached sandstone.

The flucan was a treasure trove of copper sulfides, along with other species like chalcopyrite. Some of the finer copper sulfide specimens came from pockets in the flucan and can be identified by their gray sandstone matrix.

Trial and Error

To increase production, it was decided to sink a second shaft, and a Captain Williams, from

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Swansea, Wales, was hired to do the job. Interestingly, Williams was the father of Ben and Lewis Williams, who initially opened the copper workings at Bisbee some years later.
Williams sank the shaft to a depth of 240 feet. Crosscut tunnels were dug to reach the flucan, and production rose accordingly. Steam power was the preferred method used for hoisting at Cornish mines, so Nott had it installed at Bristol. This did not agree with Benjamin Silliman Jr., also a Yale chemist and professor with an investment in the mine, who favored the use of water-wheel power. In fact, he had a huge water wheel installed. In order to get enough water to work it, Silliman had a nearby swamp drained and a large dam built to retain water. This worked fine until the dam broke. Though no one was hurt, the water wheel project was abandoned.

This entire controversy of water wheel vs. steam power between Nott and Silliman added to their dislike for each other. Yale professor James M. Woolsey, a stockholder in the mining company, and Silliman insisted that fine mineral specimens be saved from the crusher. Silliman had already been collecting specimens underground, which also upset the mine manager, who complained Silliman was removing “baskets full of specimens”.

All this simply added to the real problems of rising costs and falling production. Sinking a second shaft cost the immense sum of $200,000. The money wasted on the ill-fated water-power project had also eaten into the company’s huge profits. The ore had been running 33% copper, an enormous yield for the operation. The flucan was a trove of copper sulfides, which did not even require explosives, as the ore “ran”, a term that describes the sandlike flowing of the ore once exposed by mining.

Controversy Amidst Copper

Mined ore was put on a conveyor and dumped into a big, steel hopper to go to the crusher, then hauled to the smelter. Allowing well-crystallized material to go to the crusher really upset scientists Woolsey and Silliman, and even Nott. Yet, this is a common practice at mines. When I visited a silver mine in Mexico a couple of decades ago and asked about pyrargyrite crystals, I was told that nice specimens were saved. But instead of selling them to collectors, the engineers tossed them into the ore to enrich the yield! I certainly know how Silliman felt.

The controversies that had developed caused Whitney, Nott and Silliman to sell off their holdings, and Woolsey ended up owning the mine. I find it interesting that two years before these men sold out, Silliman had written an article extolling the value and great future of the mine, suggesting the rich vein would probably extend all the way to Hamden, a town just north of New Haven, some 40 miles to the south!

By 1957, the mine was losing so much money it had to be closed until 1888, when it was reopened as an investment opportunity. The big news came when promoters announced that gold in quantity had been found deep underground in the mine. But when wooden crates being shipped to the mine from out West were investigated, they were found to contain specimens of gold being used to “salt” the mine.

Sad Conclusion

Bornite coated chalcoyrite-Bristol
Crystallized chalcopyrite heavily coated with bornite was common in the Bristol ore vein. (Yale collection) (Image courtesy Bob Jones)

After World War II, in 1946, another attempt was made to open the property. The dumps were worked for copper and silver, but after five years this venture shut down and the mine site became an industrial property.

There is one final, sad story about this great mine. When the mine was shut down, equipment went up for auction. The big, steel hopper became the roof of a chicken coop! The mine bell was sold to businessman E.H. Dunbar. He used it as a curfew bell, ringing it 99 times at 9 p.m. each night. When Dunbar died, the bell went to the Sons of Italy, who rang it once each night, until their hall burned down. In the 1970s, the bell was given to the town of Bristol, but the town fathers had no idea what to do with it. Finally, a fireman named Robert Young suggested the bell be part of a memorial to honor all the town’s fire fighters who had died in the line of duty. The memorial was built, but when records were searched, it was discovered that no one had ever died in the line of duty! Finally, a fireman did perish. His name? Lt. Robert Young!