Saturday, November 7, 2009

Graphite Mine

Graphite Mine Entrance

One of the things I did last weekend was visit an old, abandoned graphite mine along Lake George. It is on private property, but my friend and I had permission from the owners to go check it out, as long as we didn't go too far inside. I love caves, but I'm not a spelunker, nor did I have any kind of safety equipment on me, so that was not a problem!

The mine entrance was very near the top of the mountain, so the walk up from the shore of the lake was a trek (climbing seems to be a theme for me lately). Following the old mine road, we knew we'd found the right place when we came to the ruins. A little further up the hill, was one of the mine openings.

Ruins of a large building at the mine. Although mostly stone, there are bricks in the foundation.

We went in as far as the light. The striations in the rock were pretty amazing. I took a photo of them using a flashlight as a light source; it looks like Jupiter! Taken with a flash, you can see the patterns throughout the cave.

Mine wall pattern, taken using an LED flashlight as light source.

Looking out of the mine

This was obviously mined by hand, the miners chasing the vein of graphite through the mountain. There are other openings to this mine, but we didn't get to them. They may have laid rails to carry carts of ore for initial processing - historic photos of graphite mining elsewhere in the area show this. I didn't see any evidence of rails either in the mine or along the road. Mules and carts were probably used to carry the ore down the mountain.

Once we got home, I looked up the history of graphite mining. This area is home to the main graphite deposits in New York State. Graphite deposits had been unearthed as early as 1815 in the Ticonderoga area. Commercial mining began in 1832. Several small works subsisted for a while, but by the 1860s, the American Graphite Company had incorporated and become the dominant player. Separation and concentrating processes devised by the firm aided its success.**

Mine road

This particular location has deposits of graphite ranging from 3 to 13 inches thick, with alternating layers of graphitic shale or schist. Overall, the graphite bed is about 9 feet thick. Sandstones form strong ledges above and below the graphite (thank goodness!). Once mined, the ore is carted for processing. In this area, it was done either by pulverizing it in drop stamps and then washed to remove the impurities, or crushed and dried and then purified using air.* The original dock on the shore of Lake George, at the foot of the mine road, is long gone, but locals told us that it had a wide end, so that the mules could turn the carts before heading back up the mountain for another load. The ore was then shipped up the lake to Ticonderoga for further processing, then to Jersey City, New Jersey for manufacturing.***

Manufacturing into what? Well, Dixon's Ticonderoga Pencils, of course! Graphite was also used as a lubricant and an ingredient to gunpowder, but the primary use was pencil leads -- once Joseph Dixon convinced Americans to use pencils, that is! Before Dixon was successful at marketing graphite pencils, he manufactured stove polish and crucibles for iron ore processing from the graphite mined along Lake George.** He would have found a ready market for his crucibles; there are a ton of old iron deposits and forges in the area as well.

American Graphite was bought out by Dixon's Crucible Company sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, and Dixon continued to make and try to sell his Ticonderoga pencils. During the Civil War, the use of pencils became widespread, as they were much more convenient than liquid ink and quills, and Dixon's company flourished. By the end of the Civil War, Dixon had machines that could make 132 pencils a minute; by 1872, the Dixon plant in Jersey City was spitting out over 86,000 pencils a day.** Graphite mining in the area ceased in the 1920s.

What we didn't see in the mine was any evidence of bats. Perhaps we didn't go in far enough, but this area is close to where white nose syndrome was first identified in brown bats. Not too long ago, the area at dusk would be swarming with bats; we didn't see any. Hopefully, it was because of the time of year, and not because they are gone.

* Cirkel, Fritz (1907)
Graphite: It's Properties, Occurrence, Refining, and Uses. Canadian Department of Mines, Ottawa, Ontario.

** Frost, Richard (2007) "Rock Pond's Mine History Written in Pencil"

*** Mills, James Cooke (1911)
Searchlights on Some American Industries A.C. McClurg & Co., Chicago.


Bavardess said...

It's odd to think there is so much behind the humble history of the pencil. And if you're going to go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you avoid watching 'The Descent'.

Digger said...

I love the histories of everyday things. And I looked up "The Descent"... good thing I don't go in for horror movies :D