From Ore to Orchids

by | February 2017

The legacy of Benson Mines


If a landscape could
be read like a book, two scenes near the western Adirondack hamlet of Star Lake would seem to belong to very different genres. The first is visible to anyone driving west along Route 3 from Wanakena. On the right, surrounded by a chain-link fence, is a dilapidated complex of industrial buildings, overgrown with weeds. A sign out front declares this the J & L Steel Jobsite and bears the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Emergency Response seal.

Similar tales of woe have played out across the Adirondacks, in towns like Corinth, Tupper Lake and Moriah: industries built on the exploitation of natural resources bring jobs and prosperity, only to leave environmental and economic devastation in their wake when the market shifts or the resources are exhausted.

But across the street, hidden from view on private land, the narrative takes an unexpectedly hopeful turn.

On an overcast July day, Professor Donald Leopold and Grete Bader, one of his students, lead a group through stands of gray birch and along dirt roads surrounded by pale-green tufts of reindeer lichen. Kneeling, Leopold scoops up a handful of crumbly, reddish dirt and lets it sift through his fingers.

This soil is why we’re here. The sandy, iron-rich tailings are left over from the mining operation on the other side of the highway, which turned Star Lake from a small-time 19th-century resort to a booming company town—more than once. In the decades since Benson Mines closed for good, in 1978, this virtual desert has transformed into a landscape like no other in the Adirondacks.

In another half-mile or so, we see the first hints of what makes this place so special. Bader wades through a field of low shrubs and disappears behind some tamaracks. “Found one,” she calls. It’s a grass pink—a small, fuchsia-colored bloom that is one of three species of native orchid growing here in incredible numbers. Bader wrote her master’s thesis on the phenomenon for the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), where Leopold was her advisor. She estimates that at least hundreds of thousands of grass pinks, rose pogonias and hooded lady’s tresses are growing on the wetland formed at the base of the tailings pile—plus the state’s largest known population of pink wintergreen, a non-orchid flower that is threatened in New York State. “I was blown away when I first came here and saw the abundance,” Bader says.

Dissimilar as they appear, the stories on both sides of the highway have the same opening lines: Under the most likely scenario, more than a billion years ago, iron-rich sedimentary rock metamorphosed under intense heat and pressure into magnetite and hematite—two kinds of iron ore—in quantities sufficient enough to be of value, eons later, for making steel.

Most sources trace the discovery of magnetite here to the War of 1812, when military engineers building a road from Ogdensburg to Albany noted their compass needles jumping.

But in an unpublished manuscript he bequeathed to the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, the late David Ackerman disputes the legend, positing that the road surveyed was several miles from the place that would come to be known as Benson Mines.

Whatever the date of its discovery, by 1883 the presence of a large, crescent-shaped ore body just north of Star Lake was public knowledge. Ackerman’s great-grandfather Byron D. Benson, an oilman from Pennsylvania, helped found the Magnetic Iron Ore Company, which built railroads and opened up the area for mining iron ore. Benson died in February 1888, but the following year, with his son William S. Benson as general manager, operations at Benson Mines began. Ackerman based part of his history of the early days of the company on the letters of William, his grandfather.

William met with steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in hopes of forming a partnership, but it wasn’t to be. He wrote of the meeting, “The interview lasted two hours and a half and of all the egotistical cheeky men I never saw the like. He wanted to have us give him half our property simply to get them to go up in that country and compete with us.”

A more pressing issue was the labor shortage, exacerbated by the remote location of the mine. In 1891, Benson wrote, “We have a padrone out looking for 25 Italians, but with little success so far. … Rob sent 35 from New York who arrived here Monday. Wednesday morning 24 of them left. We did what we could to get them back, especially as we had advanced their fares from New York; but could only find six of them.”

By 1892, the workforce was abundant enough that the Ogdensburg Journal described “a veritable ‘city in the woods’” springing up around the mines: “Already this season sixteen new houses are approaching completion, the frame for a large company store is up, and a handsome new school will be dedicated to the cause of education on Monday next. The foundation for a new church was finished last week.”

There were amenities for the less pious, too. In the 1890s, Ackerman writes, “There were between 13 and 20 bars within a short distance and not all were the orderly sort of establishments with which we are familiar today.”

According to Ackerman, community life centered around the boardinghouses where most of the workers stayed, including his grandfather. Describing the scene at a place he called Bellanger’s (though Ackerman corrected it to Boulanger’s), Benson wrote, “There were over thirty men at supper tonight. They all talk and swear alike, and, as the partition between their ‘setten’ room and mine is so thin and the cracks so wide, I hear it all… There is a drunken galoot in the next room on one side and a Jew pack peddler, in the room on the other side, trying to sell Mde. Bellanger ‘something sheap’.”

When the population grew large enough to support a bigger general store, its motto of “Everything, from the Cradle to the Grave” was no boast—among the offerings were the services of undertaker Dempster Montando.

By newspaper accounts, it appears Montando did a brisk business. The Benson Mines (named in the plural, some writers have suggested, because multiple pits may have originally been dug and eventually joined into one) was an open-pit or strip mine, but that didn’t necessarily make it less hazardous than its underground counterparts. Workers dealing with heavy machinery and explosives—decades before workplace safety laws—occasionally lost a limb, their eyesight or worse.

The most serious of these accidents occurred on August 15, 1908, when a premature explosion in the open pit killed four men and injured several others. One survivor, Joseph King, wanted nothing to do with blasting after the explosion threw him high in the air. But his appointment with the undertaker wasn’t postponed for long; less than two years later, while working as a temporary brakeman on a train crew in the pit, King fell between two ore cars and died as a result of the injuries.

Dangerous, dirty and difficult as it was, the men were fortunate to have jobs at all. From the 1890s until the outbreak of World War II, the mine opened and closed multiple times as the market for steel fluctuated.

The surest source of job security was war and its demand for tanks, guns, ships and planes, all of them requiring a steady supply of steel. After the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in 1914, setting off World War I, the mine operated round the clock to meet demand. But when all went quiet on the Western Front, four years later, the bottom dropped out of the steel market. The mine closed within a few weeks of the war’s end.

It took another world war to get the mine back in business. In 1941, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, based in Pittsburgh, leased the mining rights from the Benson Iron Company, and the following year the U. S. government invested millions of dollars on a new, expanded plant for processing the ore. Because the ore vein continued under the Benson Mines settlement, several dozen buildings had to be moved to Star Lake, including homes and a Catholic church. “The developing of the ancient mines, now reputed holding hundreds of millions of dollars of valuable ore, is sounding like a Gabriel’s trumpet in the southern section of St. Lawrence County,” enthused the Commercial Advertiser of Potsdam Junction that July.

At 1,300 feet long, 200 feet wide and about 50 feet deep, the Benson Mines pit was for a time the largest open quarry magnetite iron-ore mine in the world.

In the decades between the wars, the area’s population had thinned out again, and finding an adequate supply of labor was a challenge.

Among those answering the call was a young David Ackerman, who was then a junior at Northwood School, in Lake Placid. In February 1942, Ackerman’s father wrote to Jones & Laughlin to inquire about a summer job for his son at Benson Mines, noting, “You doubtless know that I am VP of the Benson Iron Company from whom you are leasing the property.”

In his journal from that summer, Ackerman described helping to take magnetic readings on the “mountain” with a miner’s compass. “I received my first pay-check for $20.15 which includes the reduction of 20 cents for that dam [sic] federal old age benefits tax,” he wrote.

This time around, thanks in part to the booming post-war automobile market, the declaration of peace didn’t lead to a crash in demand for steel, and Benson Mines—along with the paper mill at Newton Falls, about four miles to the north—helped support what became a thriving community in Star Lake. The operation even expanded, adding a gravity plant in 1952 that allowed for processing of the non-magnetic iron ore known as martite. A 1952 J & L ad in Gouverneur’s Tribune Press touted the company’s investment in the new Clifton-Fine Central School, where “tomorrow’s men of steel are being molded today.”

One of those future “men of steel” was Russell Hall, the son of a miner whose 2005 book Gem of the Adirondacks: Star Lake, Benson Mines & the Global Economy describes growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s. After graduating from high school and going to college, Hall spent summers back home working in the sinter plant, where pulverized iron ore, separated from other minerals, was fused back together into chunks that could be thrown in a blast furnace. The work was dull and the plant “seemed one of the dirtiest places on earth,” Hall writes, so it’s hardly surprising that he eventually sought greener pastures, becoming a biologist in Maryland and elsewhere. He didn’t return to Star Lake until a schoolmate he had kept in touch with convinced him to attend their 40th class reunion, in 2002.

What Hall saw on that visit shocked him. By the early 1960s, competition from cheaper labor in Africa, Chile and Brazil was already putting a dent in Jones & Laughlin’s profitability, and in 1978, after years of diminishing output, the Star Lake operation closed for good. Dealing a further economic blow to the region, the Newton Falls paper plant closed in 2001. (Though it would reopen several more times in the next decade and a half, in 2013 it closed for the final time, its equipment sold off.)

“A brief first visit to the ‘downtown’ area provided stark evidence that things had changed drastically,” Hall writes of his 2002 return to Star Lake. “What had been thriving businesses were now vacant and ramshackle structures or more commonly, empty lots gaped where familiar buildings once lined the street. And the changes in the village, which even in the best times had traces of shabbiness, did not prepare me for the ruins of the Benson Mines plant.” 

Aside from being an eyesore, the abandoned property is an environmental albatross. In the late 1980s, a million gallons of oil, traced to the plant, leaked into the Little River. Long afterward, locals noticed a diesel taste in fish caught there. After years of unpaid taxes, St. Lawrence County took ownership of the 56-acre plant property (the Benson Mines Trust continues to own the site of the tailings and the quarry pit, now filled with water). In 2013, the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency was awarded an $87,500 regional economic development grant to clean up and redevelop the site, with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA involved in demolition and remediation.

Over the years, a number of ideas have been floated to make use of part of the Benson Mines property and bring jobs back to the community, including a refuse- and wood-fired electrical generating facility, a commercial wind farm, and various schemes to utilize the piles of already mined ore and other rock. Most re-cently, the county industrial development agency received a $9.9 million economic development grant to rehabilitate a 43-mile railroad between Carthage and Newton Falls in hopes that it could spur redevelopment of the J & L and paper mill sites.

In the meantime, the 2010 census found 809 permanent residents in the hamlet of Star Lake, down from 1,092 in 1990. With only a smattering of businesses—including a gas station, a coffee shop that opened in 2015, and a small market that opened last year, a few months after its predecessor closed unexpectedly—many residents work at the hospital, the school, or in local government.

While the Star Lake community tries to rebound from the loss of its biggest employers, nature has been busy regenerating the tailings site for decades.

Donald Leopold, who teaches environmental and forestry biology at SUNY-ESF, first learned of the population of orchids growing on the tailings pile some 30 years ago. Though he had mentioned it to many of his classes over the years, Grete Bader was the first to take an interest in researching the site and what allowed the flowers to grow so abundantly here.

One factor is likely the barrenness of the site itself. “Orchids are able to thrive in low nutrient habitats,” Bader explains in her thesis, “partially due to their associations with mycorrhizal fungi, on which they are dependent for nutrients as seedlings.”

For her study, Bader collected soil samples at 30 wetland plots and analyzed them for organic matter and groundwater pH, then cross-referenced them with the species that were found on each plot. She also took thin cross-sections of the flowers’ roots to look for fungal infection.

She concluded that the abundance of the particular species of orchids (as well as the pink wintergreen) may be due, in part, to the presence of one or more “keystone” species of fungus. She writes, “Perhaps soil conditions create microsites where orchid mycorrhizal fungi are unusually abundant at Benson Mines, corresponding to greater orchid abundance.”

Further studies would be needed to fully explain why these particular species are thriving at Benson Mines, but during our walk, Bader and Leopold point out one reason for haste. At the margins of the wetland, phragmites, an invasive reed, is beginning to take hold. Left unchecked, it will someday crowd out the native plants.

In any case, the natural succession of the landscape will eventually lead this area to convert to a black spruce and tamarack bog community, Bader explains, causing the orchid species that don’t do well in shade to decline in population.

In Gem of the Adirondacks, Russell Hall proposes that the entire Benson Mines site be turned into an “industrial and natural heritage park” where visitors could learn about the region’s mining legacy. They could marvel at the enormity of the human enterprise and witness firsthand its environmental costs, as well as the rewilding of the landscape—yet another chapter in this epic story. “And despite the devastation of the past,” he writes, “the visitor would be left with little question that nature is now in charge.”


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