The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 22, 2005


Carlisle's copper mine: fact or fantasy?

The back of Heald House at 698 Concord Street has several mine shafts where children played in the early 1900s.
The intersection of Concord and South Streets is a magnet today, drawing people to tour "This Old House," and making Carlisle a "destination," at least through May. A century and a half ago, this same location was the center of activity of a different sort — a small mining community had sprung up to support a copper mine in the back yards of several farmers in the area. For ten years, from 1840 to 1850, copper was an intermittently thriving industry in Carlisle, and then it ended. At least, that is what we have been told. Historians have written their accounts, but the entire story of the copper mine remains deeply buried in Carlisle soil. Some scientists question whether it actually existed.

Local geologist Tony Mariano calls the copper mine "puzzling," and will explain why in his talk on Carlisle's geology Thursday, April 28 at 7:00 p.m. in the Hollis Room of the Library. Sponsored by the Carlisle Historical Society, the talk is free and open to the community.

Fact and fantasy surround the mine. Much of what we know appears in Bull's History of Carlisle, Ruth Wilkins's Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, and Martha Fifield Wilkins's notebooks, supplemented by recollections of Carlisle residents in the early 1900s. It is not known who discovered the mine and when, but its shafts were located on Heald family land around Concord, South and Cross Streets. The Healds owned a number of farmhouses in this area, later known as Valleyhead. (See the Mosquito of February 6, 2004, for a story on Valleyhead Hospital.)

Nellie Grace Taylor, a descendant of Jonathan Heald, Jr. who lived in the Brick End House at 71 South Street in the early 1880s, was puzzled when she wrote to Carlisle historian Martha Fifield Wilkins. Her letter, dated November 1, 1937, and now in the archives of the Carlisle Historical Society, refers to a Lowell newspaper article about the Carlisle copper mine "and the invitation of the writer for some 'local historian' to tell more about the real facts." She continues: "Why do you suppose nothing was said of the shafts back of Grandfather Jonathan's house? I should think they would have been the Heald mines as they were on his land and the family funds were tied up in them." Even a century after the mine opened, few facts were known.

The mining operation was run by Henry N. Hooper & Company of Causeway Street in Boston, then the leading founder and caster of church bells in the country, and Major Benjamin F. Heald was general superintendent of the mine. The small mining community at Concord and South Streets was said to consist of four miners' houses, a shaft house, blacksmith shop, cook house, a store and out-buildings. None of these buildings have survived. Some were torn down after the mine was abandoned, others collapsed of old age.

The Lowell Evening Leader of March 7, 1941, published an article about the mine in which Carlisle resident Charles S. Taylor recalled a story told by his grandmother, Emeline Parker Taylor. With a group of friends, she took refuge in the old shaft house one day during a thunderstorm. Soon afterwards, they revisited the area and looked for the building. It was nowhere to be seen. According to the Lowell paper, "The banks of the shaft, weakened by the heavy rains, had given way and the shaft house had plunged down 100 feet or more out of sight."

The business of copper mining

In its heyday, the mine yielded enough copper to make a modest profit for Henry N. Hooper & Company, but the Heald family received little return on their investment. The copper ore was hauled by ox teams to Hooper's foundry in Boston, which proved to be an expensive operation. The Hooper Company decided to build their own smelter on the Carlisle property to reduce costs. But local farmers objected vigorously, protesting that the fumes would ruin their crops and sicken their cattle. The company, fearing lawsuits from the farmers should these disasters occur, tried to buy up all the surrounding land. But the farmers would have none of it — some refused to sell, others priced their land outrageously high, and the Hooper Company pondered its options.

Meanwhile, another development would seal the fate of the mine. In 1849, copper ore was discovered at Lake Superior in Michigan, and could be sent east less expensively than hauling ore from Carlisle to Boston. A year later, the local copper mine was abandoned. The Lowell Evening Leader article questions the quality of the copper ore mined in Carlisle. It suggests that it was "good enough for Henry N. Hooper & Company to make its bells from it for several years," but a Boston copper expert contacted by the reporter "suspects that it is of low grade in comparison with that on the market today." Interestingly, this copper expert did not even know of the Carlisle mine's existence.

And, says Tony Mariano, neither do any other geologists. It is not mentioned in mining literature, it does not appear on maps of local mines, and so far no samples of copper ore from Carlisle have been identified by professionals. Anyone who has stashed away any copper samples from the mine is encouraged to bring them to Tony Mariano's talk on April 28 for identification.

Henry N. Hooper & Company

We do know that this company existed and was a leading foundry in its day. Henry Hooper, an apprentice of Paul Revere, bought the Boston Copper Company, which was begun by Paul Revere, from one of Revere's sons in 1830 and established Henry N. Hooper & Company. After Hooper's death in 1865, the company became William Blake & Company. It is, of course, impossible to determine which products contained Carlisle copper, but in the ten years during which the mine existed, several bell chimes were manufactured by the Hooper company. The web site lists the location of bells produced during the brief life span of Carlisle copper. Two New England sites whose bell chimes were manufactured between 1840 and 1850 are Pinewood Lutheran Church in Burlington, Mass., and the town hall in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

The bell from the Hooper foundry dates between 1840 and 1850 and is located at Pinewood Lutheran Church, Burlington, Mass.
The possibility of a Carlisle connection with the U.S.S. Constitution was raised by Hooper's granddaughter, Mabel P. Cook, in a letter to Martha Fifield Wilkins dated June 20, 1941. She wrote, "There has always been much sentiment about Old Ironside in the family. One of the chief 'lines' of manufacturing in the foundry of H.N. Hooper & Co. was 'ships findings' so it is more than likely they supplied what was necessary for the patching of the Constitution." An earlier reference to the possibility of the old warship's containing Carlisle copper came from Reverend A.E. Sawyer of Lowell in May 1908: "There is reason to think that the Constitution had some Carlisle Copper used in its 2nd Copper Battery repairs."

Playing in the mine shaft

Long after the mines were abandoned, Carlisle children would play in the shafts, probably to their parents' dismay — if they even knew. Borghild Dyson, now of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, grew up at 698 Concord Road, one of the Heald farmsteads that is now the home of the Carlisle Historical Society. In a recent phone call, Mrs. Dyson, now 87, said that she and her siblings "would climb down the shaft. One was very deep, they said it was the same height as the Bunker Hill monument [220 feet deep]. There were rocks on the side of the shaft, and we climbed down the rocks until we reached the water at the bottom." Asked what her parents thought of a six-year-old climbing down the shafts, Mrs. Dyson said with a laugh, "Oh, my parents didn't know!" Adding to the thrill of a dangerous descent was the creepiness of meeting up with black snakes in the mine shaft. "The snakes lived in the cracks between the stones," Mrs. Dyson explained. "They were harmless," she added reassuringly. Reportedly, every spring until the shafts were filled in, the snakes would emerge from their dark homes into the sunlight. There, zealous Carlisle farmers killed them as they appeared.

Christian Pedersen, Mrs. Dyson's father, who farmed his land, later filled in the shafts in his back yard with stones to avoid injury to his cattle (and presumably his children!), and today all evidence of old shaft holes in the area have disappeared under thick vegetation. We do have a description of a shaft on South Street as it appeared 64 years ago: "Some of the smaller holes were only 10 or 12 feet deep, and around the edges are piles of copper-colored rock. A ditch is still visible by which water was drawn off," the Lowell Evening Leader reported. Mrs. Lawrence Lunt, who lived at 84 South Street and whose husband owned Valleyhead Hospital (now the home of Assurance Technology), told the reporter that "the [shallow] shaft holes remain barren of vegetation, and in the summer the soil seems to take on a bluish tinge."

Disappearing evidence

Today physical evidence of the Carlisle copper mine is non-existent. All the buildings connected with the mining community have vanished, as have all traces of the mine shafts. A 1938 note from Martha Fifield Wilkins in the archives of the Carlisle Historical Society reads, "Mr. Christian Pedersen who lives in the Samuel Heald House [698 Concord Street], said the real estate man who sold him the house gave him a paper about the mine, which he has kept but cannot locate among his belongings." Subsequent owners of the house also could not find written accounts of the mine in their back yard. Judy Pettit, who owned the house at 698 Concord Street before the Historical Society purchased it in 2001, had named the house "Coppermine Farm" and placed a large sign on the barn, which has now been removed. The house is now called Heald House.

If time has erased physical evidence of the mine, written and oral reports seem convincing, if not scientifically conclusive. We would like to believe that Carlisle once was a mining town, for ten short years a "destination."

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito