Ore Bed Harbor Mining Remains

In September of 1868 a chemist and mineralogist, Professor Herring, described Split Rock Mountain as containing “the largest deposit of Magnetic Ore in the State of New York, and as yet I have seen none to equal it in the United States.” The abundance of iron ore, coupled with the mine’s situation on Lake Champlain fronting “one of the very best harbors [Ore Bed Harbor] upon the lake with a depth of water sufficient for the largest class vessels” indicated the wealth contained in Split Rock Mountain was immense and could be easily quarried by any determined entrepreneur. To this end, mining was conducted sporadically through much of the later half of the nineteenth century.

Currently, Split Rock Mountain is a serene tract of wilderness belying its industrial past. The material remains of this past are by no means lost; they lie hidden under mounds of iron ore on the New York shore and beneath the cold waters of Lake Champlain. These remains form a complex terrestrial and underwater archaeological site with the potential to illuminate the poorly documented history of iron mining at Split Rock Mountain. In June 1999 the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum undertook an archaeological investigation of Ore Bed and Snake Den Harbors for the purpose of documenting this faded chapter in the region’s industrial history.

Iron Mining on Split Rock Mountain

The tract of land known as Split Rock Mountain was surveyed by Platt Rogers in the late eighteenth century. Following the survey, ownership of the 200 acre (81 hectares) parcel was granted to Robert Lewis in 1789, and henceforth was known as the “Lewis Patent”. The land remained in the Lewis family until 1869. The earliest historic reference to iron mining on Split Rock Mountain appeared in the Civil History of Essex County, which reported Platt Rogers mined the area in 1805 to supply the Willsborough iron works. The extent or exact location of Roger’s mine is presently unknown. Another passing reference to mining activity was included in the Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society, which noted the exhibition in 1853 of a half-ton mass (.45 metric tons) of iron ore from Iron Mountain at the Essex County Fair (Glenn 1986:60). Later that year, the Elizabethtown Post reported the Lake Champlain Iron Company was looking for miners and teamsters to assist in fulfilling a contract for 2,000 tons (1818 metric tons) of iron ore from Iron Mountain.

The most informative primary source regarding the iron industry at Split Rock Mountain comes from the 1869 prospectus Description of the Iron Mountain of New York, on Lake Champlain. Relying on testimony from mineralogists, chemists, miners, and geologists, the Prospectus promoted Iron Mountain as having many advantages over other area mines. Unlike the nearby mines in Moriah, where the ore was raised from shafts 100 to 600 feet (30.5 to 183m) deep, the deposits at Iron Mountain could be quarried from the cliff face. The ore needed only to be blasted from the mountainside; from this position it would naturally tumble to the lake shore. From the shore it was easily loaded onto boats with little expense. The superior location of the mine at Iron Mountain, adjacent to Lake Champlain, would save, according to the promoters, two dollars per ton in hauling expenses as compared to other area mines. Furthermore:

the position of this property in reference to outlets to markets cannot be excelled; being on the immediate border of the lake, and having a fine harbor with great depth of water, vessels can be loaded at its own docks, and the products of the mines can be transported without transfer, by the southern route to Troy, Albany, Hudson, Poughkeepsie, Peekskill, New York, &c., and by the northern route or outlet of the lake, to Montreal, Toledo. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, &c.

In the Description of Iron Mountain, H. C. Patterson, a mining foreman of Peekskill Iron Company, investigated the property, and described the mountain as follows:

The water along shore is so deep that the boat that conveyed me to the property ran up, and I stepped from the bow on the Ore that is detached and rolled from the veins above, and on looking around and seeing the Ore piled in masses along the foot of the mountain, I must confess, I became a little excited and deemed it more a dream than a reality, but a reality I ascertained it to be, and a grand one too.

There are probably one hundred thousand tons of ore detached from the ends of the several veins, piled along the mountain side and near the lake.

From the shore I clambered over masses of iron Ore up to the almost perpendicular sides of the mountain, where I saw the ends of two veins – one measuring about fifteen feet in width; the other about forty feet.

Details of the mine’s operation prior to the 1870s are not yet clear; however, an article published in the Plattsburgh Republican in May of 1883 reported the mine’s purchase by Misters Bridgeford and Randall of Albany. After acquiring the property in 1870, these businessmen constructed a boarding house and docks, and opened a mine shaft at the site. Although Mr. Bridgeford and Mr. Randall knew the ore contained too much titanium to make its mining and use profitable, they intended to profit from their purchase by attracting investors to the operation. A U.S. Census report published in 1886 notes that during 1880 there was no titaniferous ore mined in the area. However, the “region could undoubtedly supply a large amount of this class of ore should there ever be a demand for it. Besides the immense masses of it near the old village of Adirondack,…, there are other extensive deposits nearer to the lake, in Westport township and elsewhere”.

The mining activities at Ore Bed Harbor between 1853 to 1888 necessitated the development of an infrastructure capable of supporting several hundred miners and their families, and a variety of structures and machinery required for iron mining. Located at the lake shore were sheds, store houses, a cookhouse, and a wharf. Near the mine, approximately 700ft (213m) above the lake, were houses for the workmen and a boarding house. This location was connected to the mine via a series of ladder-like stairs. Historic evidence indicates a Buchanan magnetic-ore separator was employed at the mine.

In February 1884, the Elizabethtown Post reported the Split Rock Mine was reopened by “A New Process Iron and Steel Company.” The company sought investment capital under the pretext of a new technology that facilitated the extraction of excess titanium from the ore. Four years later a second article in the same publication stated the Split Rock Mine had failed. The three story Buchanan magnetic ore-separator was moved to Moriah Center. The failure of the Split Rock Mine in 1888 ended the industrial activity at the site. Writing about the region’s iron industry in 1906 Frank S. Witherbee, noted that for a time the mine was owned by “Boss” Tweed of New York, however, by the time of his writing the mine had passed into the hands of the State for non-payment of taxes.

Map showing Ore Bed Harbor

Archaeological Results

The terrestrial and underwater archaeological survey of Ore Bed Harbor revealed an interesting collection of cultural remains. Features located in Ore Bed Harbor included a scow, a small vernacular craft, an ore cart, cribbing, iron rails, and wheels to an ore cart. The lake shore adjacent to Ore Bed Harbor contained additional remains relating to the industrial history of the site. These features consisted of a house foundation, retaining walls, machinery platforms, mine tailings, ore piles, and several mines.

Wreck QQ: Ore Bed Harbor Scow. The remains of a mid-nineteenth century scow were located in the southern end of Ore Bed Harbor. A preliminary documentation of these remains was undertaken during six dives, with two additional dives devoted to creating a photographic record of the vessel. Scows were flat-bottomed watercraft, normally rectangular in cross-section with outward sloping ends. They were generally used in sheltered waters for the purpose of freighting cargo. The Ore Bed Harbor scow rests on a slope, with the stern in 30ft (9.1m) of water and the bow 62ft (18.9m) below the surface. The vessel’s remains, although generally consisting of only the bottom of the hull, are well preserved. Many construction details are obscured by 4 to 8in (10.2 to 20.3cm) of silt in the bottom of the hull. This made the task of recording the vessel more difficult; however, it prevented zebra mussels from covering much of the wreck. The stern, which protrudes well above the bottom sediments, was largely covered with mussels.

The Ore Bed Harbor scow, based on its context, was believed to relate to the iron mining era on Split Rock Mountain. This vessel type was used for transporting iron ore or other bulk cargo throughout the region. A steamboat towed the vessel to its destination on Lake Champlain, or to the Champlain or Chambly Canals. Once in the canal system, it was towed by a team of horses. The exact date of its construction remains a mystery, but it can be confined to after 1823 and prior to 1862. The earliest date was based on the construction of the Champlain Canal. During the nineteenth century the length and breadth of canal boats was limited by the dimensions of the locks. In 1823 the locks were 90ft long (27.4m), 15ft (4.6m) wide and 4ft (1.2m) deep. The Ore Bed Harbor scow, with a length of 75ft 6 inches (23m) and a breath of 14ft 4in (4.4m), fit into the earliest canals or in any later canal of larger dimension. The scow was not constructed after 1862; in this year, scow bowed vessels were outlawed in the Champlain Canal. When scows accidentally collided with other vessels, the damage from their square ends was considerable. Canal boats with rounded bows tended to glance off each other, but the angular ends of scows cut into other vessels.

Vernacular Craft. At the end of the two-week field survey, LCMM staff member Erick Tichonuk noted the presence of five evenly spaced lumps of zebra mussels protruding from the silty bottom of Ore Bed Harbor. This regular positioning, rare in nature, is often indicative of frames of a boat jutting above the silt.

One brief dive was undertaken to confirm the unusual spacing of zebra mussels did represent a shipwreck, and to record overall dimensions of the vessel. Limited hand fanning and probing revealed the remains of a small craft. The vessel has a preserved length of approximately 11ft (3.4m) and a breadth of 3ft (.9m). Neither the bow nor stern was located, and based on the limited fieldwork, it is unclear whether these exist but were not unearthed, or if they were not preserved. The sides of the vessel are preserved to a point just above the turn of the bilge. The vessel is planked in a caravel fashion, with planks laid edge to edge. The framing pattern is obscured by ceiling in the bottom of the hull. The diminutive frames are 1½in (3.8cm) sided and moulded, and had room and space of 4in (10.2cm).

Cribbing. Prior to the installation of cribbing, the shoreline adjacent to Ore Bed Harbor was a rugged mountainside. This irregular topography did not provide the necessary level ground for processing and loading iron ore. This problem was solved by installing cribbing. The cribbing in Ore Bed harbor consisted of a network of logs on the lake bottom arranged in a similar manner to those of a log cabin. This log cabin-like structure spanned approximately 300ft (91.4 m) along the lake bottom adjacent to the shore. The shoreline was expanded by depositing iron ore rubble into the structure. The cribbing extended several feet above the water’s surface, and, having been filled entirely with rubble, created a flat area of shoreline.

In shallow water two primary in situ crib sections were exposed, one at the north end and the other at the south end. Several tiers of timbers run parallel to shore, and are secured together with 3/4in (1.9cm) iron rods. Holding these logs in place are tie-backs, or timbers oriented perpendicular to shore. The tie back ends are notched to permit stacking in a log cabin fashion. Each juncture of a tie back and a log parallel to shore is secured with an iron rod. Both intact sections are up to three tiers high in parts and range from 5 to 10ft (1.5 to 3.1m) below the water’s surface. The northern section has at least 45 round tie-backs protruding from the stone above the round crib timber construction. Many tie-backs jutt 3 to 4ft (.9 to 1.2m) from the slope, and range from 5ft (1.5m) deep to the water’s surface.

Investigations indicated both square cut timbers and logs were used to construct the cribbing. The lower portions of the structure were composed of logs, while the sections just below and above the water’s surface were made of square cut timbers. This is reflected in the archaeological remains by three small sections of square cut timber, apparently in situ, in less than 3ft (.91m) of water. This hypothesis was confirmed by a photograph of Ore Bed Harbor circa 1892 that shows square cut cribbing extending above the water’s surface. A few sections of square cut timbers, detached from their original positions, were deposited down slope.

Several interesting observations were made regarding the techniques employed for the construction of the cribbing. Many square timbers and logs are inconsistent in size, not only from one timber to another, but also dimensions of each timber. Some square timbers were noted as being 10 by 7in (25.4 by 17.8cm) at one end and 9 by 8in (22.9 by 20.3cm) at the other. Some logs are thought to be debris due to large knots protruding from them, but closer examination revealed iron fastenings. The irregularity in construction suggests a hastily built, functional structure. Another interesting construction feature is the presence in at least two locations of cribbing sections coming to an end, and a new section starting with almost no overlap. This introduced a weak spot into the structure, and would have been avoided if possible. The presence of several sections of cribbing is indicative of a structure built in parts, perhaps at different times.

Ore Cart. An interesting feature of the site was an ore cart lying in 45ft (13.7m) of water (Figure 7-11). The cart, which was designed for use on rails, has a length of 4ft 6in (1.4m), and a width of 3ft 8in (1.1m) (Figure 7-12). An unexplained feature of the ore cart is a 13in (33cm) diameter iron ring on the cart’s top. In the center of the ring is a hole, indicating an apparatus was attached to the cart in this position.

House Foundation. The remains of a brick house foundation were found on the lake shore. Virtually nothing of this structure is preserved above ground. Initially a scatter of bricks on the shoreline was the only clue to its presence. A more thorough inspection of the woods adjacent to the debris revealed intact structural remains. The leaf litter concealed the outlines of a 16 by 16 foot (4.9 by 4.9m) brick foundation. The walls are 16 inches (40.6cm) thick, and each course is composed of two rows of bricks laid end to end. The interior of the foundation contains a pile of bricks, probably the result of a chimney fall. In general, however, disarticulated bricks above the ground surface are nonexistent. This is indicative of a wooden house with a brick foundation, or an entirely brick structure whose components were cannibalized for use in constructing other buildings.

Retaining Wall. The dominant cultural feature above water is a large retaining wall that paralleled the shoreline. This structure, built of dry laid iron ore, is approximately 202ft long (61.6m). The preservation of the wall is variable, with portions completely collapsed and other sections intact to a height of 8ft (2.4m). The wall is composed of iron ore blocks ranging in size from less than 1ft2 (.09 centares) to over 10ft2 (.93 centares). The area west of the wall is filled with iron ore up to the top of the wall. The purpose of this feature was to create a flat surface for processing iron ore. Machinery such as the magnetic ore separator is located on the terrace created by this wall.

An interesting feature of the retaining wall is a smaller set of walls running perpendicular to the main wall. These two walls create a 3ft (.9m) wide corridor. The exact purpose of the corridor is unknown, but it may be related to the Buchanan magnetic ore separator.

Ore Piles. Lying along the banks of Ore Bed Harbor are eight piles of iron ore. This ore was separated out by size, and placed along the bank to await shipment aboard a canal boat. The observation that the piles were differentiated by size indicates that they were sorted by the Buchanan magnetic ore separator.

Tailings. Adjacent to Ore Bed Harbor, the face of Split Rock Mountain is scarred with the evidence of the industrial activity that took place at the site. Large swaths of the mountainside are covered with disarticulated iron ore rubble. A cursory survey of these tailings revealed interesting trends in site formation.

The tailings located at the southern end of the site tend to be smaller in size and less numerous than those to the north. Furthermore, in many places these tailings are entirely overgrown with vegetation and organic debris, indicating that since their deposition natural forces have had sufficient time to allow an array of fully grown foliage to recover the rocky area. The small size of individual fragments of iron ore was the result of the ease of collecting and shipping larger fragments. Boulders were collected and shipped out on canal boats while smaller pieces remained where gravity left them.

The tailings in the central portion of Ore Bed Harbor are considerably larger than those to the south. Large areas of the mountainside are covered with 2 to 3ft wide (.61 to .91m) pieces of ore. The large size of this matrix is not conducive to many forms of vegetation; therefore, much of it is barren. This ore appears to have been extracted from the mines above and allowed to cascade down the slope.

The northern end of Ore Bed Harbor contains an assortment of very large iron ore tailings. These boulders, many 4ft (1.2m) or more in width, represent the results of the final mining activity at the site. Apparently, large sections of the cliff face were blasted in an attempt to make the mine profitable.

Mines. The mountain face adjacent to Ore Bed Harbor contains at least three mines. Due to accessibility factors these features were not included in the survey. One of the mine shafts is flooded, and may contain many mine-related artifacts. Any future study of these features must take into account the rugged terrain leading up to these shafts.


The history of iron mining in the Adirondack region and shipping on Lake Champlain is an absorbing era that has left behind many tangible remains. In Ore Bed Harbor these remains are well preserved, and have begun to reveal their secrets. This information has helped flesh out the story of iron ore mining at Split Rock Mountain. The more we learn of this site, the more it becomes apparent that it contains a story that deserves to be interpreted to the public; the best way to do this is to further document certain features of the site, and then open it up as a site in the Lake Champlain Underwater Historic Preserve System.

Information Source :
Kane, A. and C. Sabick, Lake Champlain Underwater Cultural Resources Survey, Volume IV: 1999 Results and Volume V: 2000 Results. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2002.