Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Poor Alford was a mining town

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Alford, according to a recent report in this newspaper, has the highest median income of Berkshire households. That's not always been the case. Alford in the 19th century was mostly a farming community, but also a mining town. Most lowland Berkshire communities had marble mines and iron ore excavations. But Alford also had one- or at most two-man operations extracting other ores or minerals.

Alford had no iron furnace — the nearest were in West Stockbridge and Great Barrington, closer sources of hematite ore — but Sanford Fitch in 1799 found decent marble on his farmstead on the western slope of Tom Ball Mountain. He gave up his work tanning and making saddles and began hammering stone. Some finish work was done at the quarry. Stone initially was hauled by oxen to Hudson and sent downriver to New York. With the advent of the railroad, stone was later carted to a siding in West Stockbridge, south of the village. Only the walls of his blacksmith shop survive, along with scattered stone rejects near the quarry

Alford marble was used to construct the State House in Hartford, according to an 1873 newspaper report, and 350 dwelling houses in Philadelphia.

Alford had a gold mine, though its reputation rests more on the notorious Oscar F. Beckwith, who murdered his partner, Simon A. Vandercook, in 1882, fled, was captured three years later and in 1888 was hanged in New York state for his crime.

Some considered Vandercook a flim-flammer. "He was of eccentric character, and taciturn," the Hartford Courant said. "He was a powerful man, very agile, and would make a desperate struggle for life. He was always filled with utopian schemes. His latest cretchet was a gold mine which he alleged he had discovered, but with all his schemes he was compelled to cut wood for a living."

The mine was on the mountain that straddles the Massachusetts-New York line. The road up the mountainside has been abandoned. I walked part of it one year but was discouraged by No Trespassing signs. I wanted to find the small cemetery near Beckwith's place but was gravely disappointed.

VANDERCOOK COOKED

J.M. Varney published "Life and Career of Oscar F. Beckwith" in 1890, describing the man as a scoundrel at an early age. He was in and out of prison in several states. Though his mountaintop property in Alford was landlocked, Beckwith claimed he had a gold mine and built a shanty nearby. He and Vandercook planned to sell stock. The men argued. Beckwith killed Vandercook, cut him up and tossed him into a woodstove. He reputedly cooked and ate the heart and liver. The mine was eventually forgotten, though it is purported gold in small amounts was found elsewhere in Alford, on farms owned by Ernest Smith and Edward Osborne.

Osborne found more profit in a second mineral on his property. Graphite, sometimes called plumbago, is a semimetal, a stable form of carbon that found many uses then and in the decades since.

Osborne offered a Pittsfield Sun reporter a tour of his mine. Describing his "very interesting tramp," the scribe said in the March 18, 1897, issue, "The way led across the farm in a northeasterly direction, down a gentle declivity, across the crust and ice till a rocky, tree crowned hill was reached.

"Here, at its foot, we found the mine. Mr. Osborne has made an excavation about 10 feet square and 18 feet deep. The sides are timbered, a windlass and pump having been rigged, and about the mouth of the mine was the debris that had been thrown out as the shaft was sunk. In a few weeks it is expected that the weather will permit of further excavation and then the opinion of an expert will be secured. Graphite in great quantity and indications of copper and other ores are there. We trust that the settled weather and the expert's opinion will realize Mr. Osborne's most sanguine hopes."

There were other graphite digs in Alford. Henry W. Holmes sold his 170-acre farm on the west side of town in 1903 for $13,500. "The farm contains a graphite mine," the Sun reported Dec. 17 that year, "which has been open up to some extent during the past year. Plans are already under way for machinery and the work of developing the mine will shortly begin On land adjoining Mr. Holmes' owned by J.L. Millard, another vein of graphite has been recently discovered, which expert mining engineers have declared to be valuable and which will probably be developed in the near future."     

It goes without saying, none of these mines grew to any size.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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