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Local expert finds area mine sites a mother lode of area history

In the hills overlooking the Branchville/Wilton train line, the only sound on a Monday morning is the hum of the traffic from Route 7. Approximately 100 years ago, the noise from the granite and mica mines was “deafening,” according to historian Brent Colley. “You would have heard the grinding of the rock in the mines and the pounding of the blacksmiths’ tools,” he said.

Mr. Colley, who grew up on Peaceable Street in Branchville, often leads tours of Georgetown’s mining industry, including what he calls “the world-famous Branchville mine.”

As a child growing up in the area, Mr. Colley remembers seeing the mining scars on the granite in the woods, but it wasn’t until recently that his interest in the subject blossomed.

“As kids, we would actually see sheets of granite, cut into rectangular shapes and ready to be lifted and carried away,” he said. Mr. Colley is the grandson of historian Harry Colley and remembers his accounts of the area’s heritage.

When the Norwalk River Watershed Association asked Mr. Colley to do a presentation about Georgetown’s mining industry, he thought he would only do a “10-minute talk,” he said.

Instead, the subject proved to be a mother lode, so to speak.

“I could work on this subject for the rest of my life,” said Mr. Colley, a Web site developer and Internet marketer who now lives in Sharon. “This history has legs. I can’t tell you how many letters and e-mails I’ve received about the subject,” which have led to new twists and turns.

Mica

Mr. Colley said the saga began with Abijiha N. Fillow’s Branchville mica mine, which conducted its first excavation in 1876. The results were disappointing. “The mica was considered to be of inferior quality and operations ceased until around the spring of 1878,” said Mr. Colley.

However, “George J. Brush and Edward S. Dana, both scientists at Yale University, became so enthused about the rare new minerals at Branchville that they helped Mr. Fillow excavate the deposit with funds from Yale,” Mr. Colley said. Examples of the minerals are lithiophilite, or manganese-iron phosphate, and natrophilite, or sodium-manganese phosphate.

Mr. Brush and Mr. Dana wrote articles about these minerals in scientific journals from 1878 to 1890.

Next, property was mined for feldspar and quartz until 1891, according to Mr. Colley. “The principal use for feldspar was in the ceramic industry,” he said. “Other uses included enameling for metal, glazes, and abrasives in soaps.”

Mining operations soon spread to other locations in the area, ranging from Mountain Road, Pine Mountain Road and parts of Scott Preserve/Rock Lot, according to Mr. Colley.

The quartz was crushed and made into a paste for wood fillers and other products, Mr. Colley said. The mines continued to be operated for quartz, feldspar and then granite.

Sporadic

In 1943, the Branchville mine was excavated for mica, continuing “sporadically” until 1954. “The last attempt to reopen the mine was made in 1979 by geologist Michael DeLuca but his request was turned down by the zoning commission,” Mr. Colley said.

Mr. Colley said the two types of mica mined were “sheet and scrap.”

“Sheet mica was used primarily for insulating electrical equipment,” he said, displaying a slim silver piece of the shiny mineral. “It’s a good conductor of electricity and was used for light fixtures. Scrap mica was used for roofing, wallpaper, paints, for filler in rubber such as automobile tires, and lubricants.”

The booming mine industry drew a rich and diverse immigrant labor force to the “hub of activity,” according Mr. Colley. “The immigrants were Irish, Swedes, Finns, Poles and Italians,” he said. “Many of the Italian mine workers stayed in the three-story tenement house across from Branchville station.”

Their lives were “difficult,” he said. Immigrants spent long days blasting the rock and inhaling the “black powder and dust.”

Many immigrants, especially the Irish, arrived in the U.S. around the same time to work on the railroad, Mr. Colley said.

His study of the mining history is a way of “giving back” to the community, he said. “I want to deliver a sense of pride of place. The more you learn about where you live, the more you appreciate it,” he said.

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