PUBLICATIONS :: NYSM RECORD :: Mineral Industry of the State of New York

cover Mineral Industry of the State of New York 2007–2010

by William M. Kelly

Chapter 1: Mineral Resources of New York

Historical overview

Since the arrival of European colonists in New York, the extraction of mineral wealth has been an important societal goal. Mining, then and now, provides the raw materials for consumer goods. Iron was used for cooking utensils and stoves, among other things. It was the basis for many construction projects. The availability of "hydraulic" cement was as important in the success of the Erie Canal as it is to the maintenance of the New York State Thruway. Mines provided materials to improve the standard of living of the populace. Late-nineteenth-century clay mines in the Hudson River Valley provided clay to make literally billions of bricks used to replace the highly flammable wooden building materials of New York City. The State of New York has, since the 1980s, ranked about fifteenth in the nation in terms of mineral value extracted annually. The Mineral Information Institute reports that each person in New York consumes, on average, 9,871 pounds of stone, 7,811 pounds of sand and gravel, and 714 pounds of cement every year (Mineral Information Institute 2009).

Mining in New York began as soon as people entered the region after the retreat of the last glacial period. Native Americans extracted chert for projectile points; clay for pottery; and red, yellow, and black iron and manganese minerals for pigments. Various types of stone were used by these early peoples for jewelry, decoration, and tool making. The modern history of mining in New York began in the southeastern part of the state. As European settlers spread inland, into the Hudson Valley and Adirondacks and westward through the Mohawk Valley to western New York, mining activities accompanied them. Not all portions of the state are equally endowed with mineral wealth. Consequently, many more mines were established in regions such as the Hudson Highlands and Adirondacks than in the Catskills or Southern Tier. Furthermore, since "you can only mine the ore where the ore is," certain commodities were mined only in specific parts of the state. For example, no salt mines ever existed in the Adirondacks and no garnet was ever mined in the Southern Tier.

The Colonial Period

As soon as Europeans arrived in New Netherland, they began to search for mineral wealth, particularly precious metals. Initially, they traded for metal with the Native Americans and later, as homesteads and communities were established, the Europeans began to explore on their own. Gold and silver were never found in economic quantities, but other metals were equally or more important for daily life. Iron was first extracted from "bog" deposits. These were small pockets of limonite that were literally deposited in swamps. At the same time, limonite occurred in weathered pockets of rock in the Hudson Highlands and was used for ore. These deposits soon proved to be too small and lean, and further exploration revealed many deposits of magnetite. This mineral became the iron ore of choice. The ore was reduced to metal in local refineries and used for cookware, tools, weapons, and construction materials. The earliest iron mines of this period were located in Columbia and Orange counties. Lead and copper were also metals that the people of the colonial period sought. Galena and chalcopyrite were mined in several counties in the Hudson Valley and in the Mid-Hudson region. The lead ore mineral galena also contains traces of silver, and unsuccessful attempts were made to establish mines for the latter metal. In addition to metals, stone of several types was quarried for building purposes. Depending on the local geological resources, marble, limestone, and sandstone were quarried for building stone. Clay deposits, which are common in the Hudson Valley and across the state, were mined for brick and rough pottery.

The Nineteenth Century to World War I

New York's mining industry achieved its height during this period. The center of iron mining migrated from the lower Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks, although the Mid-Hudson limonite mines and siderite mines still produced iron ore. At the time of the Civil War, iron from the Adirondacks constituted 25 percent of the nation's production and was critical to the war effort. From stoves to cannons to horseshoes, many essential items were made in North Country blast furnaces. Between 1880 and 1918, 23 million tons of iron ore worth $70 million were mined statewide, mostly in the Adirondacks. Also in this region, mines for galena for lead; pyrite for sulfur; graphite for pencils, crucibles, and electrical components; garnet for abrasive; and talc, used in paint and soap, were established during this period. A single mine in the southern Adirondacks yielded diatomaceous earth, known as "infusorial earth," which was used for polishing. Emery, a mixture of magnetite, corundum, and other minerals, was mined at Peekskill and used as an abrasive. Quartz, derived from rocks in Ulster County and sand in Oneida County, was used for glass manufacturing. Molding sand, primarily recovered a few inches below the surface of Albany County, was used by the iron foundries.

Granite, sandstone, slate, marble, and limestone continued to be mined for construction purposes and mill stones. The type of stone mined, and hence the final product, depended upon the geological formations of each region of the state. Clay was mined statewide for brick, terra cotta, roofing tile, and pottery. Small iron mines appeared in hematite deposits in central New York south of the Mohawk Valley, but these were rather quickly converted to pigment mines, to provide the raw material for "barn red" paint. Red and green paint pigment was made from finely ground slate from Washington County.

In central and western New York, halite and gypsum were mined. Halite was produced in underground mines and also was extracted from brines from specially prepared wells for use as a food preservative and in chemical processes. For most of this period, the New York State government controlled a large portion of the state's salt brine industry. Gypsum, used for fertilizer and plaster, was mined in open cuts. Limestone of a special composition was mined for the raw material for portland cement across the state where it was available.

The Modern Period

During the period from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, mining in New York generally declined. In some cases, commodities whose availability had been restricted during the war, and hence were mined in New York, appeared again on the world market, rendering the New York mines uneconomic. Some New York mines simply ran out of ore. Graphite mining ceased. Quarries for building stone greatly diminished. Only a few of the largest iron mines survived and only two garnet mines remained in operation during the early part of this period. Two small emery mines in Westchester County continued to operate but eventually failed. However, World War II brought resurgence in some quarters of the mining industry. Because of the necessity of a domestic source for certain raw materials, large iron mines in the Adirondack counties of Essex, Clinton, and St. Lawrence were rejuvenated. From 1938 to 1945, more than 8 million tons of ore were produced from the mines at Mineville, Essex County, alone. A nineteenth-century iron mine at Tahawus in Essex County was activated as an ilmenite mine to provide titanium dioxide, an essential component of paint pigment and chemical smoke screens. The titanium oxide operation remained in operation for forty years but closed in 1982 and all of the iron mines had closed. Neither iron nor titanium was being mined in New York by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Lower-cost ore available offshore made the iron mines uneconomic, and the loss of processing facilities in New Jersey forced the closure of the ilmenite mine. Mining for sphalerite (zinc ore) and industrial talc began in the post–World War I period and continued until the beginning of the twenty-first century. The last of the gypsum mines closed in 1999. Mined gypsum in New York was supplanted by synthetic gypsum derived from exhaust scrubbing equipment at coal-fired electrical power plants.

Some mines did fare well in the modern period. Industrial talc mines in St. Lawrence County expanded, although the last of these operations closed permanently in early 2009. The talc was used for filler in paper, ceramics, and rubber. It was not used for cosmetics. Mines for sphalerite, a primary zinc ore, were established in 1920 and continue to operate sporadically in St. Lawrence County, and there was interest in sphalerite produced as a by-product of limestone quarrying south of Patterson in the Mohawk Valley. As of this writing, the last of these mines is on furlough. Halite, extracted both as rock salt and brine, is still an important commodity. Clay is mined primarily for landfill liner and cover material. Small mines produce "peat" for agricultural purposes, primarily potting soil. Garnet is still produced for abrasives and water filtration. During this modern period, a new commodity came to maturity. The mineral wollastonite entered the market as a filler material and found particular utility in the manufacture of molded resin automobile body panels. Two New York mines in the Adirondacks produce a third of the world's supply of this mineral. Granite, slate, and bluestone (sandstone) quarries show continued strength. By far the most important mines in the State of New York in the modern period are those that produce construction aggregates (crushed stone, sand, and gravel) and portland cement.

Current Production

In 2009, there were approximately 2,200 permitted mines in New York (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation 2007) (Figure 1). Of these, about 460 were operated by governmental agencies. Mines operated in fifty-six counties in the state. During the last five to ten years, there has been a steady decrease in the number of mines and mining applications in New York. Mines are distributed relatively evenly across the state. This is because most mines produce materials used for construction aggregates, that is, crushed stone and sand and gravel. These are products that are high in volume but low in value. They must be produced close to market lest the value of transporting the material to the site of use exceeds the valued of the product itself. Depending on variables such as the cost of fuel and traffic congestion, the cost of hauling distances of thirty miles or less can be greater than the value of the material being delivered. A total of 64,000 acres in New York were affected by mining in 2007. Mining disturbs more than 0.30 percent of the land surface in only eight of New York's counties. The maximum disturbance is 0.41 percent. For comparison, 4.6 percent of New York is paved for roads and parking lots. Since 1975, 22,688 acres of mined land have been reclaimed (Figure 2).

Figure 1.
Location of mines of all types in New York. (Source: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Mineral Resources.)

Figure 2.
Reclaimed talc mine with grasses and trees restored, Talcville, New York.

Dimension stone (e.g., pavers, landscape stone, and architectural elements) is produced dominantly from sandstone (bluestone) deposits (Figure 3) but also from metamorphic rocks of generally granitic composition (Figure 4). A prominent exception is the anorthositic gneiss quarried in the Adirondack region under the guise of "granite." Colored slate, particularly red, is quarried in Washington County. Several slate mining and distribution companies operate there but much of the slate is actually quarried in Vermont. Crushed stone used for construction aggregate is also primarily sedimentary rock in the form of dolostone, limestone, and sandstone. But in regions where these rocks do not occur or are of poor quality, metamorphic rock (Figure 5) and diabase (trap) are used. It should be noted that most of the "granite" mines operating in New York are actually producing crushed (granitic gneiss) stone. By far the largest numbers of mines in the State produce sand and gravel, a material widely deposited at the end of the last Ice Age. Clay was also widely deposited at the end of the last glacial period. The most extensive deposits, and the thickest, are in the Hudson River Valley. Once used for brick and tile manufacture, clay is now primarily used for landfill liner and cover. A special type of sand deposit, called industrial sand, yields fine-grained, uniform sand for molds used in casting metal.

Figure 3.
A wire saw is used to quarry blocks of sandstone, commercially known as "bluestone," for use as dimension stone, Walton, New York. The blocks will be re-sawn to desired size and thickness.

Figure 4.
Blue “granite” (anorthosite gneiss) is quarried in Ausable Forks, New York.

Figure 5.
Crushed stone quarry, near Saranac Lake, New York. Rocks being extracted are marble (white) and granitic gneiss (dark).

Shale, till, marl, and topsoil are mined for fill or cover material. Peat, in the form of swamp deposits or "muck," is a component of potting soil or is used for agricultural improvement (Figure 6). The muck is piled to dry, then mixed with manure and sand and then re-ground to produce a marketable product. Garnet is mined for abrasive uses, both coated abrasives and loose powders, for fine grinding or garnet-assisted water jet cutting (Figure 7). By-product garnet is separated from wollastonite tails and used for sand blast grit. Rock salt, used mostly for melting ice and snow, is produced from underground mines (Figure 8). Salt is also produced as brine by solution mining in New York for medical use and chemical feed stock. Wollastonite is mined and either marketed raw or, after chemical modification, for use as filler (Figure 9). This product has found a substantial market in automobile body panels in the past three decades. Commodities mined in New York, number of mines, and location are given in Table 1.

Figure 6.
Peat mine, Columbia County, New York. Organic-rich muck (peat) is mixed with manure and sand to make potting soil. White material is marl.

Figure 7.
Garnet ore at Barton Corporation’s Ruby Mountain Mine. Tenor is approximately 15% garnet of the pyrope-almandine variety. Knife is 4 inches long.

Figure 8.
Pillar of halite (rock salt) in an underground mine in central New York. The ore is greater than 95% halite.

Figure 9.
Wollastonite mine face, Lewis, New York. Tenor of the ore is up to 60% wollastonite. Dark streaks are pyroxene (diopside) and grossular-rich garnet.

Table 1.
Commodities mined in New York. (Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 2009.)


Mineral resources can only be mined where they occur. The bedrock and surficial geology and geologic history of New York control where materials can be mined. Not all resources are located advantageously close to markets. Some resources simply do not occur in large areas of the state. An example is the lack of high-quality carbonate rock sources in the Southern Tier. In this case, materials must be transported into the area, with attendant increased product cost. Furthermore, because a particular resource, such as limestone or sand and gravel, is present in a region, it does not necessarily follow that the resource is available for mining. Many issues can restrict or preclude mineral extraction. For example, road access may not be sufficient for heavy trucks, or environmental constraints may exist that preclude mining in an area. The establishment of a mine may not be compatible with wetlands or scenic rivers. Soil type, such as prime agricultural land, archeological resources, and the presence of existing mines, must be considered. A mineral resource may already have something built on it. If a commercial shopping mall or private residence is constructed on a deposit of gravel or limestone, that resource will not be available for mining no matter what the quality of that resource. Finally, local zoning or land-use laws may not permit establishment of a new mine or expansion of an existing one.

Monetary Value

New York consistently ranks fourteenth to sixteenth in mineral value produced in the fifty United States. The USGS (2008) annually surveys mineral producers in New York and estimates that the total value of mineral products mined in the state in 2007 was $1.6 billion (see also: Appendix 1 on economic impact, this volume). Crushed stone is generally the leading mineral product. Following this in value are cement, salt, and construction sand and gravel. New York is the only source of domestic wollastonite in the United States. New York is first in the production of industrial garnet, third in salt production and, until early 2009, fourth in talc. Total production and value are given in Table 2.

Table 2.
Mineral production and value* in New York as measured by shipments, sales, or marketable production. (USGS 2008.)
*Thousands of metric tons and thousands of dollars, pPreliminary, XX not applicable, NA not available. Data are rounded to no more than three significant digits; may not add to totals shown.


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