Penn Minerals! - Classic Minerals and More from Pennsylvania

Jay L. Lininger,  Dillsburg, PA


With this installation we will feature a story about the copper district in the South Mountain region of Adams County. The area has long been a favorite haunt of Pennsylvania mineral collectors and has a strong allure for this writer because so little factual information regarding the history of mining has been preserved. Finding obscure information about the mines has been as rewarding as finding a fine specimen from the region. The story which follows has been constructed from a number of obscure references acquired over a period of years, and provides information about one of the least known but most interesting mines in the region.

A few comments relating to the historical background of copper mining in America are first required to provide a backdrop to the story. It should be noted that in the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth century, there were no major copper mines in America. The British Empire maintained a virtual monopoly in the mining and processing of copper during this period. Most copper ore was mined in the vast ore fields of Cornwall, England and smelted at the furnace complex at Swansea, Wales. In the United States some copper ore was mined in a number of eastern states, but the yield was not great. In Pennsylvania, some rich copper ore was mined and processed at the Jones Mine near Morgantown, Berks County and at the Cornwall Mines in Lebanon County. The first attempt to exploit copper in Adams County occurred in 1833 when a mine and small smelting furnace were developed on the James Watson farm located several miles south of the village of Fairfield. Although the operation was commercially unsuccessful, it marked the first of many attempts to extract copper in Adams County.

In 1845 a major turning point in American copper production was reached with the opening of the Cliff mine in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Cliff Mine was the first of many great Michigan mines which developed along a forty mile deposit of native copper which was unequaled anywhere in the world. Within a decade of this discovery, vast fortunes were made and spurred the search for similar copper deposits in other areas of the country. It did not take long to recognize the striking similarity between the native copper/meta-basalt geology of northern Michigan and that of the South Mountain region of Pennsylvania. In the decade following the American Civil War, an increasing number of attempts were made to exploit the native copper bearing ore which occurred in the southwestern comer of Adams County. This is the story of one of those attempts.


It is unfortunate that the written record of the Adams County native copper mines is so sketchy, but the mining entrepreneurs of the day saw little value in preserving their efforts for posterity. As a result, we don't know the startup date for the Snively Mine, but can speculate, with reasonable accuracy, a time frame following the American Civil War (1867-1870). The first mention of the mine in print was made by Pennsylvania geologist Persifor Fraser in 1878. He referred to the operation as the Musselman Hill Mine,, and indicated that I.N. Snively and J.M. Wiestling, as well as several unnamed individuals, had an interest in its development. Musselman Hill was a steep craggy ridge in the South Mountain chain and very sparsely populated in the latter part of the 19th century. Along the southern base of the ridge lay the tiny village of Mt. Hope. When Fraser visited Musselman Hill, he noted that the prospectors had dug an exploratory trench and about 30 yards south of the digging was a vertical shaft about 20 feet deep. These efforts produced plenty of test samples consisting of metabasalt leached with native copper, cuprite and malachite. The ore samples tested very satisfactorily, and proved to be equivalent to the ore from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The anticipation of a copper bonanza was very real to Dr. Snively and his associates. Just who was the man who dreamed of duplicating the Michigan miracle in southern Pennsylvania.

Issac Newton Snively was born in 1839 near Jackson Hall in Franklin County. As a young man schooled at Fayetteville Academy, he chose a career in education. He began his teaching at a school in Waynesboro, but in 1858 developed an interest in medicine through the influence of a local doctor. In 1859 he headed to Philadelphia to attend Jefferson Medical College and attained his M.D. degree in 1862. He began a medical practice in Chambersburg during 1863 and married that same year. The Civil War had already begun when Governor Curtin appointed him as surgeon to the 20th Pennsylvania Regiment headquartered at Camp Curtin near Harrisburg. In 1864, the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania and burned the city of Chambersburg. Snively's home was among the many dwellings destroyed, and his wife barely escaped with her life. After his discharge in 1865, the Snivelys elected not to return to Chambersburg, choosing instead to settle in Waynesboro. Within a few short years, Dr. Snively established a successful practice, one which would allow him to indulge in a pastime which was popular with well secured gentlemen of that era -- the prospecting of minerals and development of a profitable mining venture. His partner, J.M. Weistling, was already a successful mining businessman with experience as manager of the nearby Mont Alto Furnace. These men were aware of the fortunes generated at the Cliff and Minnesota Mines in the copper rich Upper Peninsula in the years that followed the war. They nurtured the same ambition for the mine of Musselman Hill.

During the early 1870s, an attempt to develop the mine began in earnest, but clearly within the financial capabilities that Snively could provide. Another Waynesboro businessman, D.B. Russell, began his own mine about two miles south of Musselman Hill, and soon the South Mountain copper belt began to take on the look of a mining district. Within a year, another promising venture named the Headlight Mine began its operation further south near the village of Fountaindale. The ore on Musselman Hill continued to amaze those geologists and collectors who sampled it because of its richness. The upper zones of the mine were rich in cuprite, malachite and azurite, but below the twenty foot level, the ore was pure native copper. During the latter part of the decade the mine was visited by C. Hanford Henderson, a mining engineer from Philadelphia. He described the shaft as reaching a depth of 53 feet, and mentions a number of ore piles placed around the shaft. Henderson selected rich samples from a twelve ton pile located nearby. In his report Henderson stated that "At the time of my visit, the force working on the shaft consisted of but three men and a boy. The entrance and exit to the mine is gained in the most primitive manner. The hoisting apparatus is correspondingly crude; a hand windlass serves to raise and lower the one bucket which carries both the ore mined and the water accumulating at the bottom of the shaft. The whole exploitation so far has been conducted with little system of regularity, and the results do not fairly represent the capabilities of the region."

In spite of Henderson's less than complimentary description of the Snively Mine and its methods, the operations continued downward to the 80 foot level. One evening, two miners working near the bottom of the shaft became accident victims when a charge of dynamite prematurely exploded. Pius Bigham lost his left arm and Edward Singley lost an eye. In spite of their traumatic injuries, the men managed to work the windlass and extricate themselves from the depths of the mine. Both men survived, but never again returned to the mine. A few years ago I was able to acquire a photograph of Bigham, and learned from his descendants that he later became a collier for the Mont Alto furnace. He was undoubtedly the only one armed woodcutter on the staff. The accident was a setback for Snively, and operations were discontinued for a period of time.

The Snively Mine was once again in operation on October 18, 1884, when visited by Professor Edward S. Breidenbaugh and two wagon loads of college students. Professor Breidenbaugh was the head of the chemistry and mineralogy departments at the Pennsylvania College (later renamed Gettysburg College) in nearby Gettysburg. Field trips were a natural extension of classroom instruction even 110 years ago, and Breidenbaugh favored the region because it served as an excellent example of Blue Ridge geology, and allowed the collecting of colorful mineral specimens. One student would write in the Pennsylvania College Monthly that "The pure October air, bright sunshine, pleasant motion of the carriages, genial companionship, and freedom from restraint, -- all tended to put our little party in fine spirits, as we bowled along the Millerstown (Fairfield) road towards the blue hills to the southward."

The college students endured a rough ride on the roads from Fairfield to the mines, but were rewarded for their efforts by collecting many fine specimens at the Snively Mine. Professor Breidenbaugh provided an on-site lecture at the mine and the group headed down the mountain to visit the Russell Mine. At this location they were given permission to enter the mine, and donning heavy coats and carrying candles, several students ventured to the bottom of its 160 foot depth. The day long experience was a memorable one for these college seniors, and resulted in many fine mineral specimens being deposited in the college collection located at the Linnaean Hall on the campus. The Linnaean Hall was the natural science building used to house the many teaching collections. It was built in 1846 after a major fund raising drive had been conducted by the student body and interested local citizens. Times change, however, and the splendid building was demolished in 1942 to make room for further "improvements." Since there was no place to store the large rock and mineral collections, and geology was taught no longer, they were hauled to a local dump and deposited. As a footnote to this travesty, the October 1, 1942 issue of the Gettysburg Times would note that "The accumulation of junk has been removed, the pigeons and squirrels have found new abodes, the students have no more windows to smash, the Owl and Nightingale Club has no place for its sign, and Joe the Janitor has several hundred square feet more lawn to mow."

Early in the new decade there occurred a major depression in the United States known as the Panic of 1893. One result was the lowered value of metal prices which temporarily put many mines out of business. The Snively and Russell Mines were among the casualties. Snively never gave up on the idea that a bonanza in copper existed on Musselman Hill and along the copper zone. He continued to talk to anyone of influence who would listen. One of those who did was the legendary Thomas Walsh of Colorado. Walsh was an Irish immigrant who migrated to Colorado during the gold and silver rush of the 1860s. After years of unsuccessful prospecting, Walsh settled into the smelter business and managed to make a tolerable living. In 1895 his luck suddenly changed when he came into some ore samples from an abandoned mine in the San Juan Mountains. Though heavy ore was found at the old workings, it had no gold or silver content of note and was passed by. Thomas Walsh ascertained the unknown metal to be tellurium, and after quietly acquiring the rights to the location, proceeded to become an overnight millionaire upon the establishment of his famous Camp Bird Mine. By 1899, the Walsh family and their fortune was lured to the glittering society of Washington, D.C. Sometime during the early 1900s, Issac Snively made the acquaintance of Thomas Walsh.

Though I've not yet found the proof, I suspect the Walsh family may have owned a summer home in nearby fashionable Blue Ridge Summit. Many of the splendid mansions along the Monterey Road were owned by turn-of-the-century Washington socialites, who could escape the summer heat of Washington to the cool mountain weather of the Blue Ridge. Snively convinced Walsh to make an on-site inspection of the Adams County copper occurrences. After the first day of exploration, Walsh became so excited about the prospects, that he pledged to Snively a million dollars in exploration and development funds for the region. Since the Camp Bird Mine was generating more than four million dollars per year in profit, Walsh was able to make good on his promise. Unfortunately for Snively and the community, Walsh developed lung cancer in the months following his visit, and died a painful death in a sanitarium in New Mexico shortly after. With his passing died the last great opportunity for Snively's copper development.

An interesting footnote to the Walsh connection was the story of his only living heir, his daughter Evalyn Walsh McClean. She spent a lifetime disposing of her father's fortune, and died in 1947. Among her treasured possessions was the fabulous Hope diamond. This one of a kind jewel was considered unlucky, and could not be sold to any other interested buyer. Fabled jeweler Harry Winston eventually bought the stone from the estate and gave it to the Smithsonian Institution where it still resides. When I look at the economy of our country, I wonder if the legend isn't true.

The first decade of the twentieth century ushered in a resurgence in the value of metals. The upper peninsula of Michigan was experiencing a boom in copper profits due mostly to the rapid development of the renowned Calumet and Hecla Mine. A renewed interest in South Mountain copper prospects was once again manifested with the opening of the Eagle Metallic and Virgin Mines near the village of Fountaindale. This activity peaked the interest of the geological community, and precipitated visits by three prominent geologists. Each visitor provided a description of the mines for published reports. George Stose, U.S. Geological Survey (1909), Edgar T. Wherry, Lehigh University (1910), and G.M. Bevier, Pennsylvania Geological Survey (1912) each described the Snively Mine as water filled, with no evidence of serious activity.

Snively had given up all further attempts to develop his mine, but never gave up hope that a wealth of copper existed. When he died in 1913, he still owned the property. It remained in the Snively family until 1948, when the property was sold to Robert Mickley of Mt. Hope. Mickley was aware of the potential value of the property because his father Oliver Mickley remembered when the mine was in operation and had filled his son's head with stories of the undeveloped bonanza. After several years of cutting timber on Musselman Hill, Mickley became determined to learn whether the mineral deposit had value. Having no knowledge of mining, he turned to those who did. The Tennessee Copper Company sent geologist Owen Kingman to investigate in 1956. He appreciated the richness of the ore, but felt that the concentration was not significant enough to be of economic value. Undeterred, Mickley developed sufficient interest on the part of the Ridge Exploration and Mining Company. The Carlisle company owned by S.R. Snyder, was known for its "wildcatting" reputation in searching out potential mineral deposits. In June 1956, the Ridge Company brought several pieces of heavy equipment to Musselman Hill and began removing overburden. Several trenches were dug, and much colorful copper ore was exposed. The results were not conclusive, so Snyder gave up the search and pulled out his equipment.

Almost eighty years of hope and ambition had come to an end. Rumors of additional exploration by major copper companies in the South Mountain region during the 1960s continue to persist, but couldn't be verified by this writer. The Ridge Company diggings did however provide some good mineral, collecting for those fortunate enough to visit the mine site during that period. Today the area is overgrown and the caved shaft and trenches are hard to locate. In an interview with Mr. Mickley, he related that a second small shaft had been started near the site of the original shaft. From that digging a specimen of native copper weighing 23 pounds was recovered. He reported that the specimen was donated to the State Museum in Harrisburg.

Part Three
Iron Mines of Dillsburg: Could it have been another Cornwall?