By Karen Zautyk
Let’s begin with real estate: Back in 1668, a man named William Sandford purchased a tract of land between the Hackensack and Passaic (then called the Pasawack) Rivers — 30,000 acres of land, rich in timber and meadows and fish and furry game. Half of this property was then sold to Nathaniel Kingsland, and in 1708, the southern part of the tract was bought by Arent Schuyler, who traveled down to this area from his hometown of Albany.
Here, Schuyler established a plantation, worked by slaves, one of whom made a most interesting discovery circa 1712-1714. On the land near what is now North Arlington’s Porete Ave., an elderly man found an oddlooking greenish-blue chunk of stone, which he brought to Schuyler.
It turned out to be copper ore.
The slave was given his freedom, and Schuyler turned his attention to copper mining, which was to become the industry that would define this pocket of New Jersey for nearly 200 years.
For this history lesson, we thank industrial archeologist Joseph Macasek, who recently presented a program on the Schuyler Copper Mine at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission’s Environment Center in Lyndhurst.
Macasek has a personal connection to his topic. He grew up in North Arlington, and though the mine shafts had been sealed by then, the Schuyler Copper Mine was still “a mysterious place — kind of a legendary place,” he said.
We wanted to take a photo of Macasek near one of the old cave entrances, even though we expected it to be blocked, but he did some reconnaissance and reported that no evidence of any of them remains. None at all. Which is just as well. A mine abandoned for more than a century is no place for “explorers.” Not if they want to stay alive, anyway.
Initially, Macasek explained, the work at the mine “was a very simple operation.” The copper eroded down the escarpment (the ridgeline off what eventually became Schuyler Ave.), “and they just dug it out,” Macasek said.
He said little was known about the dayto- day activities, but progress was being made, because by 1750, Col. John Schuyler (who took over the mine after his father’s death in 1730) started bringing in Welsh and Cornish miners who were skilled in deepshaft mining. Obviously the North Arlington site was no longer primarily a surface operation.
“The ore was crushed, washed, packed in barrels and shipped to England for processing.” Shipped to England because New Jersey was still Great Britain’s colony and Britain allowed no ore smelting here.
Another Schuyler son, Peter, recruited British sailors in 1759 to build a “corduroy road” — constructed of logs laid transversely along a predetermined route — across the meadows from the mine to the shipping lanes. This was the original Belleville Turnpike and we presume it was made from cedars, since, as Macasek noted, “The meadows had been more forest than a swamp, a cedar forest.”
As the Schuyler mine shafts grew deeper and deeper, the operators needed a way to pump out the groundwater that had begun filling them. This led to the importation in 1753 of a marvelous device invented in Cornwall — a steam engine. It took nearly two years for the machine to become fully operational, but when it did that reportedly marked the beginning of the age of steam power in the New World. (Right here, in North Arlington.)
Macasek noted that the mine’s most profitable years were 1730 to 1761, and the Schuylers, while well-todo, were not “rich” by the era’s standards. During the American Revolution, the mine stood idle and did not resume operations until 1793.
In the 19th century, the mine changed hands many times. In 1899, it became the Arlington Copper Co., owned by William McKenzie Rutherford, who pinned his hopes on an elaborate electrolyte processing plant. “But the process didn’t work,” Macasek said. “It was an utter failure.”
It was sold at auction in 1903, “without having produced a pound of copper.” And then it was dismantled. And an era had ended.
But the story didn’t. Look at the map. The pits and tunnels of the Schuyler Copper Mine spider westward, into areas that were later developed as residential neighborhoods. And in those neighborhoods, too, are the shafts. The deepest, called the Victoria Shaft, had eventually reached a depth of about 300 feet. Back in November 1989, as reported in the N.Y. Times, “a good portion of [a] backyard [of a home on Forest St.] had vanished into a black pit, along with a towering pine tree …..” ‘
’There it was,” the homeowner was quoted as saying. “this great big hole where I used to have the pool. I just stared at it, and when I inched up to the rim, I couldn’t see the bottom.’’
He couldn’t see the bottom because he was looking into the Victoria Shaft. Luckily, only about 60 feet of it; the rest was likely filled with groundwater.
According to Merritt Ierley’s 1994 book, “A Place in History: North Arlington, N.J.,” along with local officials, teams from the state and county Offices of Emergency Management responded to the site, as did engineering consultants, employees of the N.J. Geological Survey and experts from the federal Bureau of Mines.
A study of the former Schuyler acreage showed that some of the old mine shafts had collapsed over the decades “and these,” Ierley writes, “as well as other shafts with the potential for collapse, would have to be sealed to prevent further cave-ins.
“Remedial work (capping the the old shafts below the surface with a plug of steel and concrete) was begun as soon as the necessary engineering steps–geophysical testing, test drilling and the like–could be completed.”
Last week, we chatted with Michael Neglia of Neglia Engineering, Lyndhurst, the former borough engineer, who noted, “What the borough did back then was an extensive amount of work.”
It also “made every effort to identify the shafts in residential areas.” And rather than depending on old maps, modern technology, such as ground-penetrating radar, was called into play to locate them so they could then be capped with concrete.
If you want to know more about the Schuyler Copper Mine —and North Arlington history in general — we highly recommened Ierley’s treasure of a book. It is available at the North Arlington Public Library.
It’s also got a really nifty 1933 amateur map depicting mine features labelled “Tunnel of Death,” “Bottomless Lake,” “Poison Fountain” “Devil’s Garage,” etc.
Be grateful for concrete caps.