Could this be the end of a historic New Hampshire rockhound paradise?

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On July 5, 1805, Samuel Ruggles bought a New Hampshire hillside outside a sleepy farming town called Grafton. Boston-born Ruggles, then 35, had made a name for himself as a grocer and merchant. But in 1805, he set his sights on a bigger prize: the China of China. Not to be confused with another substance known by the same name (a collagen derived from fish and often used to clarify wine), the glass glue Ruggles sought were thin, transparent, heat-resistant sheets of mica. By the early 19th century, demand for this material was skyrocketing as it was used in everything from stove peepholes to battleship windows. And Ruggles’ newly acquired country strip was full of stuff.

For nearly two centuries, Samuel Ruggles and his descendants blasted, mined and unearthed the precious mica. The Ruggles Mine, as the area quickly became known, was the first mica mine in North America. In the second half of the 20th century, the historic open pit mine was transformed into a public geological park, where visitors could take a tour of the mine walls and try their hand at collecting some of the eye-catching minerals. But after being sold in 2019, the future of the beloved rockhounding site has been shrouded in uncertainty. As more rock hunting sites close across New England, many mineral clubs and enthusiasts fear Ruggles Mine will do the same. In fact, in June, the current owners narrowly escaped a planned bank foreclosure and auction.

The Ruggles Mine is a huge deposit of pegmatite loaded not only with mica, but also amethyst, feldspar, rose quartz, garnet and even rare and colorful uranium minerals, such as uraninite, which are particularly prized by collectors of radioactive rocks. It is a veritable mineral treasure that has slowly formed over the past 300 million years. Once a molten mass miles below the surface, the pegmatite crystallized into minerals as it cooled. Over millions of years, the pegmatite deposit rose to the surface and was then exposed by erosion. Today, the deposit is accessible via a 400-foot-long canyon. The passage leads to the mine entrance, a massive opening supported by a 40-foot tall stone column. From here, ancient mining tunnels blossom in all directions, their walls shimmering with streaks of mica.

Tom Mortimer recovered this black biotite, a kind of mica, at the Ruggles mine. Courtesy of Tom Mortimer

Mica comprises a group of minerals that can be split into extremely thin and durable elastic sheets. In ancient Egypt and Nubia, craftsmen made beads, mirrors and pendants from the mineral. In Teotihuacan, Mexico, builders put mica on one of the chamber walls of the ancient pyramid. Today, mica is used in everything from drywall to microwaves to lip gloss.

When Sam Ruggles purchased part of the mountainside in 1805, the market for mica was booming. Ruggles “found he could sell [the mineral] at a great price,” says Fred Davis, author of Pioneers of the American mica industry. But Ruggles “didn’t really get a lot of publicity. It was, you know, almost like he was selling it piecemeal,” Davis explains. When someone asked for mica in his grocery store in Boston, he could supply it. In 1834 Ruggles’ son George took over the mica business – this is when things really started to take off.

The demand for mica grew rapidly as shipbuilding and rail travel expanded. The elastic and heat-resistant durability of mica was used for window panes where glass would have been too brittle. The younger Ruggles began airing ads as far away as Cincinnati. He hired 25 “drillers” to work full-time at the mine. He even exhibited a piece of mica the size of a 200-pound coffee table at the Great exhibition in London earning him an honorable mention.

In 1863, George Ruggles died suddenly and without a will, casting doubt on the future of Ruggles Mine. Eventually another branch of the Ruggles family, the Randalls, took over the mine, but operations were embroiled in lawsuits, claims and counterclaims at the site. “At some point, the sheriff of Grafton had seized the property and locked the Randalls,” says Davis.

After the Randalls lost ownership, a series of companies leased the Ruggles mine. In the early 20th century, the scouring powder company Bon Ami extracted feldspar, a coarse and soft mineral, from the site as an abrasive for its cleaners. During World War II, the US government inspected the site for mica to use in radar technology. But by the early 1960s, commercial mining activity had ceased at Ruggles.

In 1961, Geraldine and Arvid Wahlstrom purchased Ruggles Mine for $20,000 and turned the site into a beloved rockhound attraction. “I was up there when I was a little kid picking up mica and shelling it out,” recalls Scott Rielly, the current president of the New England Microfitters, a mineral club based in New Hampshire. “It’s really a landmark for people, you know, like a gateway into geology and minerals.” Rielly even brought her children to the site.

When the Wahlstroms divorced in the early 1970s, Geraldine continued to run the site for decades. For just $7 (at the start of the attraction), visitors could chip away at the walls of the mine, filling bucket upon bucket with minerals. “It’s quite impressive, especially for a young child who is becoming increasingly interested in minerals,” says mineral collector Tom Mortimer, who visited the site as a teenager.

For generations, the Ruggles Mine has served as the gateway to exploration for rockhounds young and old.
For generations, the Ruggles Mine has served as the gateway to exploration for rockhounds young and old. Chris Luczkow, CC BY 2.0/Flickr

In 2019, at the age of 91, the matriarch of the mine – now Geraldine Searles – closed and sold the mine for $500,000 to Exciglow, a New York-based company. “Initially, you know, they wanted to reopen it as a tourist attraction,” says Mortimer. The site needed considerable updating – new access roads, tunnel safety supports, new bathrooms and plumbing. “I thought they probably bit a little more than they thought.”

Mining clubs remained hopeful that the mine would reopen under Exciglow. Then a recent posting on an auction house’s website surprised everyone: Ruggles Mine was going to participate in a bank foreclosure auction. He quickly lit up the forums of New England mining club members, Mortimer says. “There was a lot of chatter.” A few days later, the auction was canceled. Exciglow director Christopher DiPetta did not respond to requests for comment, but, according to an auction house staffer responding to media calls, the company was able to work with the bank and retain the property..

Now many rockhounds fear the park will never reopen. “As a destination for young collectors who may be going to experience the hobby for the first time, this loss is quite significant,” Mortimer says. He adds that the Ruggles Mine car park “would make an absolutely fantastic site for someone’s super holiday home for sure, which would be a little sad”.

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