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WAY BACK WHEN IN WAYNE COUNTY: Iron ore mining made town of Ontario

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Posted: Sunday, November 13, 2011 12:00 am

Editor’s Note: Each Sunday will feature a column from a different Finger Lakes county.

While Wayne County is noted for being one of the best fruit growing areas in the country, it was actually the iron ore mining industry that put the town of Ontario “on the map.”

Iron ore was first discovered in Ontario in 1811 by a Mr. Knickerbocker when he was digging a well to water his cattle, but it was Samuel Smith who in 1816 first set up a crude forge on Bear Creek at what would later become the hamlet of Furnaceville. It was reported that by steadily heating, hammering and reheating the pasty masses of ore, he was able to manufacture about 400 pounds of bar iron each day.

In 1825, the first furnace was erected by Henry S. Gilbert. Using a furnace instead of a forge increased the production to three to four tons of pig iron a day. Another furnace that had a daily  capacity of six to seven tons was erected in 1840 by the Clinton Iron Co.

Various mines were begun near these early furnaces to provide the needed ore. In the beginning, the ore was close to the surface and was dug with pick and shovel. After it was removed, the holes were filled back in to keep the land farmable. Where the ore was deeper, the dirt over it had to be shoveled by hand into dump carts where it was wheeled up a ramp of planks and dumped into a mound. 

Once the ore was cleared of dirt, the early miners used a ball drill and powder to break the ore into easily handled chunks. The ore was then loaded into wagons and hauled by horses to a pier in Bear Creek Harbor, where it was weighed at the scale house and loaded onto boats headed for Charlotte and Oswego. This old pier on Lake Ontario was wide enough for a team of horses to turn completely around. 

Gradually the roads on which these wagons traveled turned red from the iron dust. Neighboring villagers could easily identify a person from Ontario because of the red on his boots, wagon wheels and even his mustache!

Word of the extent of the iron ore deposits in Ontario spread and outsiders began to take interest. In 1870, the Ontario Iron Co. was formed on 17 acres of land and its owners built a modern anthracite blast furnace on the original Furnaceville furnace site. When the RW&O Railroad came through Ontario in 1874, the Ontario Iron Co. built railroad spurs from the ore beds to the furnace and purchased its own locomotive and cars. During this period, 25 men ran the furnace and between 50 and 250 men were employed in the mine pits. The capacity of the Ontario Iron Co.’s furnace was now 100 tons per week. 

The Furnaceville Iron Co. was founded in 1880. Edward H. Harriman, a railroad magnate (and father to Gov. Averill Harriman) organized this company with William H. Averill and Isaac S. Averill, who had previously been associated with the Ontario Iron Co. 

A company-owned store was located near the furnace where the workers could purchase boots, shoes, dry goods, groceries, meats, etc. Instead of paying cash for goods, the cost could be deducted from their wages. Wages for these miners seemed to average about $1 a day.

By this period, newer and faster means of ore removal had been developed. The first steam shovel arrived in the late 1880s. By now, however, the ore near the surface had been exhausted and it was necessary to dig deeper —making it impractical to refill the pits. In this later period, many immigrants from Italy were hired to work the mines.

The opening of ore mines in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range in the late 1880s spelled disaster for Ontario’s mining industry. The Furnaceville Iron Co. discontinued its operations at the furnace; however, this was not the end of the local iron ore mining industry as the mines continued to operate in some form through 1948.

In the early 1900s, it was discovered that iron ore could be used as the red pigment in paint for structural iron and for barns. A “paint mill” was built in Ontario, where the iron ore was ground for color and shipped around the world to be mixed with linseed oil and used as paint. The company also imported other colors from around the world to mix with the ore to get desired

colors. 

During World War I, the plant’s machinery operated 24 hours a day and most of the color produced was used on warships for camouflage. Other uses of the powder were in coloring mortar and rubber and it was even used for cosmetics. By 1948, synthetic colors were taking the place of iron ore so operations ceased and the plant was dismantled. 

The open pits left by the strip mining of the iron ore are now filled with spring water and run east and west through Ontario south of Route 104. The ore bed Ontario residents are most familiar with is the “lake” in Casey Park. From 1924 to 1953, Ontario’s water supply came from this largest of the ore beds. It is presently used for swimming and canoeing. 

This park is the last remaining evidence of the most important aspect of Ontario’s early, and little known, history — iron ore mining.

Albright is the Ontario town historian.

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