by Elisha Lee, in The Curious Yankee
This week I am looking at the history of gold mining in the town of Plymouth. Not surprisingly, the activity took place at approximately the same time, attracted similar characters, and ended in much the same way. Much of what took place in Plymouth, however, was placer mining in which individuals used pans and sluice boxes to separate gold from river gravel. The process required less equipment and capital than hard rock mining, and at its peak, there were many more people involved.
The first account of gold being discovered in Plymouth was published in the Vermont Watchman and State Journal of 5 January 1855 and credits William Hankerson, “a returned Californian” with the find. He is probably the William Hankerson who made the last leg of his return from California on the ship Brother Jonathan from Chagres, Panama, arriving in New York on 20 August 1851. By the fall of 1855, he is said to have been employing several additional men and gathering from $7.00 to $25.00 worth of gold per day.
Green Mountain Freeman 7 October 1858
Hankerson was 45 years old when he arrived in Plymouth Five Corners, and he worked a claim along Broad Brook for more than two decades, reputedly taking out $13,000 worth of gold in his first two years of operation alone. At some point in the late 1850’s he was joined by another returned Californian, Virgil Woodcock of Swanzey, New Hampshire. Like so many of the characters in the Vermont gold story, Woodcock was a man of singular creativity. A builder by trade, he held patents for an ore stamping machine and an improved arrangement of school seating and had designed both the First Congregational Church in his hometown of Swanzey, New Hampshire, and the Centre Church in Brattleboro, Vermont. In 1849 Woodcock and his son joined the 36-member Mount Washington Mining Company of Boston on the overland route to the California gold fields, passing through Independence, Missouri, where the younger Woodcock died of cholera.
In 1858 Plymouth native Lewis S. Carlisle built a hotel at Five Corners to serve what was becoming a thriving community with its own school and store. Miners typically leased between 10 and 40-rod sections of the brook (55 to 220 yards) from the farmers who owned the land, and constructed dams and wooden sluice boxes through which river gravel was passed, with gold settling in cleats at the bottom of the box.
Gold Sluice on Broad Brook – Collection of the Plymouth Historical Society
It’s difficult to determine how many people were actually living in Plymouth Five Corners at the time because placer mining was a seasonal activity and many of the miners spent the winter elsewhere. An article published in the Burlington Times on 25 July 1860 states that there were 180 men working on the brook, each making between $3.00 and $20.00 daily. The 1860 Federal Census, enumerated as of June 1st, listed a total of 52 individuals whose occupation was given as gold miner.
Placer mining along Broad Brook continued through the 1870s and 1880s at what was probably a diminishing pace. The 1870 Federal Census lists only ten individuals occupied as miners. Virgil Woodcock died in 1875 and William Hankerson in 1879.
In the spring of 1880 Joseph C. Blum of Towanda, Pennsylvania purchased the 400-acre Elias Pinney farm. Joseph Blum was a shoe dealer, not a miner, the son of John Blum, a German immigrant who built a successful shoe-manufacturing company in Dansville, New York.
The Blum Shoe Factory, Dansville, New York Circa 1916
Joseph Blum’s younger brother Anthony Blum served as superintendent of a mining operation on Reading Pond Brook. There is no evidence to suggest that Anthony Blum had any more mining qualifications than his brother Joseph, or that Joseph Blum was ever actually in Plymouth. As of 1 June 1880, the Federal Census population schedule for Plymouth listed Anthony Blum (25) Superintendent of Mines, boarding at a hotel owned by William and Angeletta Miner. With him were his wife, Barbara Blum (23), Henry Fox (32), assayer, and William Ames (48), a speculator in mining stocks.
Having started out placer mining on Reading Pond Brook, Blum and his colleagues eventually decided that the gold found in the brook was coming from a vein in the bedrock above. On 2 October 1882, the Rooks Mining Company was organized in the State of New York, with Anthony Blum serving as Treasurer. The Rooks Mine was situated on Buffalo Brook, about 600 yards below the point at which Reading Pond and Buffalo Brooks converge, and about a mile upstream from what is now Camp Plymouth State Park. Its name was derived from one of the principals, Charles C. Rooks, an elusive figure apparently born in New York in about 1837. He was at the time a merchant on land belonging to the Choctaw Nation in what is today Stonewall, Pontotoc County, Oklahoma. Rooks’ role in the company is unclear and it is unlikely that he ever visited the mine that bore his name.
Diagram of Rooks Mine From the 1884 Annual Report
Illustration of Rooks Mine From the 1884 Annual Report
Undated Photo of the Rooks Mine – Collection of the Plymouth Historical Society
As with all of Anthony Blum’s ventures, success was reported to be unparalleled.
Vermont Watchman and State Journal 2 July 1884
On 16 January 1885, the Middlebury Register reported that the mine’s December 1884 production amounted to $7,051. That equates to roughly $213,000 in today’s dollars and in light of subsequent events, casts considerable doubt upon the veracity of the information reported.
Purported success notwithstanding, Anthony Blum had been diversifying his holdings since 1883 when he purchased a cattle ranch in Durham, Borden County, Texas. Within two years he had vanished from the local scene.
The Vermont Tribune 19 June 1885
Henry Fox, the assayer at the mine and a stockholder, sued the Rooks Mining Company and obtained a judgment for $14,057.84. The property was sold at auction in 1889 and bought back by Fox for $12,500.
Vermont Tribune 31 May 1889
As with so many of the figures in this story, there is a certain amount of mystery and conflicting information about Henry Fox. He is said to have been born in Switzerland to Austrian parents, to have been a British subject who fought with the “Foreign Legion” in India, and to have later served as a ship’s Steward. Other accounts suggest that he had attended Oxford. His gravestone in Ludlow’s Pleasant View Cemetery states that he was born in 1843 and his death record lists his place of birth as Poland. The 1900 Federal Census lists him as a resident of Plymouth, born in England in January of 1846 to German parents, and having immigrated to America in 1868. Living a hermit’s life, Henry Fox worked the Rooks Mine alone for almost thirty years, dying in Brattleboro on 2 May 1919.
The Barre Daily Times 19 May 1919
On leaving Plymouth, Anthony Blum settled on the ranch he had purchased in Durham, Texas, and was appointed Postmaster of Borden County in 1887. The history of his later years is largely one of litigation over unpaid bills and fraudulent mining stocks.
Boston Evening Transcript 19 October 1901
Perhaps the most telling moment in Blum’s career took place on 16 June 1910 while he was testifying on his own behalf in a suit brought against him by Father Arthur de Brucker of Saint Mary Roman Catholic Church in Willimantic, Connecticut. Father de Bruycker had invested $5,000 in one of Blum’s mining ventures and sought to recover his money on the grounds of misrepresentation. In the midst of his testimony, Blum paled and collapsed on the floor, the victim of an apparent cardiac arrest. Upon being revived he declared his condition critical and, as a practicing Catholic, asked that de Brucker hear his confession. The priest could hardly refuse, and, as a result, the sanctity of the confessional precluded him from testifying against Blum in the proceedings. Anthony Blum made a remarkable recovery and lived to write a book in 1922 titled Petroleum, Where and How to Find It. He died in Chicago on 8 February 1923.
With the death of Henry Fox in 1919, the era of gold mining in Plymouth came to an end, although Buffalo Brook remains a popular destination for recreational prospecting.
Gold Panners on Buffalo Brook
The Rooks Mine can still be reached by walking up Buffalo Brook from Camp Plymouth State Park. The remains of at least three structures are situated along the north side of the brook and the shaft is on the hillside about 150 yards to the north.
The Discovery Shaft at Rooks Mine
On walking down the hill from the mine shaft, the remains of the collapsed tunnel can be seen, with the tracks for ore carts still protruding from the hillside.
Collapsed Tunnel at Rooks Mine