Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Lyon Mountain vs. Benson Mines

I just finished reading Lyon Mountain: The Tragedy of a Mining Town by Lawrence P. Gooley. Naively expecting the book to be similar in scope and content to my Gem of the Adirondacks, I was surprised, though certainly not disappointed. The two books are as different as are the communities and events they portray.

Although both Lyon Mountain and the Benson Mines had in common their Adirondack geography, geological history, and the quality and abundance of their iron ores, they had some important differences. Large scale mining at the Benson Mines did not get fully underway until after the Second World War, whereas industrial-strength mining at Lyon Mountain was well underway more than sixty years earlier. The open-pit mining practiced at the Benson Mines was almost certainly less hazardous than the deep mining at Lyon Mountain, and Benson's miners benefited in their time from improved sensitivity and regulations to promote safety. And while Star Lake and other communities surrounding the Benson Mines had certain characteristics of boom towns, labor was mostly recruited locally, and there was never the active recruitment of disembarking immigrants that characterized the staffing of Lyon Mountain. Nor did the ascendancy of the Benson Mines usher in an era of ethnic rivalries and lawlessness such as plagued Lyon Mountain.

In Gem of the Adirondacks I credited the leaders of the Benson Mines with technical foresight and well-intended attempts to win the allegiance of workers. No such credit attaches to the leaders at Lyon Mountain who, with rare exceptions, embraced a vision of industrial relations based on power and compulsion. Gooley cites the Lyon Mountain baseball teams as providing the kinds of outlet and community cohesion necessary to offset difficult and dangerous working conditions. Company supported leisure and educational activities promoted at the Benson Mines by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation also were obvious attempts to improve the quality of life of employees, but their offerings were more numerous and more diffuse than the singular role of baseball in promoting civic life in the Lyon Mountain community.

Readers of Gem of the Adirondacks and Star Lake and those of us who experienced what now seem to have been the glory days of the Benson Mines should read Gooley’s book. The similarities and contrasts of the two Adirondack mining communities are important in understanding and coming to terms with our recent past.

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