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The Ely War

Copper had been discovered early in the Vershire area, and was mined on a small scale for some years with little success. Then in 1853 a charter was granted to a group of men who had some experience with copper mining. Throughout the Civil War copper was in big demand, and the mines at Vershire, Corinth and Strafford flourished. In 1865 Smith Ely of New York City gained controlling interest in the Vershire mines. By 1880 the mines had been so expanded that they produced over three million pounds of copper, or three-fifths of the entire copper output of the United States. It was during the heyday of the copper mines, when over 2,000 men worked in Vershire, that the town decided to change its name to honor Mr. Ely, who had moved to Vermont to personally supervise the mining operation.

By 1882, when the name was changed back to Vershire, the copper mines were in financial difficulties: the shaft had been extended hundreds of feet below ground, and huge hoisting apparatus and pumps were required to lift the ore and keep the shaft free of water. In addition, the price of copper had dropped steadily, despite the protective tariff that had been instigated by Vermont's US Senator Justin Morrill, whose home was in Strafford.

The company closed the mines in 1883 but announced that the smelting furnaces would be run around the clock in an effort to raise money to pay the miners' back wages. In the meantime the miners were to be allowed to live in their company houses free of charge, and as many as possible would be employed in the smelting operations. Misunderstanding the company's motives, the miners rebelled. They believed that Ely, who was by then in his late eighties, could pay their back wages from his personal wealth (which in fact had already been spent on the mines). Rioting broke out, the mines were flooded, and Ely's life was threatened. Frantic telegrams brought the company's New York financial agent to Vermont, with all of the company's available cash - about $4,000. This was only 20 percent of what was owed the men, so further rioting ensued. The situation was rapidly approaching a state of civil war when the governor was called on for help. The state militia was sent to Vershire, the rioters were arrested, and the Ely War ended.

The Strafford mines were reopened during both world wars, but those in Vershire remained closed.

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October 14, 2013