Elusive Indian Copper Mine still guards its treasure

Harris Hollow native long fascinated with what’s buried in the mountain above him

Historian and author Darwin Lambert, the first-ever employee of the newly created Shenandoah National Park, wrote in his authoritative book, “The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park,” about several of the area’s abandoned copper mines, including the elusive “Indian Copper Mine” above Harris Hollow.

The Mount Marshall Mine as identified on an earlier map of Rappahannock County. Photos by John McCaslin

“The Stony Man and Dark Hollow mines are near trails and findable still,” the author noted in 1988. “Several similar mines outside the park boundary . . . might also be found with determined effort. I’m not sure anybody now could find the Mount Marshall Mine (‘Indian Copper Mine’) that’s inside the park, but it was on the 6,666-acre John J. Miller tract in Rappahannock County in 1907.

“A company was incorporated then to do the work it,” continued Lambert, who died in 2007. “Miller was one of the directors. The vein was examined by experts and found genuine but too low-grade to make the project practical. So it was forgotten again — yet totally not forgotten. Who can totally forget buried treasure?”

Not Jimmy DeBergh.

Harris Hollow resident Jimmy DeBergh charts his course to the old Mount Marshall Mine, and hopefully beyond it the Indian Copper Mine he’s not been able to locate since first discovering it in 1973. By John McCaslin
Harris Hollow resident Jimmy DeBergh begins his climb up the steep slope of Mount Marshall, following his instincts in the absence of trails. By John McCaslin

A sixth-generation Rappahannock resident, DeBergh with his three dogs in tow set out from his Harris Hollow home last Friday in hopes of rediscovering the Indian Copper Mine that he first — and last — stumbled upon in 1973. And it’s not been for lack of searching. Any renewed effort, he knew, was best accomplished in the dead of winter, when it involved less bushwhacking, fewer ticks, and hopefully no snakes.

It was the discovery in the 1800s of small deposits of iron, manganese and copper ore that first attracted prospectors and mining companies to the mountains and foothills of modern-day Shenandoah Park. In a 2003 report, Virginia’s Mineral Resources Division counted 40 abandoned mines in and around the park, several marked by trenches, open cuts and shafts.

Colorful elements — green and blue and bronze compounds, with sulphur and even bits of native copper — “teased” prospectors into mining in Rappahannock County, including on the slopes of Mount Marshall where this photo was taken Friday. By John McCaslin

Most of the old mines, which date as far back as the early 1800s, are found just outside the park’s western boundaries, where iron and manganese (manganese steel, about 12 percent manganese, is the tough material of drill bits, rock crushers, and military hardware) deposits were mined for more than 100 years, especially during both World Wars. Geologists will tell you that manganese ore is found along the western foot of the Blue Ridge for the full length of the park.

“The Virginia Manganese Company began producing here in 1867, taking ore from both shafts and open pits and shipping mostly to European steel plants,” Lambert wrote. By 1880, the Crimora mine (below milepost 92.6 of Skyline Drive) was producing more manganese than any single mine in the world, expanding operations with new equipment and excavating methods during World War 1 and II, until shutting down in 1957.

By John McCaslin
Only a small but well-preserved portion of the old mining road exists where it reaches the isolated Mount Marshall Mine, and then quickly vanishes into the forest. By John McCaslin

“When the park was being established, the boundary was pulled sharply back to leave out this historic source of manganese,” the author pointed out of the Crimora mine, its richest ore deposit 3,000 feet long, 500 feet wide, and 200 feet deep.

Finding and mining whatever copper ore there was in these mountains proved to be much more difficult.

“Hope didn’t die easily, though,” observed the author, given the old lava “carried teasingly colorful copper elements — green or blue or bronze compounds with sulphur and other elements — and even bits of native copper.”

The dazzling rock formations “teased” enough prospectors that 63 acres surrounding Stony Man peak were patented for copper mining in 1849; a 2,308 acre tract was secured in 1850; and the Stony Man Mining Company purchased 3,000 acres in 1858, giving the now-familiar name Furnace Spring to its copper smelting plant.

There was enough enthusiasm to strike a big copper vein that during the 1880s a whopping 10,455 acres of “copper land” was snatched up in the shadow of Stony Man, where “nuggets of native copper” were eventually unearthed.

A stone foundation of one of the larger structures of the Mount Marshall Mine above Harris Hollow. By John McCaslin

But nobody ever got rich. The copper was neither extensive or of high quality, so fewer mines cropped up. In 1883, the Stony Man copper shaft — known as the “Booten Mine” — had reached a depth of 100 feet, but little of any value was carried out on the backs of mules.

Unlike the larger and more profitable manganese mines, which required manmade lakes for washing the clay from the ore — some still visible from Skyline Drive today — the copper mining operations “had few effects on the wilderness and these are rapidly fading away with the return of the forest,” the Minerals Division commented in its report..

Nevertheless, as Lambert observed: “Some people around the park carry on the myth of precious metals.”

From his Harris Hollow property line, it took the 70-year-old DeBergh just over an hour to bushwhack his way straight up the eastern saddle of Mount Marshall, where more mature forests of hickory and oak signaled his arrival into Shenandoah Park.

Navigating a final steep incline to reach the second of two bluffs, some 1,000 feet below Mount Marshall’s 3,368 foot summit, DeBergh’s instincts took him north, in search of a healthy stream spilling down giant boulders, where he knew on the other side were remnants of the Mount Marshall Mine camp and hopefully the Indian Copper Mine.

By John McCaslin
Two thick cylinder-shaped core samples discovered last Friday at the abandoned Mount Marshall Mine in Shenandoah National Park. By John McCaslin

“Growing up the locals had always heard about the Indian Copper Mine, heck it was on maps,” he said, never forgetting the day in 1973 that he and his friend Ned Jones climbed the bell tower of the Washington Baptist Church, where an old-timer who did surveying work pointed his finger to the location of the copper mine.

“Believe it or not he pointed to a place where he knew the Indian Copper Mine to be . . . and Ned took a compass reading of that general location,” DeBergh recalled. A short time later, the two young men and their wives packed a picnic lunch and set out to find the mine for themselves.

“It was total luck,” DeBergh admitted. “It would be nice to say that it was the exact compass reading, although it did provide us with the general proximity of where to look. It got us on the right mountain, but in truth we stumbled on it.”

One’s first impression after crossing the rocky stream is how the old Mount Marshall Mine camp has remained so hidden, what with its large expanse and surprisingly preserved access road that’s as wide as the Appian Way (a short distance to the north, it’s soon discovered, the road vanishes into the leaves and trees). At its southernmost point, intriguingly, the road’s adjoining border wall curves almost decoratively around a crumbling foundation, then comes to an abrupt stop at the stream.

In other words, there’s no route in or out of the mine camp, at least that is distinguishable.

As he scanned the surrounding hillsides, DeBergh insisted the Indian Copper Mine (how it got its name nobody can say for certain, although numerous native tribes were active in the area) was separate but in close proximity to the Mount Marshall Mine. In his research, Lambert identified the two mines as one and the same — or at least part of the same Mount Marshall operation, which would make sense.

“I’ve been all over here searching again” since 1973, said DeBergh. “It’s slightly uphill from here, I know that for a fact. But for the life of me I’ve been unable to find it. It had three or four holes dug down into it — big enough to crawl into and dig out some material.”

It took DeBergh less than a minute on Friday to brush away the camp’s thick layer of leaves and retrieve two cylinder-shaped core samples (later reburied) produced by an auger more than a century ago. Tools that were used to mine these mountains went from hand-powered excavation devices in the mid-1800’s — when drilling a hole required an extensive amount of time and effort — to radically improved “machines” at the turn of the century.

But where there were core samples there was no mine.

DeBergh surmised the torrential downpour that drenched Mount Marshall in June 1995 — causing tremendous rock slides at higher elevations and deadly flooding below — “altered the landscape” to where the Indian Copper Mine today is no longer detectable. And he’s fine with that.

After all, he knows the Indian Copper Mine, which he’s seen with his own eyes, is still high above Harris Hollow, not more than a few hundred yards from where he stood on Friday, hidden from sight but still guarding its treasure.

About John McCaslin 449 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.