12. Witherbee

Miner Housing and Company Management

Listen to the Site 12 Iron Story Narration


The concrete homes of Witherbee. From the collection of the Adirondack History Museum.

The concrete homes of Witherbee. From the collection of the Adirondack History Museum.

In 1896, the Witherbee Sherman Company issued a “Report on Facilities,” containing an inventory of company-owned buildings. In addition to those buildings directly involved in mining operations, the facilities included a barn, a warehouse, a sawmill, and a carpenter’s shop, all of red brick, with metal roofs. Over the next twenty years, company carpenters would be employed in the construction of worker’s housing, in addition to their work on the mill buildings housing mining machinery.Soon after the 1900 reorganization of the Witherbee, Sherman Company, the west end of Mineville became a separate hamlet called Witherbee—named obviously for Moriah’s foremost mining family. The area between Mineville and Witherbee was the location of Moriah’s richest ore bodies. It became the site of extensive industrial development, including mine shafts and pits, powerhouses, separating plants, railyards, and other related structures.

At this time, massive numbers of immigrants were recruited to work the mines. Interestingly, specific people were designated to recruit certain ethnicities. Joseph Scozzafava, an early immigrant to Port Henry, was in charge of recruiting Italians. Historian Valerie Rosenquist writes, “These newcomers had not been miners originally, but farmers, and came to a totally foreign environment. They had their lives neatly outlined for them upon arrival in Moriah. They were assigned housing and jobs, each ethnic group housed together.”

Witherbee was established as an enclave for worker’s housing built by Witherbee, Sherman and Company. The company capitalized on the waste product of mining, the gray tailings, to design a new type of concrete. Originally, wood-frame houses went up quickly in the 1870s to accommodate this growing workforce. You can see some of these on West Street. As quickly as they were built, the immigration rate continued to increase through the 1890s. In need of long-lasting and easy-to-maintain housing, Witherbee and Sherman had a solution: the iron ore tailings.

Mining iron ore required separating it from the minerals and materials into which the ore was bound. Separation and production of iron concentrate for refining left iron tailings behind. Added to concrete, the tailings strengthened the concrete as it was formed and set into blocks. The initial construction costs were similar to building a wood-frame house, but they were considered to be cost-effective in the long run by not needing the attention and maintenance that wood-frame houses required. Between 1903 and 1910, 88 concrete tailing blockhouses were built along Joyce Road, Wasson Street, West Street, Bridal Row, and Belfry Hill Road in Witherbee—and many of them stand there still today.

On West Street are a series of concrete boarding houses. These were occupied primarily by single men working in the mines. According to stories told by one of the boarding house owners, the men slept in tight, cold, “stall like” quarters with only a cot and a shelf for a few possessions. The woman of the house, often a miner’s widow, would provide the miners with their meals.

Across the street, the long, low, green building is the Harmony Changing House, where workers donned their coveralls before going underground. Behind the change house were Harmony A and B Mines. At the end of a shift, miners returned to take off their sweat-soaked clothing and hang it to dry, high in the well-heated upper reaches of the building. Then they crossed the street to the boarding houses, get a hot meal, roll onto their cot, and then begin the process all over again.

The boarding house was the focal point of much of a miner’s social life—especially when they first moved to the country. Not only was it a place to sleep and eat, but it also gave men their first contact with the town and fellow countrymen—often at extremely close quarters. Census records of 1905 and 1915 show that many houses provided sleeping quarters for as many as 34 men. This meant wall-to-wall cots and a shift sleeping schedule, where one shift would roll out of bed and another would roll in.

In Valerie Rosenquist’s book, The Iron Ore Eaters, she writes of one resident’s memory as a child:

“Monica Plonka, whose family had run a boarding house for years, remembered her work as a child. The house had to be cleaned, and cooking was a constant occupation. She frequently stayed home from school to help her mother prepare meals and the cold box lunches of meat and cheese sandwiches that each miner took to work with him. As soon as one meal had been served, they had to begin preparing the next.”

A short block of stores recalls the days when the Witherbee residents relied on the railroad (built in 1869) to travel out of town. Now, most of these buildings are boarded up. The commercial center fell into disuse as soon as personal automobiles made the stores in Port Henry accessible to everyone.

Travel Tools

Driving on 70, Witherbee Road, you’ll see a sign for Witherbee. Right after the sign, veer left at the “V.”  On West Street, you’ll see a long, low building, painted pale green on the right (east) side, the Harmony Change House. Across the street are a series of concrete boarding houses for single miners. Stop on the right side of the road by the changing house.

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First-Hand Accounts

The different types of company-built houses showed various types of luxuries, depending on status: “The more numerous Eastern Europeans lived in the four-family structures on Wasson Street, which overlooked the change house, (where the miners changed clothes before entering and upon leaving the mines). Just north of this area, the managers’ houses stood overlooking the village. Twenty-five boarding houses lined the main street (West Street). Different settlements were built for the Spanish and Italians. All of these homes were within walking distance of the mines, and various stores and taverns lined the paths.” -Frederick Lincoln, a reporter for the industrial journal Cement Age wrote an article in 1909 entitled “A Concrete Industrial Village.”