SWAN’S ISLAND — Earlier this year, Ted Turner gets a call from his aunt on Deer Isle.
Ted and his brother Galen Turner (who passed away in 2011) founded the Swan’s Island Lobster and Marine Museum, which holds all kinds of antique fishing and boatbuilding equipment. So he’s received a lot of calls about potential artifacts.
His aunt tells him the new owner of a house down the road found something curious in the house—a $5 share, made out to Israel Johnson on May 7, 1880, in the Swan’s Island Mining Company.
This artifact is unique, evoking an interesting piece of history. Turner calls me. “What kind of mining?” I ask.
“Gold mine,” he says. “Right now, it’s a big hole in the ground.”
This I’ve got to see. As it happens, Turner’s cousin is the grade 3-5 teacher at the Swan’s Island Elementary School, and every three years she does a field trip with her class to the gold mine, part of her Swan’s Island history unit.
“She’s taking the class down this month,” Turner says.
I give the teacher, Kim Colbeth, a call, and arrange to visit the day of the trip. While her students are in an art class, she has a moment to explain the history unit includes many other explorations, such as trips to see a gravel pit where fossils can be found; Irish Point, the island’s first settlement; and the rectangular depression in a field where the house of eponymous Col. James Swan was located. They’ve made topographical maps and storybooks and genealogical trees. The most copious tree is that of “King” David Smith, who had 27 children and was the island’s first real settler.
“Col. Swan didn’t really live here,” says Colbeth. “But he participated in the Boston Tea Party, and the kids think that’s cool.”
Colbeth hands me a well-used copy of the 1958 book, Biography of an Island, by Perry D. Westbrook. The book describes how a vein of “blue rock” traversing the northeast tip of the island was found to contain traces of gold. A gold-mining expert was brought from the west, and “pretty looking” stocks were printed and sold, but not to islanders who “weren’t that gullible.”
“The kids are hoping for gold,” says Colbeth, as her students file into the classroom from art, and do a quick 180 to get jackets for the field trip. Colbeth mentions the gold mine is now full of water. “I told them, ‘We’re not going to stand right on the edge. We’re not, not, not.'”
Everyone piles on the bus. Colbeth directs the driver to the small community’s informal landmarks: “The path right next to the ‘No Hunting’ sign and the old birch stump that’s falling over.” A short hike past a dilapidated snow fence takes the group to the base of a brushy slope. Colbeth gathers the students around.
“It wasn’t the kind of mine you could walk into,” she says, then reads from a picture book a previous class had made to illustrate the Westbrook text:
“Steam engines and stonecrushers were bought and assembled. For the final pulverizing, Swan’s old millstones were harnessed to steam. A shaft was sunk, the ore was carted by oxen to the crushing shed built near a brook which supplied water for sluicing. The hole in the hillside grew deeper and the pile of slag higher.
“After several years of labor, the men and oxen and steam engines had produced enough gold to make one good-sized wedding ring. Operations were suspended. The shaft filled with water, and after a stray cow had drowned in it”¦”
“Ooooh! Poor thing!” the kids exclaim.
“”¦it was filled up.”
The class clambers up the slope.
“Is that the mine?!” they ask.
“Nowadays it looks like a frog pond,” Colbeth notes, then pulls out a pole so they can stick it into the water and measure the depth.
“Ooooh! What if we get cow bones?!”
The pole gets stuck in the mud, stirring up more gales of child laughter.
“The cow zombie ate it!”
The kids climb up to the slag pile and closely examine the rocks.
“I found something. It’s golden!” says one.
“It’s golden?! I want to see! Gold, gold, gold!” say others.
Thanks to this type of experience, and a deep interest in local history on the part of folks like Colbeth, it turns out everyone grows up here knowing about the gold mine. Nobody knows where that gold ring is. But every so often, a new aspect pops up that adds interest.
About nine years ago, says Colbeth, a couple of her friends mentioned there were millstones in the woods near the house on land their family had long owned, which was across the road from the mine.
“I thought, ‘Oooh!'” Colbeth recalls.
The Westbrook book says, “The millstones for a time lay covered in the rubble near the engine house. Then one day an islander who had just built himself a huge house with a bulbous mansard roof dug up the stones and placed them in his front yard to serve as a flagpole standard.”
Colbeth continues: “I went over there and poked around the bushes one day, and I found the foundation where they crushed the stones, and found fire bricks they’d used and the sluiceway down to the brook. I thought, ‘Bingo! That’s where they crushed the blue rock.'”
And now there’s the stock certificate, “our big find for this year,” Colbeth says.
Each child has selected a specimen of rock that has a glint of something or other. The group troops back down the path to the bus. On the ride back to school, they talk about the picture book their class will make out of the trip.
“All the time you’ve gone on this road,” Colbeth asks the students, “would you think there would be a gold mine right up here? It’s amazing.”