The Graphite Mines of Nelson

John M. Guilbert
From Grapevine-2, March 1995

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in the March 1995 issue of the Grapevine-2, is a shortened version of a manuscript that may be read in its entirety at the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library, along with samples of graphite and copies of the references cited in the text. The complete manuscript includes a bibliography and greater detail about Nelson’s geologic past. Anyone interested in exploring the Nelson graphite mines may consult the manuscript and maps in the Library. Please note that all of the mines are on private property and permission for entry must be granted by the owners.

The Osgood Mine, 1852–1865

Among the distinctions that grace Nelson and its environs is the presence of three historic graphite mines. The mines – small “open pits” – are inconspicuous to the casual visitor because they are generally misnamed, because they lie off the beaten path, and because they have become overgrown with brush, moss, and lichen. One of them, the so-called Town Farm Lead Mine, was landscaped many years ago to look more like a formal garden than a mine. Another, the Osgood, was during its time of operation the largest graphite mine in the United States, an attribute well disguised by recent overgrowth. These old holes-in-the-ground look trivial now, but 150 years ago they were the foci of enormous ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, and hard physical labor. Their history is described below. The future of graphite mining in Nelson can be dealt with summarily: there is none.

What Is Graphite?
Graphite has about the simplest chemical formula conceivable, namely “C”; it (like diamond) is one of the several mineral forms of the element carbon. In nature, graphite is silvery gray to black, platy (like mica), typically fine-grained (sooty to match-head sized plates), soft and “carveable,” and unctuous or greasy to the touch. It is a moderately rare mineral, except in New Hampshire and New York. Folks have hunted for graphite and dug it out of its host rocks since of the dawn of the Bronze Age 5,200 years ago. Commercially, graphite falls in the class of “Industrial Minerals,” commodities that are mined for what they are, not for what they contain. Ice, mica, and garnet are other examples of industrial minerals.

Graphite’s Latin name is “plumbago,” from “plumbum,” the Latin for “lead.” The English language inherited the same duplicity, and we are stuck with a confusion that has run through the ages between the metal lead in pipes and the “lead” in pencils. The two “leads” have no physical or chemical kinship; they are as unlike as aluminum and coal. It is highly desirable to drop the archaic term “plumbago” altogether. “Graphite” is the proper term, although “plumbago,” “lead,” and “black lead” are still misguidedly used for it.

Why Was Graphite Mined?
In the New England area, our native Americans used graphite, gathered in Nelson as well as elsewhere, to strengthen fired clay pots and for body and face paint. In Colonial times, flake graphite was pulverized, mixed with clay, and extruded like spaghetti to make pencil “leads.” It was formed into crucibles for early silver casting, was used for molds for the same, and was the only reliable lubricant of the times for the clocks and locks of Beacon Hill, the wagon and coach wheels of Yankee commerce, and the capstans of clipper ships. It was also a pigment in black stove paint.

Today the United States is totally dependent on imports for its supplies of graphite, mainly from Mexico, Brazil, the Malagasy Republic, and Sri Lanka, to the tune of 40-50,000 tons per year at about $700 per ton.

Where Are the Nelson Mines?
The three defunct graphite mines in the immediate Nelson area we will call the Town Farm, the Osgood, and the Newell Mines. I plan to do pace-and-compass physical and geologic maps of each of the mine areas during the summer of 1995; the maps will be available in the Olivia Rodham Memorial Library in Nelson. It is really fun to walk the areas (with permission) and to figure from slumped walls and blurred depressions where the offices, the store rooms, the ore-sorting floors, the loading bays, the rail beds, and the waste dumps at these old mine sites were.

The Town Farm Mine is about two miles west-southwest of the Nelson green off the Lead Mine Road, on the Francis property. The Newell Mine is closer to town. It is so-called for its location near the old Gad Newell place currently [2020] occupied by Betsy Street. The Osgood Mine, once called “J. Seabury’s Lead Mine” and the largest of the trio, is on a woods road off the Old Stoddard Road, on the slopes of Osgood Hill.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see graphite in the walls of the old mines as we search them today. For one thing, the thickest, most obvious, purest stuff was mined out in the earliest days. The walls of the mines that we see today are the “outer limits” of what could be extracted at a profit, and are not surprisingly “lean” in remnants of the original graphite mineral matter. There may well be some remains of good stuff in the pit floors, but they are now mostly covered either by water or washed-in debris.

The History of Graphite Mining
Several small mines have operated in the Adirondacks of New York, near Pope Mills, in the Ticonderoga area, around Saratoga Springs, and occurrences of graphite are strewn sparsely over Vermont and Maine. But in New Hampshire, graphite is anomalously common. Belknap in 1792 described Mount Monadnock thus: “… Its summit is a bald rock; on some parts of it are large piles of broken rocks … and plumbago in large quantities.”

In 1986 Rumble and Duke [see the bibliography in the unabridged version for citations] published a “graphite map of southwestern New Hampshire” that shows 53 minor locales and 16 old graphite mines between Mount Kinsman and the Massachusetts border, all west of Concord. There was a good-sized one at Goshen called the Franklin Pierce Mine, once owned by that president. Others were at Bristol, Antrim, Marlborough, Walpole, and just south of Keene. Most of these mines operated within the same time frame, from the 1840s toward the 1900s.

The Newell Mine: Mining in the Nelson area may well have begun as an Indian activity; the veins at the Newell occurrence were well exposed and apparently easily discovered early on. Jackson (1844) reported that graphite mines were operating in the 1840s in the agricultural “off-season” in Goshen, Antrim, and Nelson, probably at the Newell Mine. In the 1840s, brothers Silas, Edward, and Payson French leased mining rights on the Newell property from Oliver and Gad Newell, paying $7 per ton of graphite extracted. Powdered graphite brought 3 to 5 cents a pound at the time, about $80 a ton, so they probably made a fair profit. In 1850, they sublet the property to a Massachusetts company (the Phoenix Company of Taunton), thereafter receiving $20 a ton for the mined product, an automatic $13 per ton profit. But the veins were narrow and short, and the deposit was probably worked out by 1855 and so has lain fallow for 140 years.

The Osgood Mine: The Osgood graphite veins were discovered in 1852, and property owner Ira Robbins sold them then to J. and J. Seabury, a New York mining company; Jacob Seabury also bought the Town Farm Mine in 1858. The Osgood, or J. Seabury Lead Mine, operated through the Civil War, closing in about 1865. It reportedly produced 30 tons of graphite in one unspecified three-month period, a heroic rate of production for those days. The mine probably employed 20 to 25 men, whose toil in hammer-and-steel drilling, gunpowder blasting, and hauling must have been formidable. Big blocks of waste rocks on the dumps still show odd triangular-shaped drill holes, presumably the result of steam-powered drill bit chatter. The waste dumps and mine workings at the Osgood are the most informative to the curious adventurer, and graphite can still be found there.

The Town Farm Mine: This deposit was discovered in 1853 on what was then the 156-acre Nelson Town Farm, and the selectmen were quickly authorized to sell the mining rights. The S. C. Griffin Company had a lease on the graphite veins as early as 1855; Parke Struthers (1968) reported that the Griffin company showed “some of their American Lustre stove polish and several specimens of plumbago from their quarries” at the Nelson Fair on October 3, 1855. Levi E. Priest, Agent for the Town of Nelson, sold the farm property in May 1858 to Sewell Day of Nelson for $1300, with the Griffin lease on the graphite protected along with a lease that Silas French’s heirs had acquired.

Thereafter, land ownership and transfer got complicated and graphite was apparently produced only on a small-scale, irregular basis until after the Civil War. From 1869 to 1875, Hamilton Waddell operated the Town Farm Mine, first for the New York Black Lead Mining and Manufacturing Company, then for himself. While he strove to blast and haul the graphite, however, two forces overtook him. One was that water kept draining into his pit, requiring costly pumping; the other was the deteriorating business climate and depression after the Panic of 1873. In 1875, Waddell went into bankruptcy, and the mine closed forever.

For that brief six-year period, however, it was a pretty good mine. Elliot (1941) described the operation in some detail, including that there was a 20×40-foot shed on the north side of the pit where men with sledge hammers broke up the graphitic rocks, culled the graphite, and tossed it into bags or barrels for shipment to the railhead at Keene or to the pulverizing mills at Hillsboro, on the way to Boston. There were steam engines, steam-powered rail tram lines, and steam-driven pumps, all wood-fueled. The mine produced 80 to 90 tons of graphite per year, with some 4x4x6-foot blocks coming from the main vein. Some 5,000 tons of waste rock and more than 500 tons of graphite were excavated. The mine probably employed 15 to 20 workers.

Several other companies owned the property in ensuing decades, but no further production was attempted or achieved. So, the recorded lifespan of the three mines totals only 46 years from 1844 through 1875, the Newell 1844-1855 (11 years), the Osgood 1852-1865 (13 years), and the Town Farm 1853-1875 (22 years).

The Geology and Genesis of Nelson Graphite
Not counting the skim of glacial sand, gravel, and soil that makes up most of the surface around Nelson, there are only two major underlying rock types, the Rangeley Formation and the Kinsman granite. They are the bedrock, more popularly known as “ledge.” Please see the maps and article by Thompson in the Nelson library for more detail than we can give here.

The older rock type is the Rangeley Formation of Silurian age; it underlies the whole area of Nelson center, Center Pond, Silver Lake, Childs Bog, Harrisville Pond, and Tolman Pond. Cobb, Osgood, Blood, Hurd, and Hardy Hills are all underlain by it. These rocks were deposited 430 million years ago as sediments on the floor of a seaway, probably one like today’s Sea of Japan. So they started out as a 6,000-foot-thickness of “layer cake” sedimentary rocks, like those in the wall of the Grand Canyon.

But WHAM! In what geologists call the Acadian Orogenic event, the land mass of Europe slammed into North America 400 million years ago, much as India is colliding with southern Asia today. County-sized slabs and wedges of rock were sliced, pushed over one another, contorted, buried, heated, and compressed, and injected by masses of molten rock that solidified to form the second of our major rocks around Nelson, the Kinsman granite.

The Kinsman granite is really distinctive, once you know it; lots of local steps and stepping stones are made of it, like Barry Tolman’s farmhouse step. It’s not the fine-grained “salt-and-pepper” speckled gray granite (like the posts in his yard) from the quarries at Marlborough, Fitzwilliam, or Concord; it has big crystals of light gray feldspar in a dark, fine-grained matrix. You see it all around Nubanusit Lake and Spoonwood, because a tongue of it extends from its main outcrops around Hancock southwest under Spoonwood and Nubanusit and the Meadows past Mosquitoville and behind the Clymer place down to the inlet to Harrisville Pond. Most of the Hancock area is underlain by it, as is Skatutakee Lake. Look for it when you’re walking those parts!

As mentioned, the Kinsman granite was molten when it was injected into the folded and contorted Rangeley rocks, and it metamorphosed them as it advanced, then cooled and crystallized. The sediments were cooked to gneisses, slates, and quartzites. Graphite grew wherever carbonaceous matter was originally in the Rangeley rocks, and, at the same time as the metamorphism, some of that graphite was dissolved in hot water from the granite, transported through fractures in the Rangeley rocks, and deposited in those cracks. That is why most of the graphite in the three old mines was in veins, the cracks that were solution conduits.

Other minerals formed with the vein-veinlet graphite include quartz, tourmaline, muscovite, sillimanite, ilmenite, and rutile. The Osgood, Newell, and Town Farm Mines are all within a mile of two of the Rangeley-Kinsman contact, as are the other mines listed earlier, and they were definitely “hot spots” that got “cooked” when the granite melt invaded.

There are some really odd minerals that occur with the graphite especially at the three Nelson deposits that suggest to me, an ore-deposit geologist, that there is yet another mode of origin involved, that some of the graphite was deposited in the original Rangeley sediments by a process associated with sea-floor hot springs, like the “black smokers” that we see today on the mid-oceanic rises. But for the most part, the graphite of the Nelson mines is hydrothermal in origin and was emplaced as part of the metamorphism that developed when continents collided and the Kinsman melt (Hancock) invaded the Rangeley units (Nelson).

And it sat there for 400 million years until stalwarts like the Frenches, Newells, Seaburys, and Waddells wrested it from the rocks in a brief period 140 years ago.

About the author: John M. Guilbert, born in Dedham, Massachusetts, married Mary Clymer of Harrisville in 1954. An Economic Geologist, he has worked in industry, as a consultant, and for 30 years as a professor at the University of Arizona. He and Mary reside in Tucson and, during the summer, on Nubanusit Road and the clay tennis court at Tolman Pond in Nelson. He is author of many journal articles and a textbook on the geology of ore deposits.

From his daughter: It is my pleasure and deepest honor to announce to his friends and his colleagues and almost especially his former advisees and students, that my father, Professor John M. Guilbert will be inducted into the Mining Hall of Fame in Leadville, CO along with a few other distinguished members of the Mining/Geological community in September of 2018. 

This is probably the highest honor and recognition he could have reached, but seemed to do it with ease and grace. Dad loved the lay of the land, the formation of rock and sediment, then discovering what “riches” lay within it and THEN educating anyone he could find who would listen about what he knew almost more than anything else in life. 

My warmest regards,
Linda Guilbert Johnson

Related Articles

A Sense of Nelson/Munsonville with George Washington Holt

George Washington Holt wrote a journal which provides detailed, but brief, accounts of his daily activities. His life probably typified the lives of many who grew most of their own food raised in small gardens, kept a few animals, bartered time for time or for goods and worked for several individuals or one of several manufacturing operations of the time for wages.

Batchellor’s Small Grist Mill

F-5-9 Batchellor’s Small Grist Mill This location near Bailey Brook has a small stone retaining wall that may be the foundation for the “small grist mill” that is shown in Breed Batchellor’s settlement survey prepared in 1773. It may also be the location of a cider mill operated by [...]

Bryant Tannery

Established by Francis S. Bryant shortly after their father, Amos, bought the property from the widow of Stephen Beard in 1805. Little remains of the vats and other hallmarks of a tannery today.

Building a Town

Settlement in Monadnock Number Six came quickly once it got started. A list of settlers in the Masonian Papers in 1770 showed 5 settlers. In the three reports on settlement produced in 1773 and 1774 there were fifty-four different family names identified as moving into Monadnock Number Six. The final [...]

Center Pond House & Mill Development

Center Pond House & Mill Development Upper left:  French Farm. To the right, Nelson Village. Breed Batchellor was Nelson’s first settler and its developer. In the early days, he owned thousands of acres in the town. He built a small sawmill [...]

Daniel Wood’s Corn Mill

C-1-3: The outlet of Pleasant Pond (later Beed Pond and Silver Lake) was the site of three mills. The town’s first gristmill was established here in about 1771 by Daniel Wood of Upton, Massachusetts.

Fulling Mill

D-4-13 Fulling Mill: Little remains at this site today but as flattened area north of the brook. Here in 1794, Thomas K. Breed built a fulling mill* with a shear. Fulling mils were used to treat woolen cloth woven on home looms to finish it. He bought land on [...]

Harrington Brickyard and Tannery

C-4-15. Stephen Harrington purchased part of the Burnap Farm from John Burnap in 1802. He clearly intended to develop business enterprises there as the purchase included lots that contain the foundation of the tannery, a shoe shop, and the site of a bark mill in the southeast corner of Nelson Road and Henderson Road today.

Harrington’s Bark Mill

C-4-9 Stephen Harrington established his tannery in about 1803. He probably built this water powered bark mill at about the same time. The bark mill consisted of a dam and a mill where oak and hemlock bark were ground to produce tannin rich “powder” for use in the tanning process.

Harrington’s Tannery

C-4-8 - Stephen Harrington established his tannery in about 1803. The tannery is located just east of Henderson Road on a small brook that served as both its water supply and its waste removal system. Water from the brook was collected above the road and carried by aqueduct across the road to the tannery below.

Hotel Nelson Burns!

A glow in the darkened sky alarmed Wayland Tolman and his father, Orson, as they turned towards home after a long winter’s day of logging near Long Pond (Nubanusit). The date was February 6, 1894. They raced ahead and as they rounded the road to the village their worst fears were realized. Fire!

Josiah Woodward

B-2-5 Josiah Woodward Josiah Woodward bought land and water rights here in 1804 and moved here from Marlborough with his wife, Keziah, building a large two-story frame house. His wife died in 1810 and he remarried Sally Wakefield of Dublin. Josiah deeded half the home, mill and 110 acres [...]

Mill Boarding House

Asa Beard was a founder of the Nelson Cotton and Woolen Company in about 1815. While living at D-3-3, he built this house as his new residence and began building a factory at the outlet of Fish Pond (Granite Lake).

Mill Headquarters

B-5-6 Mill Headquarters: This structure was built in 1855 likely as the mill office and crew quarters for the steam powered sawmill 100 yards to its east at B-5-7.

Nelson Cotton and Woolen Company

C-5-10 The mill site is the lowest of three on the stream that empties Granite Lake. The broken grindstone near the mill’s tailrace is evidence of its early use for grinding grain into flour.  Joseph Baker likely built the mill in the 1790’s as a saw and gristmill. By [...]

Nineteenth Century Capitalism, Nelson Style

It is difficult not to view life in Nelson in the mid-nineteenth century as a stereotype -- a bucolic farming community relatively untouched by the national issues like industrialization and immigration. Indeed Nelson was a bit on the sidelines.

Otter Brook Steam Mill

B-5-7. Three foundations in the far northwestern corner of Nelson are the remains of a steam powered sawmill that operated between 1855 and 1860. The complex is composed of the mill site itself and two supporting buildings that have in-ground foundations.

Shoe shop

C-4-10 The site of a shoe shop built as part of Stephen Harrington’s tannery works. Established prior to 1822 and continued as late as 1857.

Taylor Mill

B-4-7: This site is popularly called “Taylor Mill” because Frederick Taylor was its last operator from 1841 until well past the Civil War. When Monadnock #6 was settled, there were a number of small mills built on small but reliable brooks to furnish early settlers with the means of grinding their grain into flour and sawing lumber into boards to build the early homes. More specialized mills followed. Taylor mill was one of the later ones, built by Thaddeus Barker, the youngest child of William Barker, in 1799.

The Bancroft Mill

E-2-5 The Bancroft Mill site today As early as 1830 Joel Bancroft built a sawmill at the outlet of the Great Meadow.  The elaborate foundation including a dry-stone arch and mill raceways can still be seen today.  In the late 1850’s the mill had been sold to [...]

The Cotton Factory in Munsonville

The solid stone walls of the foundation of the large mill built in Munsonville are all that remain of this early industrial site at the outlet of Granite Lake. In 1814, Asa Beard built the Cotton Factory and a boardinghouse for mill workers in what was then a remote section of Nelson to take advantage of the waterpower provided by the dammed up Factory Lake.

The Graphite Mines of Nelson

Among the distinctions that grace Nelson and its environs is the presence of three historic graphite mines. The mines – small “open pits” – are inconspicuous to the casual visitor...

The Newell Mine

In 1851 brothers Silas, Edward, and Payson French leased mining rights on the Newell property from Oliver and Gad Newell. But the veins were narrow and short, and the deposit was probably worked out by 1855.

The Osgood Mine

D-4-9 The Osgood graphite veins were discovered in 1848 and property owner Horatio Osgood leased them to Moses Carleton of Lancaster, Massachusetts. Two years later, Carlleton sublet them to J. and J. Seabury, a New York mining company; Jacob Seabury also bought the Town Farm Mine in 1858.

The Parmenter Mill

E-2-6 In 1856 Joel Bancroft sold 85 acres here to Appleton Parmenter. The site included a good mill site just downstream from the Bancroft sawmill.  Parmenter built a saw and grist mill here. In 1864 he sold the mill to his brother, Isaac, from Brooklyn, New York.  Sometime later [...]

The Sawmills of Mosquitobush, 1850-1940

The period from 1790 to 1830 has been called the Age of Self-Sufficiency in northern New England. Nearly everything needed for daily living was made on the homestead. For exceptional needs, there were local shops, the most prevalent of which were grist mills and sawmills.

The Story of Nehemiah Flint

Nelson’s population had peaked by the time Nehemiah Flint bought his farm in 1827. The sheep craze had resulted in 85 -90% of the land being cleared. It was the height of the family farm producing surpluses sold into other states. But farmers were beginning to move west for more fertile, stone-free soils.

The Tolman Mill

Especially in Nelson, because of the available lumber and water supply, the early farmer found that he could keep up with rising living costs by supplementing his income through a small mill or shop and by manufacturing within the home.

The Town Farm Mine

C-3-17 This graphite deposit was discovered in 1853 on what was then the 156-acre Nelson Town Farm, and the selectmen were quickly authorized to sell the mining rights. The S. C. Griffin Company had a lease on the graphite veins as early as 1855; Parke Struthers (1968) reported that [...]

The Village Blacksmith

D-4-17 Part of the new village of Nelson Center laid out in 1839 was a blacksmith shop at the junction of the road to Harrisville and the road to Hancock. With its coal fired hearth, it was probably located at the edge of the village on purpose.

The Wilson Mill:

D-4-22 The Wilson Mill: Situated at the outlet of White Pond today is a very large stone dam, a ruined concrete gate and spillway and numerous stone piers that held the structures of the mills here from 1796 to the end of the 19th century.

Thomas Knowles Breed, Fuller: 

D-4-3: Thomas was the 3rd son of Nathaniel and Ann Breed born in Sudbury, Massachusetts in 1761. He came to Monadnock #6 with his parents in 1768. After leaving home, he established himself at D-3-11 where he may have operated a small tavern and inn. He lived here while [...]

Village Shoe Shop

D-4-30. Henry Melville began the process of establishing what we now call Nelson Village with his purchase of the land under Henry H. Flint’s shoe shop at D-3-3 providing that Henry move his shoe shop.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Go to Top