Sifting through the archives of a mining town
Tucked away in the Adirondacks, hidden to those unaware of the mining history in New York, is the small hamlet of Lyon Mountain. Located right in the town of Standish in Clinton County next to Chazy lake, the old mining town reveals a fascinating history. At its peak, over 3,500 people lived in this town. Now, a mere 300 people call this hamlet home.
Melvina and Alex Kourofsky emigrated from Poland to Lyon Mountain, NY in 1920. Their son, Walter Kourofsky, was born in 1930. Ninety years later, he still lives in the area. In that time, he watched Lyon Mountain transform from a tight knit community and company town, owned and operated by Republic Steel, to a shadow of itself.
“While living here, getting along with people was easy. If you needed help, the people would help you. It was just simple. It was a happy community,” Kourofsky says about the company town.
Lyon Mountain is over 25 miles away from both Malone and Plattsburgh. Today, that distance could be solved by a quick drive. But, when Kourofsky was growing up, not everyone had cars. This made traveling difficult, if not impossible, unless they rode a bus. The sense of community was unavoidable. Families often carpooled to appointments out of town.
During this time, Lyon Mountain only had a small company store, gas station and grocery store. Still today, locals travel out of Lyon Mountain for most appointments. The same gas station sits, almost in the heart of Lyon Mountain, welcoming visitors. Everything, down to housing, was owned by Republic Steel. It was a small quaint town, where everyone seemed to know everybody and everyone had a job to do.
When Koufosky was too young for the local bar or beer garden, as it was called, he would visit the diner attached, hoping to have 25 cents in his pocket to buy an ice cream cone. He’d talk to his friends about the weekly movie showing at Lyon Mountain High School‘s auditorium.
In January of 1960, at the age of 30, Kourofsky accepted a position at Lyon Mountain High School as a custodian and bus driver. He worked for Republic Steel, but he worked on the surface instead of in the damp underground of the mines.
The school was a steady job, unlike working in the mines or for the correctional facility where people experienced layoffs and inconsistent work. He traveled to every school in the county and some in the surrounding area.
“[It] was not the biggest paying job in the world, but I survived! And it was everyday work. It was pay,” he says.
He worked there for 31 years before retiring.
Anthony Danussi was employed by Republic Steel in the mines. He was a driller who worked specifically with dynamite. He focused on getting the iron ore out of the ground.
“He had workers with him. But he was the one who had started it and finished it. He absolutely loved [mining,] even though he was down in the damp ground,” his daughter, Nancy Kaska, says.
The humble yet proud Danussi would describe the work as hard to comprehend, especially for those who weren’t down in the caves, praying the mines wouldn’t implode on them. One hundred sixty-five miners did not survive. Miners as young as 16 were killed.
By the early 60s, Danussi transitioned to work as a correctional officer. This was after 21 years of working in the mines.
“He had quit the mine because the mines were going down. He took a cut of half pay, which was a lot. These were not good jobs. Of course, the city didn’t want them,” Kaska says. Danussi didn’t get any kind of retirement out of the switch to corrections.
In 1967, the iron mine closed. Just three years later, Lyon Mountain High School closed as well. In 1985, the old school building became a minimum security prison.
Nancy Kaska lived in Lyon Mountain for 25 years with her husband, John Kaska. She was employed by Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility, one of the leading employers in Lyon Mountain, as a store clerk. She took care of the trucks that came in, ran the commissary every two weeks for the inmates and issued clothing to them.
“The money was good. The benefits were good. The retirement was good. You got to think about that retirement check coming in,” Kaska said.
Then, in 2011, the correctional facility shut down in Lyon Mountain. These leading employers were the few occupations bringing in new people to the area. Without them, the town has struggled to fill vacant homes. The houses are affordable but far from job sites.
“Lyon Mountain got spoiled, because they were a real company town. And they had everything right there. Then when the mines closed down and then when the school shut down, that was the beginning of the downslide,” Kaska says.
Around this time, the community of Lyon Mountain began to experience what has since turned into a continual rut. Their employment rate is at 4.2% in comparison to the U.S. average of 3.7%.
“Maybe if they offer more jobs, some young people would move into town and buy a house and live there,” Kaska says.
A small and familiar town for Lyon Mountain residents now houses a lot of strangers. In a town where everyone used to know everyone, from work or school, or just from being a community member, it is easy to go nameless today.
Story by Heaven Longo
Photos by Maria Tibold