A Dig into Lyon Mountain’s Past
Disappearing industry can leave towns adrift, searching for meaning and fighting to hold onto a fading identity. Every hamlet, village, city and township holds storied lives, but many fight to have those stories remain relevant.
Lyon Mountain is a small hamlet tucked in the forested lands that blanket the Adirondack Mountains. Today, the hamlet looks quite different from the booming days of the mid-twentieth century. Although Lyon Mountain has lost its main industries, it remains a popular destination full of recreational activities. Chazy Lake sits at the base of the imposing mountain. Kayakers, paddle boarders and beach goers are attracted to the sparkling waters. Campers gather at Iron City RV Park to absorb fresh mountain air. Hikers challenge Lyon Mountain’s steep rocky defenses. However, the real story of Lyon Mountain is found beneath the surface.
Members of the Lyon Mountain community remember it as a company town, back in a day when its purpose was dredging high-quality iron ore from 3,000 feet below. That ore was shipped across the country and used for building famous infrastructure, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the George Washington Bridge. It is a point of pride that the town was able to put its thumbprint on iconic structures thousands of miles across the country. But as that industry disappeared, people in the town fought to keep the memory of a thriving community alive. Belongings of previous residents have been packed into the remains of the old Lyon Mountain railroad station which now serves as a museum.
The Lyon Mountain Mining and Railroad Museum sits on Standish Road awaiting willing travelers. The small dusty orange building houses glimpses of the town’s long history: typewritten notes to loved ones, baseball memorabilia and rusted keys that once opened the doors to tunnels underground. Hard hats, still stained black with the original owners’ names taped below them, hang in rows across the ceiling. Rusty drill bits and machinery that once pounded into some of the deepest mining shafts in North America, lean against walls on display. The deepest shafts reached around 3,000 feet below the surface. A large red flannel shirt paired with faded jeans is chained and hanging from the ceiling, as it would have been in the clothing locker underground, to keep them clear of relentless black soot. Other cherished pieces have been added after being anonymously left on the doorsteps from people willing to donate pieces of themselves to tell a greater story of a town’s history.
One member of the museum’s board, Sandy Derr, took me around the museum. She and others on the board have worked hard to curate the tiny building surrounded by dirt roads. In brisk fall weather typical of this mountain town, she unlocked a door that had been locked since March. Dusty tarps covered old cream colored baseball uniforms adorned with fraying blue letters. Glass display cases had collected a layer of dust after months without visitors. We walked through what was once the old ticketing and lobby section of the railroad station.
Today, vintage photographs and handwritten letters hang in the old railroad lobby. A large world map in the center of the wall is laced with a myriad of last names, tangibly showing the diversity that existed in the community. A classic American story lies in Lyon Mountain’s immigrants. These families ventured to Ellis Island and worked their way up to the Adirondacks, looking for work. Many found it at Republic Steel’s Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company, the mining company that owned Lyon Mountain. Families from Poland, Russia, Canada and England migrated here and made a home in the rugged mountains, some speaking little to no English. Despite these language barriers, the town’s people all managed to coexist.
Lyon Mountain is an example of how immigrants helped build America through treacherous work. A member of the community, Francis “Frenchy” Siskavich, who has deep ties to the mines through his family’s work, spoke with me about his own family lineage.
“Most of them were migrants from other countries. From Canada, from Russia, from England, from Sweden… Lithuanian or Polish or Russians. I mean, they were all in it. And they all got, everybody got along,” says Siskavich.
His father, Bernard Charles Siskavich, was a Lithuanian immigrant who came looking for work and eventually found it in Lyon Mountain. He met a young woman named Eva Mackline Kvetkauskas and raised a family of seven boys, including “Frenchy.” Siskavich was born in a log cabin on Oct. 4, 1926. Almost every family had a log cabin, meaty pigs, dairy cows and a good work ethic.
His mother and father raised their family against the backdrop of a booming tight-knit company town. The company built an olympic-sized swimming pool and created a beloved baseball team, the Lyon Mountain Miners, that nurtured ties with Major League Baseball. However, what good things the company gave, it often took back. Little compensation was given for the back-breaking work and it all went back to the company.
“They got paid by the company. And what they did is they went and bought their food out of a company store, actually giving them back the money that they had made,” says Siskavich.
The company did not invest in good housing conditions either. It wasn’t until the worker’s union went after them that they installed running water into the houses.
“They were more concerned about getting the ore out of the mines,” he continued, “than you going to the bathroom. But, this is the way it was.”
After stepping away from the baseball photos and world maps in the museum, visitors move left onto an old train platform, where, at one time, only men were allowed. There, giant drills stand tall. Their looming presence is a sign of the breakneck work that miners did. People often didn’t know if they would come out alive or with all of their limbs. Explosives could misfire or cause collapses. Accidents happened and over the years 165 miners were killed in the mines, one as young as 16, according to a Press-Republican article by Bruce Rowland. At the nearby school, children found their studies interrupted by the wail of sirens from the mine, signalling an emergency. Tensions rose as they waited anxiously to hear who had lost a loved one.
When Siskavich was old enough, he took a job like his father, who worked 50 years in the mines. He described the dangers by explaining his own family’s devastation.
“I lost an uncle. He was killed in the mines… I had a brother, my oldest brother, when he came home from the service he was working in mines… What happened was they were working on the crusher, the bearings and stuff like this, and of course they used kerosene in it. The hose came off and sprayed him, and it burned him. Three quarters of his body was third degree burns,” Siskavich recalls.
Republic Steel had few safety precautions to prevent such tragedies. Little compensation was given in the event of losing a loved one. These are parts of the harsh reality many immigrants and their children faced, and reminders now hang now in the museum. Siskavich’s brother, Bernard, “Subby,” Siskavich, survived seven months at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was given skin graft donations by his brother and other community members, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
A typed letter from Republic Steel hangs in a dusty, black frame in the corner of the museum. Written to Siskavish, it reads: “After reviewing all the reports relative to Subby, I fully realize the great sacrifice you made in donating skin… It is unfortunate that the whole community could not see for themselves the serious condition in which you and the other skin donors saw Subby. Without the skin graft Subby had no chance of survival.” It continues with general condolences, and it is signed by the district manager. It is representative of many other unfortunate fatalities in the mines.
Between the yellow walls and down the halls of the museum many family’s stories jump out. Some frames hold pictures that bring joyful memories to those who grew up as the children or grandchildren of the miners. Derr, one of Siskavich’s thirteen children, looks back fondly on a prosperous town. She described playing in the giant tailing piles that accumulated from mining processes as a child. They climbed the monstrous piles and slid down. It was hazardous, but a unique aspect of growing up in Lyon Mountain. The towering piles were a byproduct of their thriving industry. These days the large, black hills still loom as a reminder of what was.
Understanding Lyon Mountain’s history deepens the experience before an enjoyable hike up the steep trails or boating around Chazy Lake. Small overlooked hamlets like Lyon Mountain built the foundations of this country, and we must look to them in these uncertain times. We can see the strength behind each signature of a yellowing paper postmarked from Lithuania. The strength behind each home run hit across the diamond. The strength behind each siren startling school children. The strength the Golden Gate Bridge shows as it towers over a burning countryside. The strength behind each immigrant body pulled from the earth. The story of us, our country, lies buried here.
Story by Clarice Knelly
Museum photos by Maria Tibold