Crittenden County Was Once The World's Largest Fluorspar Producer

By Matthew T. Patton - 2000

In 1896, Crittenden County became the largest producer of fluorspar in the world. By the turn of the century, some of its mining operation had grown very large.

The fluorspar operations of the United States Steel Corporation were brought into existence after World War I. The shortage of the supply at that time pointed up the necessity of a dependable source of fluorspar for the furnaces of the subsidiary companies of the Corporation.

The first fluorspar produced by the company came from the operating shafts of the predecessor companies. The crude ore was "washed" in the various log washers along the "lead," such as the Willie Edna, Mary Helen, Asbridge, and Wheatcroft mines. Other milling facilities were operated at the Asbridge Mill Shaft and the Hoosier Mill of Terry & Wilson, located at Dry Fork, Livingston Creek. Crude ore from the Campbell Mine was transported to the Hoosier Mill by means of mule-drawn ore cars through the woods. The cars were lowered by means of an inclined tramway to the mill ore bin. Wagon and team hauled the final concentrates over dirt roads to the railroad at Mexico, Kentucky.

Approximately 5,000 pieces of fluorspar and other minerals are on display at the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum in Crittenden County. Clement was born September 6, 1891, and graduated from Vanderbilt in 1915 with a B. S. degree in science. From 1920 until his death in 1980, he accumulated what has become known as the finest and largest collection of fluorite in the world. A museum was opened in 1992 in the old Crittenden County Elementary School annex, next to Fohs Hall in Marion, Kentucky, where Ronnie Stubblefield serves as curator.

The following are brief sketches of some of the many mines in Crittenden County. As information is compiled, future articles shall outline these unique Western Kentucky mines:

Columbia Mine
The Columbia mine is the oldest mine in the Western Kentucky fluorspar district. In 1835 Andrew Jackson, who was part owner, sank a shaft near Hurricane Creek, southeast of the present Columbia shaft. (Andrew Jackson was President of the United States when this mine opened. He most likely took the opportunity to inspect this area before 1835, when he was the leader in the United States in purchasing what would later be called the "Jackson Purchase." This is the area of Kentucky west of the Tennessee River, in the western part of the state.) He was mining lead for its silver content. In 1863 or 1864 the mine was purchased by the Columbia Silver Mining Company.
The main shaft was nearly 80 feet deep, but no drifts (tunnels) had been driven (bored) by 1873 or 1874, when the mine was leased to Halliday and Green of Cairo, Illinois. Halliday and Green worked the mine 15 months, drifting 40 or 45 feet southwestward on the 50-foot level. This drift is said to be on the vein (mineral-filled cracks in the earth's crust). Henry, James, and Tom Glass then took an option on the property, retimbered (large wood beams) the old shaft, sank to a depth of approximately 85 feet, and drifted for a short distance on the 80-foot level. In 1875 Page and Krausse of St. Louis, Missouri, bought out the Glasses, deepened the shaft, and drifted on the 80-foot level for some distance, both northeast and southwest along the Columbia fault, and southeast along the Eureka fault.

The pig lead that Page and Krausse produced was hauled to the Ohio River at Ford's Ferry for shipment. These operations were discontinued in 1877 after a decline in lead value.

In 1899 Blue and Nunn leased the property from Page and Krausse. The lease was sold in 1900 to the Western Kentucky Mining Company. The company cleaned out the old mine, sank the shaft to a depth of 135 feet, and did some work at that level, but was later forced to abandon the mine because of standing water. The Columbia Mining Company operated the mine on the 135-foot level during 1902 and 1903. In 1906 John D. Dresher, who assigned them to the Southern Lead and Zinc Company in 1907, acquired the mining rights. After a short period of operation, this company closed the mine, and it was not operated again until 1941. Most of the last ore removed consisted of smithsonite containing galena and some fluorite.

Lafayette Mines
In 1923 the Lafayette Company of Duluth, Minnesota, took options on a Tabb vein (the Tabb fault system starts in Livingston County, Kentucky, crosses under the Cumberland River, cuts across the southern part of Crittenden County, Kentucky, and takes a southeastern route four to five miles north of Princeton, where the Senator and Crowder/Perkins mines are located), did diamond drilling exploration, and purchased property 2.5 miles long and 400 to 1,000 feet in width. In addition to this property, between Mexico and Frances, Kentucky, the company owned the Big Four Mine near Sheridan in Crittenden County, consisting of 1,200 acres in all.

All the spar (fluorite) they produced went to subsidiaries of the U. S. Steel Corp. It was shipped to Gary, Indiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; South Chicago, Illinois; and the Alabama iron district. One hundred and fifty men (150) were first employed, which later increased to 600 employees in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Office personnel consisted of superintendent, Kenneth A. Johnson; chief clerk, E. S. Sorensen; mining engineer, S. H. Reed, Jr.; chemist J. W. Hina; assistant clerks, Calvert Small, Cecil LaRue, Milton Sorensen, and J. D. Daniel; mill foreman, Clay Norman; and underground foremen, T. N. Fuller and Dudly Brown.

Approximately one-half mile from the mine on a high hill is a site called Lafayette Heights, where the company built modern houses surrounded by beautiful yards and gardens for five families of the office personnel. The company also maintained a community house, where motion pictures were shown weekly and a small fee from each employee admitted all of the employee's family. Many social activities for the miners and their families were held here.

On December 28, 1938 the Lafayette Fluorspar Company ceased to exist, which forced many families to move from Crittenden County to find work, often in Indiana and surrounding states. The U. S. Steel Corporation closed its fluorspar mill and mining operations in Western Kentucky in the spring of 1954.
The Lafayette Heights Clubhouse is still in use as a bed and breakfast, owned by Joyce and Harley Haegelin. The clubhouse was for visitors and company personnel working or visiting at Lafayette. It was one of the first true bed and breakfast operations. A few of the houses still stand and are privately owned.
Circa 1953 the federal government removed the tariff on foreign fluorite coming into the United States, which was the start of the decline of the fluorspar industry here.

Legend Of Holley Mine
In the fall of 1859 a 24-year old Virginian, Smithson Alexander Selkirk Holley, purchased a 161-acre tract of wooded land on the Coffield Fork on the waters of Deer Creek, in Crittenden County. Within a few weeks, he, his father, William M. H. Holley, and his partner, a surgeon and veteran of the Florida Indian Wars, Washington D. Cosby, M. D., would put up a hickory pole cabin a few yards west of a shaft they were sinking on a vein of fluorite. The mineral of exploitation was not the high grade fluorite for which the "Holly Mine" would later be known, but the lead within the ore body. By June of 1860 Dr. Cosby had tired of the mining business and returned to his home and medical practice in Golconda, Illinois. The Holleys would continue to mine as the nation engaged in the Civil War.

War and the consequences thereof were not taken lightly by the Holley family. Smithson's great-grandfather, John Holley, for whom he would name his firstborn son, had fought in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. In 1755 John and 120 other troops, serving British General Edward Braddock, were ambushed by the French and Indians as they neared Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania. More than 900 of their command, including the general, were slaughtered in nightmarish defeat. A tall, young colonel by the name of George Washington led those who fled that day, among whom were John Holley and Daniel Boone. John was captured in 1788 by the Shawnee Indians, along with Daniel Boone and 26 other settlers, at the Blue Licks, outside of Boonesborough, Kentucky. Boone soon managed to escape, but more than five years passed before John was rescued from his "adoption" to return to his wife and six children.

Smithson's grandfather, Jacob Holley, enlisted in the U. S. Army for the War of 1812. Jacob died in battle near Fort Shelby, Michigan, leaving his wife with two small boys, the younger of whom was to be Smithson's father. (Original documentation for this paragraph provided by Catherine Scott Schorn of Tulsa, Oklahoma, great-granddaughter of Smithson G. Holley, the uncle of Smithson A. S. Holley.)

After the war, Smithson A. S. Holley's battles were far from over. Depositions by physicians and relatives are among his pension papers. They described him as living in Crittenden County, Kentucky, and surrounded by "Southern sympathizers and Rebels." In 1880 a name was needed for the local post office; the name chosen was "Amplias," for Confederate General Adam Rankin Johnson's adjutant, Frank Amplias Owen, giving some credence of the allegations. Smithson was not living there in 1888 to see this indignation rectified. The post office was then reestablished and renamed "Sheridan" after Philip Sheridan, the favorite Union general of the new postmaster, Abraham Jere-miah "Uncle Dick" Bebout.

By 1884 Smithson A. S. Holley had endured more than 21 legal battles and lost, not the war to his enemies, but his home, farm, and mine of 25 years. The last time he was seen in the county he was serving out a two-month jail sentence at hard labor upon the streets and alleys of Marion. His long hair had been "trimmed like that of a convict."

Today, living in and around Sheridan are the descendants of the Holley's neighbors and descendants of those involved in the trials, one of whom relates what he was told by his grandfather about Smithson Holley's final departure from the area. Smithson had been observed by his grandfather loading his wagon with sacks filled with silver coins, the same coins that he was well-known to pass in the community and alleged to have processed from a deposit of lead, heavy with silver, that he had discovered in a cavern.

The Holley silver dollars are consistently described as both large and more pure than United States Mint dollars of the day, and have no face or serration about the rim. There are several people who report actually having seen some of the coins, but the last local person known to have had one in her possession relates that it was stolen, along with other items of value, in the 1970s, when her house was burglarized. It was said that a smelter stood next to the cabin, the cinders from which were left in the field.

The cavern is a place about which curiosities have never been satisfied, with the exception, perhaps, of the Holleys. In 1867 Smithson had completed a hewed log cabin about the cavern, overlooking a vertical shaft used as its entrance. Local people claim that when the cavern was still open, it was infested with snakes. There were bulkheads to be seen across entrances and wooden doors left ajar; there no one knew what lay behind. It is believed that the cavern had vents to the surface in front of the cabin and openings of distant hollows. It was observed that for days after torrential downpours, water would silently rise within the cavern walls, only to recede again in as many days. The rain brought sediments and surfaced debris that gradually sealed the cavern, along with its secrets.

In southern Illinois, the Holley legend continues, partly substantiated by a lengthy newspaper account entitled "Looks Like Murder Most Foul." The article graphically related the circumstances of Smithson Holley's arrival in the community and subsequent death. It seems that he made his appearance in their town alone and "...displayed a considerable sum of silver and gold in small sacks on his person." He then purchased a leasehold on a rough piece of hilly terrain with a cabin on it. A few weeks later his "charred and almost consumed remains ... were found in a burning log heap, about 200 yards from his cabin."

Son, John, who discovered and reported his death, was immediately arrested. He was described as being "...of medium and muscular build with an intelligent and rather handsome appearance." John was released, following a coroner's request, that rendered the verdict: "The deceased came to his death from unknown causes or at the hands of an unknown party or parties."

Two very different versions of what had transpired exist. The first asserts that the son, as he lay dying two years later, confessed to having murdered his father. The second version conversely claims that the son was not involved at all, but that two local men had committed the dastardly deed. It is believed that, subsequent to the murder, they were observed holding a large sum of silver and gold, and while in an inebriated state, had alluded to the murder.
Ironically, the circumstances concerning Smithson's death enabled an old enemy's son to sell the Holley Mine property at a substantial profit to a prominent businessman and bank president from the community in which he was murdered. Coincidentally, the enemy's son was, by then, a practicing physician and living within ten miles of the murder site. A few months later, the doctor left the state.

Today, the mysteries of the Holley cavern are being explored by a team of volunteer excavators comprised of the descendants of the Holleys, the Deer Creek community, and the Victor Hurst and Ben Clement families.

The Old Jim Mine
The Old Jim Mine is located approximately 3/4 of a mile southeast of the famous Columbia mine. At the mine, there is an absence of fluorite and calcite; the ore consists of zinc carbonate with a minor proportion of sphalerite. The occurrence of the ore body is parallel to and in contact with a narrow, but persistent, dike of mica-peridotite. The Old Jim has been the largest producer of zinc carbonate in the Illinois and Kentucky fluorspar district.

The discovery took place in the fall of 1900, but no real prospecting was done until May 1901, in the latter part of which month the first carload of ore was shipped. In 1901 some 3,154,151 pounds were shipped, and by September 1902, about 3,036,390 pounds were shipped.

The smithsonite, by the train car load, averages about 46% to 47% of zinc. The mine consisted of two open cuts. Of these, the northern and principal was approximately 400 feet wide and 27 feet deep. A dike of peridotite forms one of the walls of the cut. This is one of the many dikes crossing Crittenden and Livingston counties.

William Frazer, owner of the mine, claimed all the quality grade material was removed by 1904. There are still traces of ore, but near the surface it has not been located in mine grade quantities. One of the deepest exploratory holes (core drilling) in Kentucky is only 60 feet or so from the main open cut. The depth of this hole is approximately 3,000 feet. Cores of good grade zinc and other materials were pulled out, but more extensive drilling would be necessary before any further mining could be done at the Old Jim Mine.
Because this ore came from deep within the earth, it stands to reason that there are more deposits of zinc carbonate in the district. So far, this deposit is a rare occurrence in the Illinois and Kentucky fluorspar district.

Asberry Mines, Lafayette Mill, Ben Clement, Matthews Mines
Matthew T. Patton, 1317 West Airy Street, Apt. 1-D, Norristown, PA 19401-4386, e-mail: [email protected], is seeking photographs of miners and the old mines near Mexico and Frances, Kentucky. For more information about these mines, refer to www. clementmineralmuseum. com. Information used from this site by permission of museum curator, Ronnie Stubblefield, and from "Crittenden County, Kentucky, History and Families, Vols. 1 and 2."