It’s not often you can hike back to the late 1800s along a trail where donkeys once pulled carts full of ore from mines deep in the hills down to roasting ovens and a blast furnace that produced iron and steel. Welcome to 1867 in a short-lived boomtown known as Chalybes. Today, parts of the ghost town still haunt within Roxbury Land Trust’s Mine Hill Preserve, a 360-acre swath of Chalybes memories, and one of the best-preserved historic settings in Connecticut.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mine Hill is a fascinating history lesson into the brief venture of iron and steel making in northwestern Connecticut. The property, along with the neighboring 160-acre Carter Preserve, is also a spectacular jaunt along the banks of the Shepaug River through the deep hemlock-covered hills with stunning views of nearby farms and the river valley. While the operation didn’t last long — the first load of ore came down in January 1867 and the furnace shut down in May 1872 — it smelted 10 tons of iron per day. The operation employed hundreds of Polish immigrants, and the boomtown included a general store, hattery, cigar factory, hotel and even a brothel.
The main loop path, marked with blue blazes, runs around the perimeter of the property along the “donkey trail” and old farm and quarry roads. It’s easier to traverse the trail counter-clockwise, as the donkey trail is a steep climb. The trails are quite rocky with a lot of loose material, making the hike a high-trip factor.
The ovens and furnace are a short distance from the parking lot. More than a dozen informational signs educate the imagination, explaining the process of turning ore into steel and iron. Maps and drawings showcase how Chalybes once looked, as visitors search for the old hotel and building foundations, stone loading docks and collapsed brick chimneys.
My favorite part of the signs are the “Mine Hill Legends,” including a tale of a German goldsmith who attempted to smuggle silver ingots out of the mine, but was discovered when his cart overturned, spilling out the contents of his concealed box. Another tells the story of a miner who wagered he could ride a mine cart all the way down the slope without braking. He made it halfway down before failing to navigate a curve and dying.
Visitors who don’t mind a difficult ascent at the beginning can take the donkey trail, which is located above the roasting ovens. The farm road begins in front of the blast furnace and loading dock remains and passes corn fields with views to the surrounding hillsides.
The road winds along the banks of the scenic Shepaug River. An unmarked side trail takes visitors to the banks of the river, which is filled with small and large boulders, before returning to the road. The road rises high above the river as it remains your companion before disappearing behind another farm field.
The trail continues past an old quarry, one of eight that operated in the area over two centuries. A Yale University professor visited the area in 1817, declaring the granite in the quarry “singularly perfect.” That perfect granite found its way to countless foundations and doorsteps and was used in the buttresses of New York City’s 59th Street Bridge and the railroad approach to Grand Central Terminal.
Evidence of the operations can be found next to the trail in the towering quarry piles and the huge slabs of granite that remain, the drill holes and chisel marks used to split the rock an indelible mark of the rock’s history.
After a climb up a hill and crossing a stone quarry bridge, visitors enter the heart of the mining area. Trails pass by openings to mine shafts now closed off by iron grates. All the shafts have been sealed, although visitors can still walk up and peer into the foreboding holes in the hillside. On warm days, the cool air can be felt 25-30 feet away, a refreshing gust from far below.
Some of the mine air shafts are covered with giant iron cages that prevent people from venturing in, and protect bats which use the mine to hibernate. The mine’s constant 50- to 55-degree temperature is ideal for little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, big brown bats and pipistrelles.
The shafts also help visitors imagine life down in the mine, as you can peer into the chasm far below. A half-mile of subterranean tunnels still exist along with iron rails used to transport the ore through the caverns. An etching on one of the informational boards shows a trio of men with sledgehammers working in the mines by candlelight.
For those not interested in a long walk, the main furnace area is less than a quarter-mile from the parking area. A yellow-blazed, 0.3-mile “Nature Trail” begins at the reservoir near the ovens and takes visitors past a huge charcoal pit. The trail is easy and for all ages.
One of the first informational boards notes Mine Hill is where “Roxbury’s natural and industrial heritage meet.” And as visitors make their way around the loop, they travel between the past and present and can easily imagine what life was like in the ghost town of Chalybes.
Southford Falls State Park, Oxford and Southbury: This 126-acre state park includes mill ruins, a covered bridge and fire tower. A 2-mile, red-blazed loop trail goes along the banks of Eightmile Brook and passes through a deep forest with ledges and rocky knolls. 175 Quaker Farms Road
Mine Hill Preserve, Roxbury
The bottom line: Explore the ruins of a late-19th-century iron mine and furnace complex past old quarries and mine shafts.
Difficulty level: Moderate, with climbs and a lot of loose rocks and rocky terrain. Boots are recommended.
Total mileage: The main loop trail is 3½ miles, but an additional 2-mile loop travels through the Carter Preserve. Go to roxburylandtrust.org/preserves/mine-hill/ for a detailed trail map and history of Mine Hill.
Directions: From the Roxbury Green, follow Route 67 north for 2 miles, crossing over the Shepaug River. Turn right on Mine Hill Road, passing the Roxbury Land Trust offices and the parking lot at 0.3 miles. If the preserve lot is full, park at the trust.
Pet friendly? Leashed dogs are allowed.