From the journal of Haygood VanDergeld
We have been mining here in the Ramaughpaughs for nearly six months. The mine is one of several along the Cannon Ball Road. The iron we mine will become variously the cannon balls our men need to continue our virtuous fight against the British as well as being transported to the ironworks in Ringwood to be fashioned into giant chains to be strung across the Hudson.
Gary Sletterland and I had both been told numerous times that we were NOT to go exploring in the old iron mines that were scattered across our mountain. Located in Oakland, NJ, along and up the mountain some from Ramapo Lake (which has been called Rotten Pond or Cannon Ball Lake in the past) are what is left of iron mines that date back to the Revolutionary War. Iron from these mines went into great chains with links two feet long that were strung across the Hudson River to keep the British from sailing up the river.
With a lake to paddle across, several islands to explore, scattered forts we’d built and lots of old trails to wander, we weren’t terribly interested in some old holes in the ground, especially since we both knew that they would be prime places for rattlesnakes or for bear to hide.
But then one day, a bearded man came hiking up our mountain. His name was James Ramsey and he was doing research for a book he called “The Vanishing Iron Mines of the Ramapos.” He stayed with us while he roamed our mountain. One day, he came from picking up his mail in town with a package he was very excited about.
The box contained maps of where I lived that were dated back to 1777! One map showed our lake and even where our house was, except that it wasn’t our house, but a log cabin. It was the camp headquarters for the soldiers that were mining iron for cannon balls. Another map, dated 1778, showed where our house was, but had a cross on the map and it was a landmark titled ‘The Burnt House.’
I remember thinking that they had spelled our name wrong, which people always did, because my last name was Berndt. James explained that it was called the burnt house because the British had burned the house down to keep the American soldiers from having a headquarters.
Another house was built though. This time it was built of stone. Part of that building was now our living room! That map also showed where several of the mines were located. I knew pretty much exactly where one of them had to be and I couldn’t wait to tell Gary the next I saw him.
Dad must have noticed my interest because he took me aside and delivered, yet again, the “Do NOT go into any of the mines” lecture citing numerous reasons why. I nodded, smiled and raced to find Gary.
‘Tis been frightfully cold these past few weeks and four of my crew are sick. They are weak and experiencing a running of the bowels. The thin soup that we have in the kettle cannot offer even scant nourishment if the men cannot keep it within them.
Despite the weather and sickness, we have mined our share and Colonel Hicksberg was fair pleased on his last round. He gave a speech praising our efforts. The bullets made from what we have mined will keep our soldiers well armed, and the last of the sledges drawn over the snow by great horses left last week.
Today we will be out in the snow cutting trees and fashioning timbers to hold back the rock overhead. I am fearful of some of the cracks in the current timbers, and last week some of the jacks and timbers gave way and we had a small collapse. Jerry Hunter died and we had to leave him be, buried under a ton of rock and ore.
Gary and I never did get the chance to go exploring to find one of the mines last summer, but now that school is out and he’s here for the summer again, we are bound and determined to find one.
Mr. Ramsey has been back to our mountain several more times. Now when he comes, dad always gives me some chores to do out in the barn or in another part of the house. I did manage to hear that there was a small battle here and once again, the British had over run the command post. This time, some of the people from what is now Oakland, and used to be called The Ponds, sent some supposed British sympathizers up the mountain with a wagon-load of ale as a Christmas gift. They came back when the soldiers were drunk and shot them all. Score one for the rebels!
I guess a couple of the mines had major collapses and some of them were shut down. Mr. Ramsey said that some miners were trapped there. This was another cue for dad to give me the “Stay away from the mines” lecture. I know it is wrong, but the more I hear ‘Stay Away’ the more I want to explore.
Gary and I walked down our dirt road and there’s this one place where you can still see a faint trail in the grasses along a ridge. We are going exploring on Saturday.
The mine is now back in proper hands after the Christmas Party down at the camp. We were all called in to spend Christmas Day lugging them boys onto sledges and dumping their bodies in the Hammitschmitt Mine. We weren’t going to use that one anymore anyway. It isn’t safe and no one will ever find them there. Merry Christmas.
Heard some rumblings deep in our mine over the past several days. I don’t like it when the rocks start talking back. Not a good sign.
I am grounded for life. Or at least the rest of the summer. But we found a mine. Gary and I found it several weeks ago, but it took a while for us to get up the nerve to go in very far. It wasn’t all open, like a hole in the side of the mountain or anything. It looked like a jumble of rocks that were piled up. But when we squeezed through spaces in the pile, we realized that there was a big empty space inside. Not much sun could get in and we knew we’d need supplies; flashlights at least.
Mom and Dad had to go out of town with my brother on a trip to find a college for him. They made arrangements that I would stay at Gary’s house with his folks. They didn’t know about the mines and I guess dad never thought to tell them, so we knew we’d have all day Saturday to explore.
We had flashlights, and sandwiches in our backpacks. It wasn’t unusual to pack picnic lunches for Saturdays on the mountain. There were only three houses near the lake, no other kids, and me and Gary knew how to swim, so as long as we were home by dark, no one worried about us. His folks knew we’d be down near my house, as I still had to feed the horses and the dogs before dark. We took our bikes down the dirt road past my house and then turned up the two-track towards our mine. We left our bikes about a quarter of a mile from the mine and started climbing.
We got to the mine. We had to take our packs off because they wouldn’t fit through the hole. We figured we’d come back for our lunches later. When we turned our flashlights on, all we could see was a long tunnel. It was dark and almost cold, so I went back outside and got my jacket out of my pack.
Gary and I walked down the tunnel stopping to look at piles of rocks. We found an old lantern, a table and old, rotted boxes. The main tunnel split into three tunnels. We tried the left one first, but it ended in a jumble of rocks just a little way in. Same thing with the middle one. The one on the right kept going, and so did we.
We found where the miners slept. We found old pickaxes, piles of rotting clothes, tin cups and plates. Then we found the best treasure of all. We found an old journal wrapped in some kind of leather cloth. It is from 1778! Very carefully, we turned the brittle pages to read the entries. The writing was hard to read. Back then when they wrote the letter ‘s’ it looked like an ‘f’ today. The last entry was on Christmas 1778. We back-tracked to the entrance, put the journal in my backpack and ate our sandwiches. This exploring was hungry work and I was starving.
After we ate, we climbed back in and wandered farther in the tunnel, but it ended a few minutes in. Gary thought he could see where rocks had fallen and he thought we could get past it. We climbed up the rock pile and there was a little place at the top where we could shimmy through.
It was hard climbing down the other side. When I got to the bottom, I turned and added my light to help Gary see his way down. The beam of my flashlight caught something white and I screamed. I dropped my flashlight, Gary slipped, and crashed to the bottom. He was hollering and said he hurt his arm. I grabbed his flashlight and shone it on his arm. It was bent at a funny angle and we figured it was broken. He was yelling at me for startling him. I showed him what I had seen. I moved a couple of rocks and we realized it was a bony hand coming out of the rock pile. Someone was under there!
I found my flashlight and shook it. The light came back on. Shining it further in, we saw three other skeletons. It was very creepy. I didn’t want to be in there anymore. Neither did Gary. He tried to climb up the pile, but couldn’t do it with just one hand. I tried to push him up, but it still didn’t work. He came crashing down on me and landed on my back. My ribs hurt and I couldn’t breathe without it really hurting.
I tried climbing out, but I couldn’t. We were stuck just like the miners. I was crying and Gary was too. We didn’t want to die in the mine.
After a bit, I wiped my eyes and thought maybe we could find another way out if we went further in. Gary said his arm really hurt. We decided to make a splint for his arm. There wasn’t anything to use except one of the bones. We agreed that the old miners wouldn’t mind and I used an arm bone. His arm wouldn’t lie flat so Gary told me to pull on it like he’d seen on TV. I did, he screamed, but then said it felt better. I used my jacket to tie the bone to his arm. It was hard because when I moved my left arm, my ribs felt like they were on fire. I told Gary and he said he was wishing we could have a fire because it was awfully cold.
We wandered down the tunnel a bit but there was a cave in down there too. I tried again to climb out, but I couldn’t pull up with my left arm. We sat at the bottom and I guess we both fell asleep.
Next thing I knew, we heard hollering and yelling and we yelled back. Turns out, it was dark and Gary’s folks had called the State Police when we weren’t back there. My dad had called to check on me and when they told him, we weren’t back, he thought about us looking for the mines. It didn’t take long for the police to find our bikes because they knew where the mines were. They’d had to move many of the rocks for them to fit in and now they were having to move more to get to us. We were in the mine all night long. They shoved more flashlights through the hole at the top after ours died. Then they shoved blankets and water through too.
I was so happy I was crying again, when the first rescue man climbed down to us. He looked at Gary’s arm and said I did a super job making a splint for Gary. He laughed at our using an arm bone, and said we were very smart to think of that. He asked if I was okay and I told him about trying to get Gary up the rock slide and how he landed on me when we slid. I told him my ribs hurt. He used his flashlight to look at me and then shone it on my face and wanted to see my fingers. He wiped my hands off and checked them again. He said my fingertips and lips were blue. I told him I wasn’t that cold. He said it wasn’t from the cold, but that it meant I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
Soon there was a big enough hole at the top for more police, and they put two stretchers through. Then they tied us to the stretches so we wouldn’t fall off and carried us out of the mine. Then they put us on a helicopter. And I missed it. It really hurt when they carried me up the rocks and later, my dad said I had passed out. I missed the whole helicopter ride to the hospital. When I woke up again, I had bandages on my ribs. One of the broken ribs had gone into my lung, and so I had to have surgery to have it fixed. No wonder it hurt so much!
I’m feeling better now, but I sure wish I hadn’t missed the whole helicopter ride. Gary said it was really cool. He has a cast on his arm and said I could sign it when I feel better. He is home already, but I have to stay in the hospital for another whole week. Mom is writing all this in my journal for me. I can’t move my arm too well and it hurts to write.
Dad gave me the ‘I told you so, when will you ever learn’ speech, but he really didn’t seem all that mad. I think he was just glad I was okay. I promised him I’d never go into the mines again, but this time, I meant it!
Mr. Ramsey came to see me too and he was so happy to see the journal. He said that it was a real historical find and will be in a museum with the other stuff we found. Next month, they will get the miner’s skeletons out of the mine and give them a proper burial with a funeral and everything. We get to go and even the governor will be there. They found seven more skeletons farther in. They all died in there. It is so sad. My dad says they were heroes because they helped us win the war. He is going to take us to see some of the chains that were made from the iron in our mine.
I can write again and feel almost completely better. We went to the funeral for the miners today. The governor said that Gary and I filled in a ‘missing piece of history,’ even if we did disobey my dad. Both Gary and I were given a certificate that said we were to be commended for adding to (I copied this) the historical accuracy of the important role New Jersey, Oakland and The Ramapo Mountain Iron Mines played during the Revolutionary War. Dad wasn’t looking mad at all. He was grinning and saying how proud he was of me. Maybe now, I won’t be grounded forever. Until a few days ago, I didn’t want to go anywhere, anyway. It still hurts to ride my bike.
The journal is now in the Bergen County Historical Museum. There is a brass plaque on the exhibit saying Gary and I found it in one of the iron mines. I think it said we were in the Cooper Mine, but I’m not sure. There is going to be a big article in the newspaper and a bunch of reporters were talking to us about our adventure. They took lots of pictures. Another man with a microphone talked to us and my dad says we might be on the Six O’clock News on Channel 4!
Officials have now made it so no one will ever get into our mine again. Some people wanted to reopen the mine and use it as a museum, but they did some tests and decided it wouldn’t be safe. I guess it was very dangerous, but it was also a lot of fun. Gary says he wants to be an archaeologist when he grows up. They find out cool things about dead people. I still want to be a writer. I don’t think I like dark tunnels and skeletons all that much. Gary had to give the bone-splint back. He wanted to keep it, but they wouldn’t let him. It was buried today too.
School starts on Tuesday. This year I’ll have something really good to write about when it is time for the ‘What I did on my summer vacation’ essay!