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- The Wells Family and the Old Museum

- Dig Through Time at Ruggles Mine
Outdoors: Dig through Time at Ruggles Mine
By Don Wickman
Photos provided by Ruggles Mine


Ruggles Mine owner Gerry Searles would like to believe Samuel Ruggles possessed a streak of curiosity. It was this inquisitiveness that Ruggles, while standing in Grafton, perhaps spotted something reflecting light on the slope of Isinglass Mountain to the south. Climbing up from the village, he not only investigated, but discovered large quantities of the mineral mica. Knowing it served as a suitable glass substitute, Ruggles understood the nature of his find. He dug into the mountain, but, because he may not have owned the property, maintained the excavation as a secret. Ruggles Mine was born in 1803.

Take Home Pieces of History
Ruggles Mine has a 206-year heritage. Today it remains active, a popular tourist attraction. During its season from mid-May to mid-October, it is not unusual to see rock hounds clambering around the mine searching for assorted rocks and minerals. The tap, tap, tap of hammers echoes off the walls.

Ruggles Mine is a record of geological history. Geologists date the mineral deposits found in New Hampshire, known as the Littleton Formation, to be 300,000,000 years old. Samuel Ruggles literally dug through time in pursuit of minerals.

As Ruggles dug, he extracted suitable quantities of mica — used in whale oil lamp chimneys, stove fronts and ship’s windows — with a yearly value of $1,500. Activity increased over time, and in 1869 more than 26,000 pounds were mined. By the 1930s an estimated $12 million worth of mica was taken out of Ruggles. By the 1960s the figure had grown to $30 million.

New technological advances in the 20th century found new uses for mica in cosmetics, cement block and asphalt roofing, and electrical insulators in appliances. The General Electric Company once used the mine for a mica source, as early electrical appliances, such as toasters, had mica in them. Ruggles also contained quantities of feldspar, a mineral vital to the manufacture of china glazes, and the Syracuse China company bought plenty of it. From 1932 to 1959 the Bon Ami Company extracted 10,000 tons of feldspar for use their nonabrasive scouring powder and glass cleaner. In 1960, the mine was placed on the market.

The Wahlstrom family purchased the mine, site unseen, during the winter of 1960. They were interested in finding a source of raw mica for their Warren, N.H., mica grinding plant and Ruggles had a reputation for fine mica. The Wahlstroms continued operations, but then the U.S government eliminated the subsidies for this country’s mica industries. India and Brazil offered cheaper supplies. The decreased demand forced the family to close the mine and consider other options. According to Searles, the words of her late husband, Arvid ‘Whitey” Wahlstrom, were, if you “can’t mine it, we can sell it to the public.” In 1963, Ruggles Mine opened as a tourist attraction.

Hidden Treasures
One enters Ruggles Mine from the gift shop. You proceed through a sloping chamber where pieces of mica and feldspar glisten in the sun. Then, upon exiting the chamber you enter in an extensive pit, called “Pit A,” pockmarked with caverns, past tunnels and surrounded by perpendicular walls. The forces of geology are evident, as are numerous minerals.

If you take a quick tour through the mine, continue walking down the slope of the pit and through another lengthy chamber. Check out all the chambers along the way. Some are blocked off for safety reasons. At its end, enjoy the dynamic view that extends for miles. Before you are the rugged outlines of Kearsarge and Ragged Mountains.

One may simply walk around Ruggles Mine, exploring the various chambers and tunnels, but the greatest fun is gained by working the mine. The rules are simple: What you find, you can keep. No long-handled tools permitted, but bring hammers with regular hammer length handles, eye protection and bags to carry out your discoveries. A flashlight is recommended to work in those dark pockets.

If you think the mineral sources might run dry and limit your finds, think again. “We have blasting every year, so we have fresh material,” says Searles.

Many people come in quest for pieces of beryl, a mineral of assorted colors. However, beryl is just one of the 150 minerals that has been discovered at the mine. The pursuit of garnet is also popular, as is the search for fine examples of quartz and feldspar. One might also find amethyst, calcite and black tourmaline. Mica, however, still dominates the mine.

A visit to Ruggles Mine can be an “exciting, adventurous family day.” Searles sees it as a wonderful learning experience. “Kids learn a great deal,” she says. “It’s a fun experience for them to see what’s actually in the earth. Little by little, they pick something up without knowing it, and find they’re learning a great deal.”

A day’s admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 8. Remember, you get to keep what you find.
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