Dug Out

This article is crossposted from donorthmag.com

A Company Town Founded in Mining and Baseball

An almost empty town lies at the base of Lyon Mountain. What remains of the old mining town is a gas station and a boarded up mill that lies beside the closed mine shaft. Home today to just 282 people, passersby would never guess that less than 100 years ago Lyon Mountain was a vibrant mining town filled with a diverse group of people.

Bill Laduke, 66, has lived his whole life in Lyon Mountain, except for the four years he spent at SUNY Plattsburgh for college. He lives in the house his mother, Hazel Laduke, was born in. Both of his parents attended school in Lyon Mountain, and when his father, Wilfred Laduke, was 17 he began to lay tracks for the Chateaugay Ore and Iron company. 

“When the mines were fully open you probably had 1,000 people in town or better,” says Laduke. 

Much like a town seen in old Western movies, Lyon Mountain was a company town run and owned by the Chateauguay Iron and Ore company, which later became Republic Steel. 

Laduke grew up around miners, chemists, accountants and civil engineers. Name a job, Republic Steel had an opening. Republic Steel opened up the company town in 1939 and started mining for iron ore. Lyon Mountain became a hub for the area; Republic Steel even built a hotel with a coffee shop. 

“As a little kid, we had skating rinks provided by the company. We had movies on Sunday for a quarter, that the company provided,” says Laduke.

 Kids had the opportunity to participate in little leagues, and the company provided buses to Plattsburgh and Beekmantown so residents could shop and visit the bigger towns. 

Basically everything was controlled by the company. Company officials decided where each person lived based on their job. But no one owned their house. The good side was that if something was broken or the paint was chipping, the company would fix it. 

If Republic Steel didn’t like someone, they would throw them out. Crime was not tolerated by the company, so they would hold court and put the accused on trial. If the accused were found guilty, even of a small crime, they were excommunicated. Big meaty security men escorted the guilty out of town.

“They would literally kick them out of town, and say ‘See you later, you know don’t come back,’ and most of them didn’t,” says Laduke.

Lots of immigrants worked and lived in Lyon Mountain. At first, the town was divided into sections: the Polish hill, the Irish side and the Swedish section. Eventually the town became a melting pot. Laduke had friends from many different countries like Lithuania and Poland. He was exposed to an abundance of different cultures and food. Laduke’s friends cooked real Polish food for him when he was growing up. 

 “I don’t want to get political but this town wouldn’t have existed with the restrictions on immigration they have today,” says Laduke.

Immigrants came from Poland, Lithuania, Canada, France, Ireland and Russia. The company would recruit people from docks in New York City and Montreal. 

One of Laduke’s favorite things to do as a kid was to go watch the baseball game every Sunday with his dad. His dad was a rabid baseball fan, specifically the Yankees. Lyon Mountain had its own team, the Miners. Baseball wasn’t an after work hobby for these men. The company paid the players to play, not mine. 

The smell of hot dogs filled the air. People screamed at each other from across the stadium hoping their team won. Fans roared. Residents parked old 50s cars around the stadium. 

“Somebody gets a home run and you couldn’t hear yourself think,” says Laduke. “The horns were blaring for like five six minutes at a time.” 

The stadium was filled with 500 to 800 people from all over the area. All of the Republic Steel bosses would attend. They were a low pro baseball team. Some baseball players were scouted by pro teams. One from Lyon, Tommy Kovaleski, actually made it to triple-A, the highest level of minor league for the Yankees. Republic Steel had coal mines in Pittsburgh that would draft baseball players.

“I don’t know what you call it, but we had some great, fantastic games against rivals, and you know that was before big time television and the internet and that sort of thing and people didn’t have any of that so on Sunday afternoon, it was baseball here.”

Laduke’s whole family had a big Sunday dinner. Fifteen or sixteen people would be around the table. Then they would go watch the baseball team or travel with the team all over the area. 

All of that changed one night. Young 13-year-old Laduke was sitting at the dinner table when his father came home and said the mines were closed down— for good. In 1967, Republic Steel shut down, leaving behind a whole company town and its citizens to fend for themselves. Wilfred Laduke was able to retire under Republic Steel’s policy but he had four daughters, who were looking to go to college and a thirteen year old boy, so money was still a concern. About 65% of workers could not retire under Republic Steel’s policy. 

Hazel Laduke got a job to help support the family. Wilfred Laduke worked on the school board until the school shut down three years later. Wilfred Laduke then served on the air force base in Plattsburgh until he retired. 

“I mean, you’re making steelworkers contract wages, which are some of the best in the nation at that time,” says Laduke. “You know, you’re making big bucks compared to a lot of people and all of a sudden— bang! it’s done.”

The town never recovered. The school closed down three years later. In 1985, the old school building became a minimum security prison located right across from Laduke’s house. The prison gave the town a boost, offering new job opportunities. Laduke worked as a teacher in the prison. 

“Well it was interesting and I would say I learned more from the inmates than I taught them for sure, about life and death. A different side than what we’re used to,” says Laduke.

In 2011, the prison closed down. Now the future lies in New Leaf, a maple company, tapping trees in the Lyon Mountain area. Located in Lake Placid, New Leaf is looking to buy land to develop their business.

Traces of the company town still exist today. The miners’ history is stored in the Lyon Mountain Mining and Railroad Museum. The gas station in the center of town is named Iron Ore Market. Laduke still remembers the town in it’s prime. 

Story and photos by Sierra McGivney