LYON MOUNTAIN — Tony Shusda remembers his first day of work in 1936 at the Lyon Mountain mines. He was 21.
"If you had boys in your family and your father got killed or something, or if they were old enough to work and lived in that house, the boys worked," he recalled. "If you didn't, you were out."
He also remembers his last day of work at the mines in 1967, hoping he could make history.
"I wanted to be the last one to punch out, but I wasn't," he laughed.
Second to last would have to do.
Few could match Shusda's intricate knowledge of the local mining industry, an industry that spanned the mid 1800s to 1971 when the last of the great area mines closed in Moriah.
And the impact of mining forever changed the North Country.
Shusda, one of many whose job was to dig into rock deep in the bowels of the Earth, hoist it up and push it through the mill, talks about mining as if it happened yesterday.
"We worked five days a week; during the war, seven."
There was the Power House with a boiler room and five compressors (all eventually wound up as equipment at ski areas); the machine-shop fire, when the water froze in the 25-below temperatures before it could douse the blaze.
He remembers the pond that doubled as a swimming hole and a source used to cool the compressors, and he remembers the day Archie Hart died in that swimming hole.
He also recalls, still with a feeling of sadness, a fateful day in 1940.
"My father was killed in the mine," he said, shaking his hand at one of several gaping holes in the Lyon Mountain landscape.
"He went to blast a couple boulders that were caught, and he got pinned. The guys he was working with just took off and left him there. He suffocated."
It was dangerous, Shusda said matter-of-factly, but "it was a job."
Dr. John Moravek, coordinator of the Geography Department at Plattsburgh State, said the abundance of iron ore was the reason mining became the lifeblood for dozens of local communities for more than 100 years.
Iron ore was, and still is, concentrated in only a few regions, including the Adirondack-Lake Champlain region.
Thousands of tons of iron ore came from the belly of Adirondack mines to go through crushers, concentrating plants and furnaces, headed for distant factories to be made into nails, rolled iron, stoves, machinery, tools, railroad track and steel beams that built a nation.
Transportation, mainly by railroad, was critical to every mining community.
Towns — with accompanying stores, schools, barbershops and bars — grew, developed and revolved around the mines.
Tahawus (Native American for "cloud splitter"), at the headwaters of the Hudson River 40 miles west of Lake Champlain, was once a growing village in the shadow of mining operations.
Some impurity had been found in the Adirondac (later Tahawus) iron ore that made it unusable in the 1850s. That by-product was titanium.
With obstacles that included a financial panic and inaccessibility, isolation, difficult transportation and severity of climate, titanium couldn't be mined, and Adirondac became a ghost town.
In 1941, the National Lead Co. (which eventually acquired Republic Steel), realizing the country's need for the strategic war mineral in World War II, began mining titanium.
Then, because of the needs of expansion in 1963, the entire village of Tahawus moved — lock, stock and barrel — to Newcomb, 12 miles away.
Jack "Sparky" Brennan, an electrical engineer for Republic Steel in Moriah, knows well what mining towns went through to keep the business going.
Republic Steel arrived in the North Country in the 1930s. The company came in, upgraded and modernized equipment and made the job safer.
Brennan's memories are of decades of hard work in a "boom town."
With almost 100 mines in the Town of Moriah alone, mining became a very profitable venture.
The "21 Pit," just south of Mineville, was one of most productive and prosperous.
"It followed two veins of ore 200 to 800 feet apart," Brennan said. "A drift drove the two veins 4,500 feet apart. Do you know how long it took for them to connect when you can go eight feet a day?"
Brennan, too, recalls events surrounding mining with great ease.
He remembers that women did not work in the mines or the plant, only in the office and warehouse.
He recalls the tragedy in 1951 that claimed the lives of three men but increased safety with the installation of steel beams in the mines. He can also remember his great uncle Jim Brennan, who was in a brawl.
"That man was shot in the stomach, fell in a shaft, (was) carried out, walked in his house and died," Brennan said.
But years of mining deeper and deeper into the ground proved to be the nail in the coffin of the North Country's iron industry.
"The cost of just getting the iron ore to the light of day became prohibitive," Moravek said.
"It simply reached a point where the mining operations were no longer profitable, and Cleveland (the home of National Lead) pulled the plug."
He said it was a shock to the townspeople who depended on Republic Steel.
"North Country residents were caught off guard when the announcement came that they were closing the mines."
The Lyon Mountain mines closed in 1967; the Moriah mines followed suit in 1971.
"There are now many low-cost alternatives to iron, including recycling.
"To re-open, (the mining companies) would have to comply with the extensive rules of the Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environment Conservation."
Moravek said there's plenty of iron ore left in the North Country, "more than what has ever been removed.
"Re-opening the mines is not unthinkable, but very remote. I can't foresee circumstances that would prompt a revival. It's a matter of supply, demand and profitability."
He said the expense of re-development seems extremely prohibitive, and, besides, there are so many low-cost alternatives.
"Why would anyone come back here?"
North Country mines, long abandoned, are now home to thousands of bats and other assorted creatures.
Echoes of the past ripple through the accompanying dilapidated buildings.
Brennan is a guest speaker for area organizations and the source of knowledge for the Iron Center, a former carriage-house-turned-museum near the Town Hall in Port Henry.
Shusda moved to Plattsburgh State, where he worked in security at the college and then the bookstore.
Except for the occasional rumble of town trucks, a dead silence now prevails at the Lyon Mountain mines.
That's OK as far as Shusda is concerned. There's one word to describe the best part of his experience working in the mines.