(Posted April 5, 2017)

Ryan Mathur, left, speaks with a couple at a geology department Open House.
Juniata photo by Candice Hersh
Ryan Mathur, left, speaks with a couple at a geology department Open House.
Juniata photo by Candice Hersh

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Historians know that back in the 1770s that colonial Pennsylvanians mined lead to make musket ammunition in and around the Sinking Valley area near what is now Altoona, Pa. What nobody knows today is where exactly those lead mines actually were located.

             That blip in local historical knowledge might be remedied starting around 10 a.m. , Saturday, April 8, at Fort Roberdeau in Sinking Valley, Blair County, when Juniata College’s Ryan Mathur, professor of geology, two consultants and about 11 students will use technology unheard of by colonial settlers to locate these centuries-old historical sites. Fort Roberdeau’s historical legacy is that it was built to protect lead mining operations.

            “We know there was lead mining in the area and we sort of know where to start looking, based on ground features such as sites where no plant life grows,” explains Mathur, who is using the lead mines search as a field experience for his Physical Geology class. “ If you look at maps of the era, they have noted the locations of lead mines but often other maps have mines in a different location. Over time and through different maps, the exact locations have been lost.”

            Mathur, who teaches the Physical Geology course every spring, is collaborating with a Juniata alumnus, Jim Stuby, senior geophysicist at Earth Sources Technology in Laurel, Md.,  and a Blair County entrepreneur and geologist, George Pedlow, to bring in scientific equipment to try and pinpoint where large-scale mining operations might have occurred in the Sinking Valley area.

            Stuby, a 1995 graduate, has agreed to lend the class some high-end geology equipment such as ground-penetrating radar, resistivity meters and other gear, while Pedlow, who owns a large farm in Sinking Valley and has done extensive research on the Fort Roberdeau lead operations, will also lend equipment and various historical maps to the operation.

            “Ground-penetrating radar looks like a big lawnmower, except it uses radar pulses to reveal images under the surface of the earth,” Mather explains. “Resistivity meters read the electrical resistance of whatever is underground, whether it is a rock, a piece of wood or the presence of metal.”

            According to Mathur, the area has been mined for lead since the 18th century, and various explorations for lead and zinc deposits continued into the early 1900s. “What this project could reveal, if we are able to find the exact sites, is the scale of the mining operation and how they mined the lead deposits,” Mathur says. If the Juniata contingent is successful at finding the site of the original mines, Mathur, who also taught a Juniata course called Mining in the Americas several years ago, suspects that the instruments will reveal a large pit mining operation.

            The tunneling technology of bracing tunnels with timbers was introduced into North America in the early 19th century by British miners from the Cornwall area, but Mathur warns not to assume anything about mining traces that have been buried for centuries.

            “What’s great about research is that you never know what you’ll find,” he says. “My experience is that you never find what you’re looking for on your first try, but if we don’t find anything this year, we can apply the data we’ve found here when we return in two years when I teach the course again.”

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.