Mining history is great. Today I learned that Arthur Wilfley and Carrie Everson, mineral processing legends of the late 19th century, never received formal technical training in metallurgy or chemistry. Yet their groundbreaking achievements (the shaking table and flotation) remain fundamental processes employed today over a hundred years later at the biggest metal mines in the world. Currently, I am currently reading Mass Destruction by Timothy LeCain, a revisionist history of the first large-scale porphyry copper mine: Bingham. Around 1903, mining engineer Daniel Cowan Jackling convinced skeptical investors of his pioneering methods to exploit low grade (<2% Cu) ores from the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. Of course, the rest is history. Today, most of our copper is extracted from similar giant porphyry deposits mostly located around the ring of fire.
My interest in mining history began in Alaska, when my first boss gave me a copy from a 1963 Alaska Sportsman magazine on the history of the Chandalar Gold Mining district written by Irving Reed. The article focused on the prospecting and social leadership of Frank Yasuda, otherwise known as “Japanese Moses”, a man who was a true Arctic Hero.
Another legend, Ernest Wolff (author of the essential Handbook for the Alaskan Prospector) wrote an incredible biography of the man and place in Frank Yasuda and the Chandalar, but good luck finding a copy of that anywhere. Working in the Brooks Range in a place steeped in legend and lore, I next came to the wonderful tales of USGS geologist John Mertie, who’s wife wrote Thirty Summers and a Winter. Thirty-one expeditions recounted in the book gave me a new respect for the role pack horses played in opening up remote mineral districts, and their unfortunate deaths at the end of every season’s work. My favorite mining historian and author has to be Clark Spence. I have read three of his books and they’ve all been excellent. The most intriguing is The Northern Gold Fleet, an authoritative tome of the development of Fairbanks and Nome district gold dredging technology. Brilliant. I hope the new Alaska Mining Hall of Fame building in downtown Fairbanks will encourage more interest and sharing of these stories.
This year studying in Cornwall I’ve been extremely fortunate to indulge in mining heritage. Less than a mile down the ancient road from our farm cottage is the Kennal Vale Gunpowder works.
Now a beautiful nature reserve, it’s a hidden industrial gem which was fundamental in the development of the tin and copper. Still existing are the old grinding mills over a hundred years old, and the system of leats and water wheels to power the mixing and grinding of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter in producing gunpowder which was exported all over the world. Cornwall is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I’ll need another page to dedicate to explorations from St. Agnes to St. Just and of course, the central Camborne, Redruth, and Gwennap districts. Photo’s below give a glimpse of that heritage. Let’s not forget too the remarkable China Clay deposits of Cornwall; far more important than the high-grade underground tin and copper loads, the kaolin of Cornwall remains an economic engine, representing the most valuable British export after North Sea petroleum.
The next series of books to read will stay focused on porphyry copper in the American West. It’s a topic I’m particularly interested in because of the Pebble ore deposit located in Southwest Alaska. The books span from operations across Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Montana so if you have any recommendations, email me. There’s been a lot of mistakes made in mining history’s past, and many lessons to be learnt, but there are also stories of leadership, courage, and hope. Sharing these stories and remembering our past failures will help ensure future outcomes provide more positive change.