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Homer area mine played role in World War II

Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

HOMER - An abandoned mine shaft staring out from a cliff near the McDonald Spit across Kachemak Bay contains its own story about chromite; a time when America needed it and Alaska happened to have it.

The abandoned shaft is what's left of an ingenious system to get the chrome to waiting barges where it was shipped to plants in the United States. A rusting conveyor belt and rotting wood holding upper rock aloft are all that remains.

"It always amazes me what ingenuity the old miners displayed," said Joe Wehrman, manager of the Abandoned Mine Program with the Alaska Division of Mining. He has heard of most of Alaska's 7,300 abandoned mines, yet his only contact with this one is through ancient government documents the state inherited from the federal government after Alaska became a state.

In this case, using primitive equipment, tons of Red Mountain's chrome went to the U.S. government for bolstering the steel in ships during World War II. Chrome was desired because it contains alloys that keep steel from corroding.

According to Wehrman's archives, "the Bureau of Mines drilled over 30 diamond drill holes to evaluate the deposits. From 1942 to 1944, the Chrome Queen Mine produced 6,650 tons of 40 to 42 percent chromite ore."

From 1928 on, chrome as a commodity was used in huge quantity by the auto industry, which lavished the decorative coating on bumpers, tail fins, trim and headlamps. The bulk of raw materials came from Turkey and South Africa, according to information on chrome mining at the time.

During the war years, Alaska's mining laws were under federal jurisdiction. Taking on statehood in 1959, the Kenai Peninsula forgot its chrome deposits, relying now on a far richer resource oil.

The giant seam of chrome arching from the tip of the Peninsula to Sutton stayed safely in the ground in the ensuing 50 years of statehood.

RESOURCE AMNESIA

After statehood, Alaska's newly created Division of Mining now established under the Department of Natural Resources - did not know much about chrome deposits until several decades after statehood, said Kerwin Krause, a mineral properties manager with the Division of Mining.

Now, resource experts know that Red Mountain's chrome deposits are part of a great arc of rocks from the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, through the Chugach Mountains to the Knik River and all the way to Sutton.

"It's a big (chrome) belt, but Red Mountain was the only one, to our knowledge, that was mined," Krause said.

Gold mining Alaska's most glittering economic opportunity even into the modern eras was shut down during the war years.

"Only base metal mines could be operated because the U.S. government only wanted the strategic minerals," Krause said. "Gold wasn't a strategic mineral."

Even though Alaska was a territory, and not a state, all of Alaska's gold mines were shut down during World War II.

"Alaska was subject to fuel rations, to lights out, to all the requirements of the rest of the country," Krause said.

At the end of the war, the need for such minerals dried up. The Queen Chrome Mine, and its employment opportunities, closed its shafts and went away. But the idea of mining the chromite from the ground would come back again; this time in the 1950s, when chrome was queen on America's cars.

CHROME'S TWISTY ROAD

Chromite ore was discovered at Red Mountain, located about 15 miles from Seldovia, around the time the big gold fields in Alaska were petering out. It was simply listed as "an area discovered 1910 to 1915, and some minor development and production occurred in 1920," according to BLM records now kept by the Division of Mining's Wehrman.

In "Seldovia Alaska: A Historical Portrait of Life in Herring Bay," by Susan Woodward Springer, more early information is recorded from a newspaper, the Seldovia Herald, in an Aug. 2, 1930 account:

"The Whitney & Lass Co., will undergo thorough inspection within the next few weeks. J.R. Van Fleet, a mining engineer expert with the Electro Metallurgical Co., in Santa Cruz, will go over the prospects and take out samples. The properties were prospected in 1918, enough work done to assure heavy deposits, and the plan at that time was to undertake mining on a commercial scale, but upset conditions brought on by the war (World War I) compelled temporary abandonment of the work."

The mine's output proved to be of good grade, but foreign competition was blamed as the reason why mining did not continue at either site. Now, in 1930, the account sounded more optimistic of a mine's chances:

"Chromite is beginning to be more and more recognized as an important alloy in steel composition possessing a rust-defying quality... Particularly in demand by automobile manufacturers, it was started by the Ford company, making exclusive use of chrome in headlight rims and door edgings."

But the operation didn't take off during the Great Depression years, and again, competition with chrome mines in Turkey and South Africa were listed as the reason.

But when America entered World War II, the Queen Chrome Mine opened for a strong three seasons. At the height of the war years, the mine employed 50 people and numerous bunkhouses and other buildings were established at the Red Mountain site. Some are still there today, said the road's caretaker, Jack Thomas.

It was worked again from 1952-1957, this time by a Seattle entrepreneur named Mike Seiler. He won government contracts to buy the ore and arranged nearly $1 million from investors. His was the most extensive venture, claiming 21,000 tons taken from the mountain.

The logistics of getting at the ore made for the most striking accounts: a twisty downhill road makes a steep ascent from Jakolof Bay to the Red Mountain mine some 3,500 feet up. Blasting conditions were so hazardous, four mining engineers were the only workers allowed inside, Springer wrote.

"These blasting wizards drilled and positioned dynamite such that the ore, when blown, would fall conveniently for loading," Springer wrote. "The cart sat on tracks and was powered by an air motor. It was known as an "air jenny," although the Red Mountain men called it the poop-a-leena. When the cart was loaded, an air compressor filled an attached tank with 80-90 pounds of pressure. To propel the cart out of the mine, air was slowly let out of the tank, thus running a motor which turned the carts' wheels."

In yet another innovation, after being crushed, the ore was transported down the hill, carrying ore to a storage hopper in the Bay. It was dumped from the cliff through a shaft down a conveyor belt to a waiting dock.

"The hopper released its load down a vertical shaft cut into the rock cliff of the shoreline," Springer's book details. "The shaft met up with a tunnel, whose mouth opened onto a pier. Ships called at the pier to load the ore and carry it Outside."

In 1957 came the end of production at the mine. Anaconda Minerals considered regional airborne geophysics in the early 1980s. However, Anaconda was bought out by Arco, which in turn, became part of ConocoPhilips, Krause said.

During his 28 years with the division, Krause said he has known of the Red Mountain Mine, and last visited it in 1980. He was with the Corp of Engineers scouting out armor rock for use in building harbors. Since the mine isn't considered a hazard, it is no longer managed by the Division of Mining.

"We have no active claims on it now," he reported. "It's not even on our radar."

People growing up in Seldovia or elsewhere in the area remember the mine, but only dimly. Joe Carlough, born after World War II, recalls that when he was growing up in the 1950s, quite a few people worked on the mountain.

"There was a dock there at Kasitna Bay, and a ship would come load (the ore,)" he recalled. "But you couldn't actually see it."

The operation was almost entirely remote, hidden from the view of common traffic. Even today, when the cliff and its gaping cave is most noticeable at low tide, people might easily pass it. Chromite, its unique hold on an American public, also might well be forgotten.



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