Magnesite Mining in Stevens County (1916-1968) by J. E. (Jess) Buchanan

  • Posted 5/24/2009
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J. E. Buchanan (1904-1986) wrote this account for The Pacific Northwesterner where it appeared in Vol. 25, No. 3 (Summer 1981). It is reprinted here with kind permission. Born in Iowa, Buchanan was brought to Spokane at age 2 and lived there until 1921. At the University of Idaho he was a civil engineering student, 1923-1927; teacher and materials-testing engineer, 1927-1936; engineering dean, 1938-1942; and university president, 1946-1954. As an engineer, his practice included engineering materials, roads, bridges, airports, and administration. From 1954 until retirement, 1969, he was president of the Asphalt institute, College Park, Maryland.

The Magnesite Rush

I want to take you on a trip northward on Highway U.S. 395 from Spokane to Chewelah. After you pass the junction where the road from Waitts Lake and the town of Valley joins High­way 395, you are in the wide and beauti­ful Colville River valley. Parallel to the highway and right beside it is the track of what used to be the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway built by Mr. Corbin of Spokane in the late 1800s. Later it be­came part of the Great Northern system. Now it is part of the Burlington Northern system. Straight ahead and one mile be­fore you get to Chewelah you can see along the railroad track the dismantled and dilapidated remains of what once was a sizeable industrial plant for processing magnesite ore.

I mention dismantled because on our 1978 summer trip to the Swauk gold placers north of Ellensburg, we saw a welder working on a large rotary screen preparing it for use at the placer. Our host at the placer operation told us he had acquired the screen at the shut-down Chewelah plant.

To the west, between the Colville River Valley and the Columbia River valley, is a mountain range named Huckleberry. The highest peak is 5,819 feet. It is named Stensgar peak ... .

In this range, six to 12 miles west of Highway 395 are several excavation scars. Those scars are old magnesite mines and quarries.

The Chewelah plant and the quarries and mines are now all ghosts, and the sight today is most depressing. But in their heyday, throughout two world wars, Huckleberry Mountain and Colville Valley were vibrant with activity -- first the feverish rush in 1915-1916 to locate and acquire magnesite deposits; then the scramble to build by primitive means access roads from the railroad in Colville Valley to the deposits in the mountain. Horse-drawn wagons and 1916 vintage trucks, operating around the clock, moved the raw magnesite ore to the railroad for transportation to the East and processing for use in the steel industry.

As rapidly as possible the primitive road transportation was supplanted by better means -- in one case an aerial tramway was installed and in another a standard gauge railroad was built. Also kilns were built to process the raw ore and re­duce its weight before shipment to the East. The defunct plant along Highway 395 was the major plant built for that purpose.

Everybody knows about the excitement inherent in a gold rush. It's called gold fever. There are, however, other kinds of mineral fevers, perhaps not as virulent as gold fever, but sometimes of broader and more far-reaching significance. Such was the magnesite fever in Stevens County during World War I that I've just described. Now it would be well to ex­plain the why of this magnesite rush.

Making Steel

To approach the story with some logic, it is desirable to review industrial conditions in the World War I period, particularly pertaining to steel. As the eighteenth-century industrial revolution progressed in Europe and America, use of iron became ever more important. However, the wrought iron and cast or pig iron of the early nineteenth-century were not really adequate for engines and mach­ines, nor for railroad rails and structures such as bridges and buildings. What was needed was steel. The rudiments of steel technology were known, but the processes for making it were difficult and costly.

Steel differs from soft wrought iron and brittle pig or cast iron in the amount of carbon present. In its simplest form steel is an iron-carbon alloy, the carbon content varying from 0.03 percent up to about 2 percent. Modern steels are extremely versatile. They can be made relatively soft to very hard by modern processes and control of manufacture. It is claimed that steel is used in at least one million different applications. Cer­tainly a measure of a country's war potential is its steel-making capability.

The breakthrough in steel-making tech­nology and economy came in 1856 when the Bessemer process was devised and made practical to achieve desired carbon content. Industrialization then began to zoom in the economically developed countries in Europe and North America.

While the Bessemer process was a great leap forward, further experimenta­tion developed the open hearth process, first the acid process, then in 1884 the basic process. This achievement occur­red in Wales. It was a great event in­deed, especially for the United States. The reason: The basic open hearth process removed unwanted phosphorus, an im­portant feature for us because the huge iron ore deposits of the United States were too high in phosphorus for use in other steel-making processes.

Because basic open hearth steel makes boiler plate and ship plate, structural steel, rails, machine steel, in fact nearly all engineering steels, it became the lead­ing process in the United States for about 60 years -- from discovery in 1884 until the 1950s. It made possible the pre-emin­ence of the U.S. among steel-producing and using countries of the world through two world wars.

By 1950 there were more than 900 basic open hearth furnaces in the U.S. Steel from these furnaces was the core of our industry accounting for about 90 percent of all steel produced.

The key feature of the basic open hearth steel-making process was the hearth lining of magnesite refractory. Before World War I, more than 70 percent of the magnesite used in the U.S. steel industry was imported from Austria-Hungry, and some from Greece.

World War I and the Magnesite Problem

Then came World War I, which shut off access to Austria-Hungary magnesite just at the critical time when all-out produc­tion of U. S. steel was vital for the Allies and our own country. What to do? Mag­nesite from Greece helped fill the gap for a while, but German U-boat activity made continuous supply uncertain. So, early in World War I our government in Wash­ington D.C. circulated urgent appeals to geologists throughout the U.S. to search their records and prospect their areas of study for deposits of magnesite. Our steel industry had to have adequate and usable magnesite at once.

What was needed was a product in crystalline form that could be substituted immediately and directly for that from Europe, which the U.S. furnaces were dependent upon. Here is where Stevens County enters the picture.

What Is Magnesite?

But first, what is magnesite? Probably all of us have had some experience with magnesia in the so-called milk form, also in the form known as Epsom Salts, but these are not the form needed by the steel industry.

Magnesite is a mineral composed of magnesium and carbonate with the chem­ical formula MgCO3. When a rock in nature contains a high percentage of magnesium carbonate, the rock is also called magnesite.

A close chemical relative of magnesite is the mineral calcite, which has the chemical formula CaCO3. However, when a rock in nature contains a high percentage of calcite, the rock is called limestone.

When a rock in nature contains about equal proportions of calcium and mag­nesium carbonate, it is called dolomite -- a substance used for many purposes in­cluding the paper industry and medicine.

Also germane to this story is the neces­sity to mention marble, which is geologi­cally altered calcite or limestone.

As they occur in nature in the Huckle­berry range, magnesite, limestone, dolo­mite, and marble deposits resemble each other in crystalline grain structure, but with some color variations. The pre­dominant color is gray. This similarity in appearance can result in mistaken efforts to utilize the rocks. Stevens County de­posits are prime examples of mistaken identity and disappointing results of early exploration efforts.

The magnesite of Stevens County has a crystalline grain structure. However, magne­site also occurs in nature in an amorphous form, white in color.

Magnesite in Stevens County

Early geological reconnaissances and studies of Stevens County had noted the existence of marble, partic­ularly in the Huckleberry range west of Chewelah and Valley. For example, the Washington Geological Survey Annual Report Vol. 2, 1902, states: "The composi­tion of these ... marbles varies from an almost pure calcium carbonate to an al­most pure magnesium carbonate with all grades between. Most of the Stevens County marbles contain more or less magnesia."

In addition to such geologic field studies, some practical-minded pioneer residents in the late 1800s and early 1900s had opened what they thought were marble quarries for the production of headstones, marble slabs, and other marble products. Also, some early entrepreneurs had opened and operated some quarries for the burning of lime­stone to make quick lime and hydrated lime. None of these was really success­ful because the rock they used was contaminated, as it were, with some percen­tage of magnesite.

When the call came from Washington, D.C., for magnesite for our steel industry, several people were stimulated to action. Among them were:

R. S. Talbot, at one time vice president and general manager of the Inland Empire Paper Co. at Millwood. According to an item in the Chewelah Independent (June 11, 1953), "In search of a nearby supply (of dolo­mite for his paper mill) Mr. Talbot employed the right kind of men to browse around rock piles in Stevens County. Expert analysts worked on the endless samples that reached the paper mill and reported high mag­nesite values. Mr. Talbot then sever­ed his connections with the paper business to devote his time to find, acquire and develop magnesite de­posits." Another news story in Chewelah Independent (March 30, 1967) credits Mr. Talbot with the first discovery of magnesite late in 1915.

Prof. Wilfred M. Handy (called Fred Handy in some publica­tions), an assistant professor of econ­omic geology at Washington State College. Prof. Handy was aware of Washington Geologic Survey Bulletin No. 4 (submitted in 1912 for publica­tion and printed in 1913) titled "Cement Materials and Industry in the State of Washington" by Solon Shedd in which were reported locations of rock deposits in Stevens County whose chemical analysis showed high magnesium content. Prof. Handy investigated and realized these de­posits were actually magnesite. He immediately began efforts to acquire properties. 

Raymond Allen of Ione, Washington. He said (in a letter) that during the summer of 1916 he was in Steven's County looking for a deposit of very pure limestone. Like Prof. Handy, he was using Bulletin No. 4 of the Washington Geologic Survey as a guide. Noting the high magnesium content reported for some of the samples and knowing of the need for magnesite for the steel industry, he took samples from one of the early marble quarries and sent them to Harbison-Walker Refractories Com­pany of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who im­mediately requested particulars and carload samples. 

Geologists have now establish­ed that there exists in Stevens County a so-called "magnesite belt." Within this belt lies a formation called Stensgar dolomite which contains all known occurrences of magnesite in the county. The name Stensgar comes from the early settler previously mentioned. Bul­letin No. 20 (1920) of Washington Geo­logical Survey says the Stensgar dolomite formation averages some 1,500 feet in width, (approximately 1/4 mile) and ex­tends for some 30 miles along the eastern side of the Huckleberry range. This is the side seen from Highway 395.

While a number of magnesite deposits were discovered and developed to some extent, only four are discussed in this paper. They were the important pro­ducers of magnesite ore. The four are: 

Keystone. This deposit had been opened as a marble quarry and was operated for perhaps 18 years by the U.S. Marble Co. Sometimes it was referred to as the green marble quarry because the rock was stained with green streaks. But the marble products were not up to Vermont marble standards and the operation was not an economic suc­cess.

R. S. Talbot identified the U.S. Marble Com­pany's Keystone quarry as magnesite. He acquired it and organized the Washington Magnesite Co. and start­ed immediate production. Between November 1916 and May 1917 about 5,000 tons of crude magnesite were mined, hauled to rail, and shipped East. This was the first production from Stevens County for our needy steel industry.

Finch. This de­posit is alleged to have been first ex­ploited for limestone with disappoint­ing results. The owner, Norman C. Finch (1884-1955) in August 1916, offered it for a used Model T Ford, but the car owner sniffed at the offer. A few months later Mr. Finch readily accepted $6,000 for the property offered by a stranger who had been investigating rock deposits in the Huckleberry Mountains. The buyer was R. S. Talbot or one of his agents. 

Red Marble. This deposit, like the Keystone, had been opened to produce marble, and with similar results. The rock in the deposit was reddish in color, hence the name. The deposit was identified as magnesite by Raymond Allen of Ione in the summer of 1916. He tried to obtain an option on the property, but the owners held out for $75,000, which was out of his fi­nancial reach.

Allen-Moss. When Raymond Allen could not gain control of the Red Marble deposit, he turned his search elsewhere. In September, 1916, he discovered the deposit now known as the Allen quarry. This was a fortunate find. It was near the Finch quarry; in fact just across the canyon. Both Finch and Allen deposits had good grade ore, lots of it, and were nearest rail transportation in Colville Valley. Adjoining the Allen property was the Moss property. For practical purposes they constituted a single deposit. 

There were two principal operating companies in the district: American Mineral Production Co. (AMP Co) and Northwest Magnesite Company (NWM Co). 

American Mineral Production Co.

 This company was organized with its corporate office in Chicago and operating offices in Valley, Washington, and at the Allen quarry. With the help of Prof. Handy, AMP Co. acquired the Allen property from Raymond Allen; it also acquired the Moss, Red Marble, and other deposits.

First extensive mining was at the Allen deposit. To replace road hauling the company decided first to build six miles of standard gauge railroad from a rail siding at the town of Valley to the Allen quarry. Later the line was to be extended to Red Marble. The railroad was or­ganized in 1917 as a subsidiary of AMP Co. and was named Spokane Valley & Northern Railroad. It is reported to have cost about half a million dollars.

The company did not develop adequate kilns for deadburning its ore, and its rail operation was costly, with the result that the company was not a financial success. 

Northwest Magnesite Company


R. S. Talbot in conjunction with Cali­fornia interests organized the Northwest Magnesite Co., which took over Talbot's Washington Magnesite Co. and its Key­stone property, as well as the Finch de­posit.

This company contracted with Riblet Tramway Company of Spokane to build in 1917-1918 a five-mile aerial tramway to move its crushed and sized ore from the Finch quarry and mine to its calcining plant at rail side just south of Chewelah. Unlike the costly railroad built by AMP Co, this tramway is reported to have cost only $60,000 and was capable of moving 1,200 tons a day at a cost of 50 cents per ton. The ore moved in aerial buckets spaced along the cable, each holding about 1,000 pounds. Travel time, mine to calcining plant, was about 50 minutes. The tramway project was regarded as a "war baby"; some of the cable is supposed to have come from the Panama Canal.

At the plant, the magnesite ore was deadburned in rotary kilns to drive off CO2 and moisture leaving Mg0 for ship­ment East. This operation reduced weight about 50 per cent, a decided factor in lowering shipping costs to eastern steel mills.

In connection with the American Mineral Production Company, I want to mention a man known to some of you. I refer to C. Rea Moore. When I worked for this company in 1923, Mr. Moore was general superintendent. He was an ex­perienced railroad locator and builder, having been involved in building some of the electric lines that ran out of Spokane and the Milwaukee line through the Bitterroot Mountains. As I under­stand it, his first mission with AMP Co. was to locate and build the Spokane Valley & Northern Railroad from the town of Valley to the AMP Co. properties. Then he stayed on and was finally put in complete charge of all operations as gen­eral superintendent.

A Sudden Promotion

I went to AMP Co. in January 1923, to work as a laboratory flunky -- washing chemical glassware, taking samples of ore from the quarry and kilns, making simple routine tests and typing laboratory re­ports. It was my high school chemistry that got me the laboratory job, but it was my typing ability that brought me to Mr. More's attention.

Over at the main office with Mr. Moore was a chief clerk who handled office bus­iness, payroll, correspondence, and ran a small commissary for all employees. This clerk was a Canadian war veteran. It was his custom occasionally to spend a weekend socializing in Spokane or Canada. Shortly after one of these trips he turned seriously ill and had to quit and go for medical treatment.

Mr. Moore commandeered me from the laboratory to do the necessary typing and other duties of the hastily departed clerk. Also I had to take over the commissary. I stayed on and seemed to be doing satisfactorily. However, as the summer wore on there were indications from the head office in Chicago that things were not as sound as they might be. For one thing, one of our payroll deposits was late reaching the Chewelah bank. Then Mr. Moore was called to Chicago for con­ference. He had no backup man with any authority to act for him at the mine office, so he decided to draft me. Accord­ingly, he wrote me a, letter as follows: 


August 1st, 1923

Mr. J. E. Buchanan

Valley, Wash.

Dear Sir:

Please be advised that effective this date, you are appointed Assistant Superintendent of this Company.

Yours truly,
(signed) C. R. Moore

I was then at the ripe age of 19. I still have the letter. The company didn't last long after that. It closed down in September 1923, and I took off for college. Mr. Moore went on to a fine career with the Washington public ser­vice commission and later with the Wash­ington Water Power Company.

Railway vs. Tramway

Later in 1923, Northwest Magnesite Co. acquired American Mineral Production Co. and its properties. Northwest's tram­way was eventually extended to the Allen, Keystone, and Red Marble deposits. The Spokane Valley & Northern Railroad was not used. Rails were removed and sold. Northwest also became a subsidiary of Harbison-Walker Refractories Company of Pittsburgh.

In considering the success and failure of these two companies, I think there is a lesson in the importance of transportation. AMP Co. chose stand­ard gauge railroad, which involved large capital investment in land, roadbed, and drainage construction, ties, rails, steam motive power and water and fuel storage facilities for the engine; continuing rail­way operating crew costs; and little sal­vage in prospect at shutdown.

NWM Co., on the other hand, chose aerial tramway requiring only easements for cableway and towers and no grading and drainage construction, therefore much lower capital investment, plus low operating costs and fair salvage value. A tramway is relatively easy to dismantle and sometimes can be re-erected else­where.

The design and erection of the tram­way at Chewelah was the work of Byron C. Riblet (1865-1952). Because of the importance of the tramway in this case it is relevant to include in this paper some facts about this man and his company.

Riblet's Tramways

The biography of Byron C. Riblet pub­lished in Spokane and the Inland Empire says he built his first aerial tramway for a mining company at Sandon, British, Columbia, in 1896-1897. However, prior to his tramway ventures, he had a distin­guished career extending over a decade locating and building railroads and hydro­electric plants in the Spokane country, in­cluding a stint as engineer for the Wash­ington Water Power Co.

Although he was born in Iowa in 1865 and spent his youth there, he chose to attend University of Minnesota where he completed in 19 months a special course in civil engineering in 1885 at the age of 20.

By 1908, while working for others, he had completed perhaps 30 tramways in the U.S., British Columbia, Alaska, and Peru. He then returned to Spokane and entered business for himself. He formed Riblet Tramway Company in Spokane in 1911 at the age of 46.

Riblet Tramway Company came upon hard times in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but it was rescued and brought back to health by Carl M. Hansen, and that, too, is an interesting story, Hansen, at 20, had been a draftsman for Riblet for a brief period after graduating from Spokane's North Central High School in 1918. Following that he studied engin­eering at University of Idaho and Wash­ington State College. Then came a period as hydraulic and mechanical en­gineer for Kennecott Copper Co. in Chile. Upon returning to the U.S. in 1937 he was inveigled to rejoin the ailing Riblet company. This was nearly 20 years after his first employment. He stayed on and brought the company out of the doldrums. As Byron Riblet's effectiveness and in­terest waned, Hansen took over. When Byron retired in 1946, Hansen bought control, which he still [1981] has and serves as chairman at the age of 81.

Byron Riblet died in 1952. There are no Riblet descendants in the company.

Riblet tramways, hundreds of them, are in operation for industry and recreation all over the world, including behind the Iron Curtain. There is a fine historical story of the company written by John Fahey in the November 1980, issue of Spokane Magazine. Spokane should take pride in having this company as one of its illustrious corporate citizens.

Sources and Discrepancies

Residing in Chewelah today [1981] is a man who worked for many years for North­west Magnesite Company. I believe he is still resident caretaker and overseer of several properties in Stevens County still owned by Harbison-Walker. I know he would be pleased to talk to any of you who might want more detail about the magnesite operations. He was most help­ful to me in preparing this report. His name is Walter Goodman.

In passing I want to mention some dis­crepancies encountered in my investiga­tions. For example, U. S. G. S. Bulletin 1142-F titled "Geology of the Magnesite Belt of Stevens County, Washington" on page F-39 says AMP Co ceased production in 1920. However, it was operating into 1923 when I was employed there. An­other example: on page 1052 of Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, 4th Edition, it is stated that "Magnesite de­posits are known in Greece, Austria, Norway, India, Australia and South Africa. In the United States, magnesite is found in California and Nevada ..." No mention of the state of Washington where there still are several million tons of reserves. (The reference to magnesite in California and Nevada probably refers to the amorphous variety previously men­tioned.)

Before closing I want to pay tribute to our geologists and call attention to the fundamental work they do in their surveys. Many, many times in the history of our country, these basic geologic surveys have been guides to discoveries and development of vital resources for our economic growth and perhaps even our survival. 



It is estimated that since their dis­covery, Stevens County deposits have yielded more than five million tons of crude magnesite (three million or more tons from Finch alone) practically all of which was for domestic consumption. However, for a period in World War II some went to our Allies.

Now the magnesite mines, mills, and processing plants of Stevens County are closed. Railroad rails and aerial tram­way have been removed. Operations lasted for half a century -- 1916 to 1968 -- and served our country and our steel industry well indeed when most needed, but advances in technology on two fronts brought them to a halt.

By the late 1960s the basic oxygen steel-making process had largely supplanted the basic open hearth process. By the oxygen process a batch of steel could be made in one-fourth to one-fifth of the time required by open hearth. The oxygen process required a purer magnesite refractory than could be economically made from Stevens County ore. Instead, a new process was developed using eastern dolomite and sea­water that yielded the purer magnesite required and at lower cost. Those raw materials were plentiful and were near the points of use, thus eliminating the transportation costs from Stevens County.

The Northwest Magnestie Company shut down on October 14, 1968, age 51 years. Some of the machinery was sold for other uses or for scrap. The tramway was removed and sold for scrap about 1971. However, substantial reserves of magnesite remain in Stevens County. Who knows when they may again fill a vital need?

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