HISTORY: 1918 — Chrome mining boosted by war

Demand for chrome for military purposes spurred the development of deposits in Grant County after the United States entered World War I in 1917.

Chrome, a metallic element found in minerals through hard rock mining, is a strategic metal used to make armor plate, armor-piercing shells, gun forgings, aircraft motors and other military equipment.

The mineral chromite was mostly found in serpentine deposits in the Strawberry Mountains. Costs of transporting the ore to the nearest railroad lines had prevented development of the mines in the past.

One solution was to truck the ore from staging areas in John Day to the narrow-gage Sumpter Valley Railroad depot in Prairie City. The ore could then be moved by train to the Union Pacific depot in Baker City.

About 3,700 tons of chromite ore were shipped out of Grant County in 1917, the first year of the war. That increased to 13,700 tons the next year, but chromite mining abruptly ended after an armistice was reached in November 1918.

About 6,500 tons came from the Iron King Mine, a hard rock mine located on the northwest spur of Canyon Mountain, near Canyon City. About half a dozen other chromite mines operated in the county during the war.

The U.S. Geological Survey announced in the Eagle on Jan. 25, 1918, that more chromite was needed. Total U.S. production in 1917 was 47,000 tons — not enough to meet wartime needs, the agency said. The California Chrome Co. ran a front-page ad in the Eagle on March 3 seeking chromite.

By late April, a syndicate from Spokane, Washington, had leased a mill 3 miles east of Canyon City to concentrate chromite ore. The mill needed extensive repairs but was expected to be operating in a month.

Wear and tear on the county’s roads by mining trucks became evident by early May. Ore was being transported by wagon and truck, and both Izee Road and Dog Creek Road were damaged, the Eagle reported.

“It will take chrome to win the war, Grant County will meet the demand,” a front-page headline ran a week later. The county was the largest chrome district in the U.S., but the local industry was experiencing difficulties.

A state highway inspector reportedly was on his way to Grant County to look at road improvements, but high wages paid to miners had depleted the farm labor ranks. No idle men were left in town to help out, the Eagle reported.

A 2.5-mile turnpike-type road capable of handling winter weather was to be constructed from the Chambers mine on Mt. Baldy to John Day. About 100 tons of ore was shipped daily from Prairie City by railroad, but that was expected to increase.

Grant County Judge Hagny told the Eagle the road from John Day to Prairie City would be improved to handle the ore. He said he was working with the state highway commission to choose a permanent route for the highway.

By mid-June, the state public service commission was investigating complaints about rates charged by the Sumpter Valley Railroad for chromite ore shipments. Since the railroad operated within Oregon, jurisdiction by the state or federal government was a question.

By the end of August, Judge Hagny said he had been assured by a state highway engineer that a new graveled highway would be built between John Day and Prairie City, with work to begin in November. Trucks hauling chromite ran 24 hours a day, shipping 200 tons of ore each day.

The Eagle reported Nov. 1 that the new highway had been approved, with $150,000 appropriated for construction. The county had already spent $24,000 from a $35,000 bond issue on road work and expected to continue with that effort.

The local chrome industry took a hit when the war ended Nov. 11. A mining bill under consideration by the Wilson administration gave a glimmer of hope. “Chrome to be put on a permanent and paying basis,” an Eagle headline said. The hope was that non-military uses could be found to ensure chrome demand.

About 1,000 tons of chromite ore was sitting in Prairie City when the public service commission ordered the Sumpter Valley Railroad to resume shipments. But one week later, the Eagle reported that the local chrome industry was at a standstill.

The state Bureau of Mines advised mine owners not to sell their mines, but it wasn’t an order based on military needs. Interest in the local chrome industry wasn’t renewed until 1940, as a new war threatened.

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