Oregon Trails: Mystery Metal

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By Ron Brown

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Many of the first settlers in Southern Oregon came here looking for gold and other mineral wealth. Gold was on most miners’ minds, but later exploration revealed our region is a cornucopia of other valuable metals and minerals as well.

For more than 20 years, mining engineer Michael Cope has been digging into the mining history and mapping the mineral resources of Southern Oregon. His company, American Mining Research, seeks to identify and help develop the vast mineral wealth he says lies underground, especially in Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Curry Counties.

One mineral that has captured his attention for many years is what early miners called the “mysterious white metal.” many thought it could be tin, but it wasn’t until an investigation by state and federal officials was launched in the late 20’s that an answer seemed close at hand.

“The investigation started playing out over a series of months until it drew the attention of the Federal Government, which is basically the General Land office that came from Portland to investigate it,” says Michael Cope. “So, when they came down on behalf of the miners being persistent on this mysterious white metal, the investigation drew the attention of the Commissioner from Washington, D.C. to come and investigate and his name was William Spry.”

Spry was a former governor of Utah with power to arbitrarily change the classification of federal lands. While the head of the Oregon School of Mines doubted the theory the mysterious metal was tin, spry was more receptive. He ordered a lab be built to accurately analyze ore samples.

“They were bringing the samples in to be tested and they were finding this, what they were referring to as ‘tin’ everywhere,” Cope explains. “But some of the sampling that was being done by the government men, were showing that there was other values of more rare minerals and metals at that time, than what they knew existed here in Josephine County.”

Although the so-called mysterious white metal had been reported since the 1880’s and 90’s, no one knew what it was. Just that it seemed to be everywhere.

“What they were doing was they were getting this mysterious white metal and ingots out of the ashes of cook stoves when they would stick the rock straight in there and they would roast it, and basically it would create solid droplets of silver metal in their ashes,” says Cope.

Some miners even made rings and other trinkets and tools out of the mysterious white metal. Since tin was a strategic metal, and spry thought too many, lands here were labelled agricultural; it looked like a change was coming in classification, presumably to make it easier to open the area for more mining.

Spry suddenly died, however, and the mining school soon after evolved into a geology department at Oregon State University. The investigation, which was almost weekly covered in the Southern Oregon spokesman newspaper, started to get the attention of the Grants Pass Courier, and the Portland Oregonian. Ore test results varied, and it was still not clear what the material was. But it seemed to be everywhere, both in granites and other ore-bearing rock. That, cope says, translates into tellerium, which is used in making solar panels, and is very valuable.

Then, no one knew what that was, except that it seemed to be valuable. However, the investigation called for by the Grants Pass Courier seemed to dwindle to no conclusion. Cope wonders why, and what happened?

“The investigation that was called upon by the Courier never got completed through the college of Mines. Everybody was waiting to see what Dean Newton said and his final inspection of the materials on this,” states Cope.

Ore samples from the Oregon Department of Geology and mineral industries now in the Josephine County Courthouse verify the search, and the newspaper stories chronicle the excitement that many felt at the time. Later, in the mid-30’s, Oregon Governor Martin set up a mining school in Grants Pass and organized Dogami to analyze the mineral finds in the state. He said then that the mineral resources here could pull Oregon out of the Depression. Now cope says the investigation needs to be completed, and another look taken at how lands are classified in Southern Oregon.

If Cope’s figures are right and the research that he’s done is correct, there should be a vast treasure underneath the city of Grants Pass, and throughout Southern Oregon. He says the big problem is to get the attention of those who manage those lands and direct their development, so that miners can get in and tap into some of these resources.

In 1937 the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries was formed to study and survey the geologic and mineral resources of Oregon. The office in Grants Pass closed several years ago, but much of the information and ore samples from the Grants Pass office is now kept in the surveyors office of the Josephine County Courthouse.