A Mining Mystery… In Lyman County?

 WHAT WAS THAT?... Over the past 80 years or so, nearly everyone who grew up in Lyman County, plus thousands of tourist’s bouncing along old Highway 16, or speeding up 1-90 on the sloping road west from Oacoma have been beguiled by the relics of an old ruins just north of the road, on a wind-swept Missouri river bluff and pondered...was that a fort? A jail? A missile site?  Maybe a real…g-o-l-d mine? Or…a later day “Stonehenge?” If they should get lucky enough to find an old codger with roots in Lyman County, he would probably tell ‘em, “old-timers tell us…way back, years ago, it was a Magnesium mine!” An inquisitive visitor might ask…” why would they look for magnesium way out there?” Or, the more cynical: “…does everyone in South Dakota suffer from constipation!” Most folks know Magnesia is a laxative...! Do we know it is necessary for healthy bones and essential to plant life!  Folks…there is more to Magnesium! 
 Where’s the Magnesium
  During the late 1920’s, the Federal Geological Survey Group, in conjunction with the General Magnesium Corp. of Duluth, Minn., conducted several tests searching for magnesium in several states, including South Dakota. These South Dakota tests determined the presence of low-grade magnesium along the Missouri river bluffs from just east of Pierre to the Nebraska border.  Several attempts to mine the magnesium were undertaken.  In 1931, samples were sent to laboratories in Duluth, MN, Knoxville, TN and Boulder City, NV.  Subsequently, a South Dakota Geological Survey team gathered more samples in 1937, exploring areas with potentially profitable production levels. Several tons of Pierre shale ore were shipped to Rolla, Mo. and Salt Lake City, Utah laboratories for tests. None yielded a cost-effective volume! Magnesium, one of the world’s most available elements, does not give itself up for free! Cost effectiveness would be the key!  
Why Magnesium 
By late 1938, with the probability of a World War on the horizon, an urgent, expressed global shortage of magnesium was publicized. Wartime preparations created high demand for magnesium which could be used as a mixture with metals such as iron, steel, tin, and aluminum. Magnesium could be incorporated into those metals using an average of 36lbs per ton, making them both stronger and lighter, without losing their welding and fabrication properties. Magnesium’s most vital usage was strengthening the aluminum skins of airplane wings and fuselages and was central in the making of bombs, artillery shells and grenades. Its high flammability and capacity to burn under water rendered it indispensable for torpedoes and flares! These shortages would require the United States to import an estimated 50-70 per cent of the necessary magnesium or develop mainland magnesium mining operations. This crisis compelled the U.S. Government to order its Federal Bureau of Mines to develop several experimental plants across the USA, in areas where known deposits were present. Prior to WWII, Germany, England, France and the USA were producing most of the world’s magnesium.  
  A Lyman County Mining Location: In 1938, the Bureau of Mines inspected several sites along the Missouri river bluffs. Since there were very few roads giving access over the undulating terrain, much of the inspecting was done afoot and on horseback. Most Lyman Countians know the difficulties of traveling over the slippery, slithery alluvial shale/gumbo and its inclination to stick to your boots or wheels when wet! Apparently, inspectors encountered this hazard, aiding them in their decision to establish an “experimental” Magnesium mining operation in Lyman County, just north of Highway 16, roughly eight miles west of Oacoma, on land owned by Kennebec attorney, M.Q. Sharpe. Mr. Sharpe was destined to become one of Lyman County’s most renowned citizens. Throughout his career, and particularly during and after his two terms as Governor of SD, Sharpe was dependably involved in the betterment of South Dakota and advocated the development of the Missouri river.  There was speculation that perhaps political connections played a role in settling on this location, since at the time, Mr. Sharpe was working in Governor Bushfield’s Administration. Conversely, the Bureau of Mines asserted that: “access to Highway 16 and railroad terminals at Oacoma and Chamberlain, coupled with the absence of passable roads extending onto the river bluffs on either side of the river, deem this location most feasible!”  
Extracting Magnesium
Within weeks of settling upon the Lyman County location, topographers, engineers, workers and equipment, arrived upon the barren bluffs to undertake this project which, if successful, would put Lyman County, S.D. on the proverbial map! 
There would be many logistical problems for the experimental mine start-up operation.  Electrical power was unavailable, requiring the purchase of two large generators with plans to eventually purchase a huge 10,000KW steam-powered generator using coal imported from Kansas and Illinois via the railroad, no water, requiring the digging of an artesian well, road construction, requiring a bulldozer, two motor-graders, a rotary broom, two sprinkler trucks, and one snowplow. To mine and transport the ore; several bulldozers, two crawler-mounted “5-yd shovel-dippers,” sixteen 35-ton trucks to shuttle the ore to the railroad terminals and one drag-line with a 160’ boom, various conical rollers, screens and several 50-150-ft conveyer belts to transfer the ore. From 1939 through 1945, fourteen methods of separating magnesium-bearing blackish nodules from the grey Pierre shale were implemented.  Notable procedures were; shaker jigs, roller wheels, washing, grinding and, handpicking the nodules!  When in full-scale operation, two shifts, each requiring 75-100 men, splitting 16-hour days and operational 180 days per year, would be the norm. Additionally, several buildings were built, including a shop, nodule storage bins, warehouses and a water supply tank.  Maps verify locations and the four modes of actual experimental mining of the magnesium. They were; eight open pits, hundreds of feet of 3x4 ft trenches following the bluffs, surface mining with serrated blades on bulldozers, and an underground shaft with pick and shovel.  This plant would process seven million tons of ore yielding an anticipated 300,000 tons of Mg-bearing nodules per annum.  The estimated investment for equipment and infrastructure at the Lyman County experimental plant was nearly $5.5 million in 1940-$$.
Mine decline
By war’s end, the USA had fifteen fully operational magnesium mining plants scattered throughout the country. None where in South Dakota.  Our Lyman County operation never operated to full capacity for any length of time. By late 1945, most of the experimental Mg mining plants had ceased operations. From 1940-1945, the high demand for manganese kept prices at about $4000.00 per ton, in recent years the element peaked at $6000.00 per ton.  In the 21st century, South Africa, Australia and China have become the leading exporters of magnesium. Primary uses for magnesium today include; medical equipment, beverage cans, automobile engines, metal alloys, batteries and pyrotechnic fireworks! 
PS: The last known official activity at the Lyman County magnesium mine occurred in 1951, when a few tons of ore samples were tested at Bureau of Mines laboratories.  Future extraction methods may allow the resurrection of this mine, meanwhile, I wonder…would more magnesium make me lighter and stronger!  
More photos and the rest of the story can be seen on www.sdpb.org/ImagesofthePast.
References: SD Archaeological Preservation archives, Texas A & M records.


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