How Gold Mines Became Tungsten Mines

Over the past decade, as we have documented and recorded the history of mines in the Western U.S., we have began to notice a recurring trend. Thousands of mines that were once known as producing and active gold mines were somehow relabeled as tungsten mines by the USGS sometime between the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s as if they wanted to hide the true character of these mines. How did this happen, and more importantly why did this happen? Before we get to the answer let’s jump back nearly 100 years ago to see the role Tungsten played in WWI & WWII.

Tungsten During World War I & II

Tungsten is invaluable in war, important in peace, and extremely difficult to wrest from nature. In 1913 the British had no use for tungsten. The miners considered it a nuisance because it made tin extraction more difficult. At the same time the Germans were gladly importing all of this “useless” wolframite from the British mines. As one British scientist put it, “the Germans somehow know how to make use of this blooming stuff.” At the time, the British were glad to sell it to German industrialists for 8 to 10 shillings a unit. As World War I began, military and economic experts assured each other and the world that Germany could not keep up its industrial pace, and that its ammunition supply would be exhausted in six months. However, it was soon discovered that Germany was increasing its munitions output, even exceeding that of the Allies. Germany had discovered how to use tungsten in ammunition manufacturing. After this secret was found out, world production of tungsten leaped by 1916 to 23,104 short tons of concentrates. Only nine years before it had been 6,135 short tons — an amount in those days considered surplus.

Tungsten-Mill-Boulder-Colorado-1917.Almost immediately an international scramble for tungsten was on, and the price shot up to almost $100 a short ton unit (20 pounds W03) in the United States. Tungsten was established as a strategic military item in the munitions race of World War I, but the military requirements for this metal became astronomical during World War II with the introduction by the Germans of a tungsten carbide armor-piercing shell. During the 1930’s, Hitler’s shadow darkened over Europe.  Before World War II was started, Germany had bought up virtually the entire world supply of off-grade tungsten ore. In a barter agreement with China in 1936 Germany obtained directly about 45% of China’s rich tungsten ore. And from every other source huge tonnages of Chinese ore were imported, as well as ore from Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and even the United States — all bought through her Axis partner, Japan, then considered “neutral” by the Americas. It was Germany’s use of high-velocity armor-piercing projectiles with the tungsten carbide core that almost made the North African campaign a successful one. These projectiles virtually melted the famous British tanks and made the German Panther and Tiger Tank Corpsmen famous. It was the most awesome, most destructive armor-piercing missile yet invented by man.

Tungsten has the highest melting point of any metal known to man – 6152 degrees Fahrenheit. The tungsten carbide core of the projectile pierces the walls of armored tanks virtually as if they were paper and, having penetrated, scatters lethal pieces of most intense heat and destruction. U.S. military requirement of tungsten during the peak production year of World War II was approximately 30 million pounds of tungsten metal, more than twice again the production of the United States. Tanks, trucks, guns, shells, armor-piercing projectiles — all the paraphernalia of war — depend on high-speed steel tools. The best high-speed steels are made of tungsten alloy. Altogether, tungsten was used in 15,000 different types of war items in World War II.

So, you can see how crucial tungsten mining was during this time. In fact the government banned gold mining during World War II, so that miners would focus more on strategic metals – such as tungsten – to help with the war effort. World War II ended in 1945, but the U.S. need for tungsten continued. In 1950 the Defense Mineral Administration (DMA) was established, with the goal of acquiring 34 strategic and critical minerals and metals, one of which was Tungsten.

In 1951 the Defense Mineral Exploration Administration (DMEA) was formed and took over almost all of the functions of the DMA. The DMEA was to encouraging exploration for strategic metals. The Government provided 50, 75, or 90 percent of the up-front costs of the exploration projects, depending upon the mineral being sought.

Tungsten-and-Gold-Deposits-In-The-WestTungsten, being one of the heavier metals, is also very often found with gold deposits. Basically, by noting the presence of Tungsten in a mine, a miner stood a good chance of having the government help fund the development of their gold mines. Prior to this, prospectors had little chance of obtaining a loan from a bank, as they typically had few assets or collateral to mortgage, and therefore did not qualify for a loan. Now all of a sudden miners could apply for government loans to drill and develop their mines.  Miners jumped at this opportunity. By November of 1953, 1,570 applicants had filed for a loan. In the coming years thousands more would apply for loans.

Remember, this was a time when those in power understood the importance of mining. In fact, the U.S. President, Harry S. Truman said in 1951:

The Federal Government’s programs for purchasing and increasing the supply of critical and strategic materials are vital to the security of this Nation. It is essential that we have ample supplies of basic and rare materials if we are to fulfill our mobilization goals during the coming months and if we are to maintain the expanding national economy which gives us one of the necessary elements of strength in international affairs.

This sentiment is not lost, the current leaders of our country understand and share this ideology. The only difference is they don’t want the average American out there capitalizing off of these deposits. This can be seen in the massive land grabs of recent years. National Monuments and Wilderness areas are declared over land that is known to have some of the richest deposits of gold, platinum and other vital minerals.

Back to the DMEA program, by 1955, thousands of miners had applied for assistance with their mines. Each application was assigned a docket number and all subsequent correspondence and information about the mine was filed under that docket number. (This will become an important part of the story later.)

The obligations of the DMEA were slowly transferred in the late 1950s the Office of Minerals Exploration (OME). Then in 1965 many of the OME programs were transferred to the USGS. Federal funds for mineral exploration under the programs were available until 1974, although limited funds for OME administrative work were continued until 1979.

The USGS was then much as it is today, under staffed and underfunded. They are tasked with recording the history of mines using whatever resources they had available. One of these resources was the DMEA dockets, which contained maps, pictures and detailed information about mines across the nation. If the dockets mentioned that the miner was applying for a loan to mine tungsten, the mine was then recorded as a tungsten mine by the USGS. The same was true for other strategic minerals, such as manganese. If the miner applied for a loan to mine manganese, that  mine got labeled as a manganese mine, even if it had a previous history of gold production. Whether this was a massive conspiracy of an anti-mining government to hide gold mines or just the result of an underfunded and overworked USGS taking shortcuts, we can’t say for sure. What we do know, is that it happened frequently.

Today, many federal agencies, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and other state agencies will try to discredit the value of a mine using this USGS information. It’s often that we hear arguments for closure based purely upon the statement of, “This is just an old tungsten mine, it doesn’t have any valuable minerals”. To this we counter two points. 1. Tungsten does still have value and god forbid, it we ever have another massive war or conflict, the price of tungsten will increase dramatically. 2. The mine is likely not primarily a tungsten mine, as there are very few of those. More likely, the presence of tungsten was used to secure federal monies to work a gold mine. The validity of this last statement can be proven by looking at the history of the mine prior to World War II. Also, if the history of the mine dates back before the demand for tungsten skyrocketed, there is a good chance the ‘prudent’ miner wasn’t mining tungsten.

The moral of the story here, is that all is not as it seems. And again, that mining is not dead. The gold and other precious minerals are out there and there is plenty of money to be made. Making that money, as with anything, requires work and turpitude. Do the research, work the sites and maybe you will find your own personal gold rush.

Andrews, M. G. (1955). Tungsten, the story of an indispensable metal. Washington: Tungsten Institute.
United States. (1953). Years of progress, 1945-1952. Washington, D.C: Department of the Interior. (p. 164-165)
USGS – Defense Mineral Administration (DMA)
USGS – Defense Mineral Exploration Administration (DMEA)
USGS – Office of Minerals Exploration (OME)

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