Soaring Price of Mercury May Revive Morton Mining

MORTON - The price of mercury is soaring, and with it the spirits of veteran miners in this region. Morton has a special interest in the price of mercury because one of hte country's largest deposits of cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is smelted, lies just below the surface about two miles east of town.

Some estimates place the known unmined supply of ore at 240,000 tons. Mining engineers stress the word "known." Unprobed lodes could yield many times that amount, they say.

Cinnabar ore hasn't been news in Morton since the early 1930s. That's when the price of quicksilver dropped to $33 a flask. Price quotations from the Engineering and Mining Journal for January this year peg the price at $319. Quicksilver may well again become a moeny-making proposition in Morton.

Reason for Price Rise

The spectacular rise in price follows from several factors. Mainly, the government is stockpiling the fluid metal and is guaranteeing the price at a minimum of $245 a flask. But lessening of imports from Italy, Spain and elsewhere have an effect. And, of course, inflation - miners' wages and equipment costs - have added their weight.

The development of the mines at Morton depends on detailed surveys now going on. Morton residents who own cinnabar property have no doubt about the existence of large deposits of ore. Many of them say the coming of spring will see the sinking of mine shafts and the erection of smelters.

Frank B. Prescott of Tacoma, who has an interest in cinnabar property he once controlled, said mining and smelting are more efficient now, though equipment costs much more.

Twenty-five years ago ore assaying 12 pounds of mercury per ton was left in the mine. Now it can be extracted profitably ona 4.6 pounds per ton assay. Much of the Morton ore assays up to 200 pounds a ton, Prescott said.

But a furnace for extracting quicksilver from cinnebar cost about $35,000 in 1930. Now it would cost $75,000. Timbers to shore up tunnels cost 10 cents apiece then. Now they cost $1 and up.

Miners got $6 a day, and muckers got $5 a day in 1930. The same crew would draw from $18 to more than $20 a day now.

All those things tend to offset the seven-to-ten-fold jump in the price of mercury, Prescott pointed out. Mining cinnabar doesn't represent a get-rich-scheme, but it should add something substantial to the Morton economy for years to come, if the mines are developed.

Rich Days Recalled

Around Morton old-time miners remember the years of the late 1920s when they took out quicksilver worth more than $1,000,000.

And they bitterly reflect on the years that followed, when one small mining outfit after another tried to make a go of getting out the metal.

Most of them drifted on to other, more lucrative ways to make a living. A few retained the rights to cinnabar property. Their tenacity may be rewarded this spring.

About $40,000 already is tied up in options and exploratory surveys o fold claims. Only the weather is holding up full scale operations, according to Prescott, a mining engineer from the old days. He's combining managing the Morton Hotel with keeping his eye on the cinnabar situation.

Matching Prescott's optimism is Lloyd Ray's pessimism. Ray, a long-time resident of Morton, is the partner of C. W. Lane, an accountant, in one of the richest of the early claims. But Ray, who mucked and mined many a shift in the early cinnabar era, gazes up over the cinnabar ridge he shares and wonders out loud if anything will come of it.

His partner, Lane, is bluff salty and non-committal about their prospects.

"We're dickering with a couple of outfits right now," he says.

Prescott, who has mined all over the western world, from Hudson's Bay in Canada to South America, energetically points out ways to bring out cinnabar profitably.

The cinnabar lode lies roughly parallel to Highway 5 from Morton to Randle. the commercially valuable ore is concentrated in a stretch about two miles long and a half-mile wide. The main lode follows the ridge of a hill two miles east of Morton.

Prescott and others have declared it to be the richest vein in the United States.

"Mining cinnabar here will have to be either on a very small scale, or a big one," Prescott said. He advocates the big scale operation. That would involve building a large smelting plant and pushing a tunnel into the cinnabar hill from a point near the highway.

"Mercury is a freak metal, with no rhyme or reason. It comes out of the depths of the earth as a vaport. This vapor seeps into the crannies of the underground rock strata, where it condenses. If it gets into a large fissure, you get a big vein of ore. That's what happened here," Prescott explained.

Cinnabar itself is a compound of mercury and sulphur. Merely heating it releases hte mercury vapor which can be directed to condensers where the fluid quicksilver collects. Mercury is the only metal in a liquid state at ordinary temperatures.

In the early '30s Prescott headed the Consolidated Mercury Mining Company. His outfit mined the ore and smelted it on the spot. Other small operators did the same. The ruins of these smelters still lie crumbling along the roadside.

Several Groups Interested

Several organizations are looking into the possibility of going after the Morton cinnabar. The Washington Minerals and Chemical Corporation of Chehalis is poking around; the Rainier Mining Company of Seattle is looking into Northern Pacific Railway properties; the Western Mineral Development Co. is working on the old Apex claim. The Apex mine, as the name suggests, sits right on top of the cinnabar ridge. Several other groups are seriously interested in the ridge.

C. W. Lane blamed part of the plight of Morton quicksilver miners on King Alfonzo of Spain. The king, it seems, had a quicksilver cartel, based upon a famous mine in Spain called the "Queen's Dowery." U. S. producers couldn't compete with the convict labor employed there, Lane said.

Lane also expressed some displeasure with a huge electrical corporation in this country and the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the case of the electrical company, it ran national ads saying "buy American," at the same time stocked up on Spanish and Italian quicksiver. Roosevelt erred, in Lane's estimation by not supporting higher tariffs, on mercury imports.

Black Days Recalled

Lloyd Ray recalled the black moment in 1930 when the price of mercury fell from $125 a flask to $33 from one day to the next. A flask weighs slightly more than 76 pounds, and is about the size of a quart bottle.

A flask of quicksilver was used as a door stop at the Morton Hotel for years. But it disappeared not too long ago, when the mercury turned to liquid gold due to government price support.

Prescott, who calls himself "an educated hobo" because his mining career has taken him to far corners of the earth, said he had invented an patented an efficient condenser for recovering mercury.

"But I haven't made a dime from the patent," he added, "although the condenser is used all over the country."

Source: The Daily Chronicle (Centralia, WA), Thursday, 24 Mar 1955, p. 13.

Transcribed by Jenny Tenlen.