Mining near St. Helens reaps a century of disappointment

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Second in a four-part series by The Daily News in Longview. Read Part 1 at The Columbian

Despite nearly a century of disappointments, a Canadian prospecting company still is trying to convince investors they can get rich off deposits in the St. Helens Mining District.

Vancouver-based Ascot Resources Ltd. will likely begin exploring for copper, gold, silver and molybdenum next summer on 900 acres near the Green River, on the northern edge of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Ascot officials have hinted that vast deposits of precious metals lie beneath the area and touted the potential economic benefit a mining operation could bring to the region.

But the claim blocks in this area have been explored before, most recently by Duval Corp. in the 1970s. And a look at the history of the district shows that numerous prior efforts to pry riches from the mountain have never fulfilled the hopes of investors, prospectors and nearby communities.

The rush begins

Precious metals were discovered in the area around 1891, when two German immigrant farmers went on a hunting and fishing expedition near Spirit Lake. They discovered what appeared to be an extensive deposit of numerous minerals, including black tourmaline, pyrite and hematite. Because these minerals are

often found in or near veins of precious metals, the immigrants grew excited.

Word of the discovery spread quickly to Portland and other settlements and set off a wave of gold fever in the Mount St. Helens wilderness.

By the end of 1892, the Green River mining district, which encompassed all of the tributaries of the Green from its headwaters to the mouth, had been created to better manage the sudden rush to stake claims. A short time later, it was renamed the St. Helens Mining District, according to a 1977 report written by Wayne S. Moen for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Most of the prospectors in the early years were individual men, hoping to find gold or silver. As word spread, though, investment companies quickly began touting the mountain's potential, sending photographers to document the exploration and creating glowing promotional brochures in hopes of luring investors.

Newspapers helped to spread the fever, often publishing speculation and rumor about the mines.

Prospects fizzle

By 1910, thousands of prospect pits had been dug, more than 11,000 feet (more than two miles) of tunnels were in place and several thousand tons of copper, gold and silver ore had been mined. However, most of it remained in the mine dumps, according to Moen.

Around that time, a comprehensive geological inspection scared off all serious interest in developing mines, and the investment companies became increasingly desperate to convince investors that the district was a worthy prospect, geologist Horace W. Winchell wrote.

At the same time, prospectors began to realize that the old-growth trees that covered the claims were worth more than whatever copper lay underneath them, and began using the pretense of mining to secure and harvest more timber.

According to Moen's 1977 report for the DNR, copper ore from the mountain proved to be very low grade.

There were a handful of richer deposits, Moen wrote, but these were "blotchy and scattered," and revealed only a few hundred pounds of ore at a time.

Between 1903 and 1974, the U.S. Bureau of Mines reported that total metal production for the St. Helens and Washougal Mining Districts had a value of $27,000, according to Moen. (It is not clear from the report whether this figure was adjusted for 1977 dollars). Although more than 30 deposits around the district had been explored, only two mines — the Norway and Sweden camps near Spirit Lake, owned by Portland doctor and banker Henry Coe — ever appeared "to contain … tonnages and grades required for profitable mining on a small scale."

By 1916, attempts to develop mines in the St. Helens District had all but ceased, despite an increasing demand for copper caused by World War I. By 1926, all three of the companies that had explored the Mount Margaret claims now secured by Ascot had failed.

Interest in the district briefly revived during the Great Depression, when a handful of new claims were established. But a 1929 test of copper ore from Sweden mine proved once again to be of poor quality, and only a small amount of gold was produced. Because the promised railroads (and later truck roads) had never materialized, much of the district remained inaccessible, making it even more difficult to reap a profit from the scattered, mostly small deposits.

Renewed interest

The district was mostly forgotten until 1969, when Duval Corp., a mining company focused mostly on exploration and development of copper deposits in the Southwest, acquired two historic claims in an area that had previously been explored by the Germania Mining and Milling Co., Cascadia Mining and Development Co., and the Mount Saint Helens Consolidated Mining Co. between 1901 -05. Duval also staked two new adjoining claims.

During the 1970s, Duval drilled about 150 exploratory holes within four claim-blocks in the Goat Mountain area.

What Duval found during its exploration though is a bit of a mystery.

Coming soon: What did Duval's research reveal? And why, after a century of failed attempts, does Ascot believe they can make money on Goat Mountain?