The Rocks at the Top of the World

The pit of Minas Ragra. Despite its small size the mine produced approximately 36,000 metric tons of vanadium during its 50 years of operation. (CHF Collections)

The pit of Minas Ragra. Despite its small size the mine produced approximately 36,000 metric tons of vanadium during its 50 years of operation. (CHF Collections)

Fernandini had no objection to selling: he knew he lacked the resources to develop the mine. He sold it to Flannery for 2,000 Peruvian pounds (approximately U.S. $10,000) and 10% of the stock in the new company, the American Sales Company. Flannery then established the American Vanadium Company, and the mine opened for business the very next year.

Equipment had to be lugged to the remote site, local miners hired, and lodging built for them. Only 201 metric tons of vanadium ore were mined in 1907, for a total of 28.2 metric tons of vanadium pentoxide (V2O5). Between the mining in Peru and the smelting in Pennsylvania, the ore traveled almost 3,800 miles (6,120 kilometers), first on the backs of llamas and then via rail and ship. Production quickly ramped up; by 1910 output had increased to 3,130 metric tons containing 702.4 metric tons of V2O5. The extremely high-grade ore contained up to 40% V2O5, consisting of patronite and its various oxide minerals.

The vanadium from Minas Ragra changed the world’s steel industry. Before Flannery’s purchase of the mine vanadium steel-alloy production in the United States was less than 1,000 tons per year; after the Minas Ragra mine and the Bridgeville smelter began operating, production increased to 800,000 metric tons in 1916, reaching an annual rate of 1,100,000 metric tons in 1919. Vanadium steel became a player in some of the major advances of the era: it appeared in parts of the Panama Canal lock gates and in the first plane-mounted cannon in World War I, as well as in Ford’s Model T.

The approximately 36,000 metric tons of V2O5 the Minas Ragra mine produced between 1907 and 1955 came from only a small area 360 feet (110 meters) in length, 32 feet (10 meters) wide, and 200 feet (60 meters) deep, inside of an open pit measuring only 850 feet (260 meters) by 400 feet (120 meters). This one small body of ore in Peru allowed its American owners to satisfy more than half the entire world’s demand for vanadium and to control the world vanadium market for over 50 years. For much of that time the ore was dug by hand, dumped into ore carts, and then pushed out of the mine by workers. Only in 1943 did a diesel locomotive replace hard labor in moving ore carts.

In 1909 Flannery learned that his sister had cancer. He withdrew from his vanadium interests and in 1911 established the Standard Chemical Company in Pittsburgh to concentrate on producing radium for cancer treatment. His former company carried on without him, though the mine twice became a victim of its own success. The rapid increase in vanadium production caused the price to collapse to the point where mine operations were shut down between 1912 and 1913 and again in 1922. Before ore was first dug out of Minas Ragra, vanadium had sold for $4,000 per pound. Soon after the mine closed for the first time, vanadium was selling for only $1.80 per pound.