The Rocks at the Top of the World

[LEFT] The Jumasha beneficiation plant, where ore underwent initial separation. [RIGHT] The site of the camp and the ore-loading facility in 2011. (CHF Collections; Atsushi Gomi)

[LEFT] The Jumasha beneficiation plant, where ore underwent initial separation. [RIGHT] The site of the camp and the ore-loading facility in 2011. (CHF Collections; Atsushi Gomi)

In 1919 the mine was sold again, to Jacob L. Replogle and Charles M. Schwab, who had established the Vanadium Corporation of America. The two wanted to secure sources of specialty steel and went on to buy other vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten mines and smelters in Colorado, where vanadium was produced as a by-product of uranium mining. A year later the new owners decided to install rail at Minas Ragra. A 4-mile- long (6 kilometer) railway was built between the mine and the Jumasha beneficiation plant (where the ore underwent initial separation) located on the west shore of Lake Punrún. An additional 16 miles (26 kilometers) of rail were laid from the east side of the lake to Ricrán railway station. In 1924 the railway opened, and the llamas were retired from their ore-carrying duties.

But by 1929 the high-grade vanadium ore was nearly exhausted, and attempts to treat low-grade ore proved unsuccessful. The mine closed in 1930, only to reopen in 1934 when a new process to treat low-grade ore was introduced. The ore was calcined with salt and the vanadium leached out with sulfuric acid. Production of V2O5 reached 2,073 metric tons in 1940 and continued until 1955, by which time the mine’s mineral reserves were almost exhausted. The mine closed, its workings were dismantled, and in 1959 the mineral claims were abandoned.

Today, the main sources of vanadium come from deposits of titaniferous magnetite in South Africa, China, and Russia, and uranium-bearing sandstone and phosphate rock in the United States. Most of these contain less than 2% V2O5, only a twentieth of the amount contained in Minas Ragra ore at its peak. Other vanadium sources include heavy petroleum, oil sand, and coal. The total world production is approximately 100,000 metric tons of V2O5 per year.

The open-pit mine at Minas Ragra is now filled with water, but the railway grades and the foundations of the beneficiation plant at Jumasha still remain visible. High in the Andes, they serve as monuments to the first commercial vanadium production in the world.

Atsushi Gomi is the chief representative of the Peruvian branch of Mitsui Mining & Smelting Company, Ltd., and the president of its subsidiary company, Compañia Minera Santa Luisa S.A.

Robert Whetham is a retired land-use planner and author of several books on railway subjects, including two recent publications on the history of railway development in Peru.