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Gossan Mines shaped life in the Iron Ridge community of Carroll County for 57 years, while workers hauled pyrrhotite ore out of the ground for General Chemical.
Mine superintendent Fred E. Johnson oversaw the day-to-day operations at Gossan as part of an international mining career.
Always associated with the extractive industry in his professional life, Johnson earned the moniker “Hardrock.”
Before his death in 1999, Johnson penned a mining memoir called “The Boy Who Became ‘Hardrock,’” including the most lucid account available of work in the Gossan Mines.
“This book is history, from the late thirties to the seventies, featuring a segment of the life of the author in his most adventurous years, with some of his associates, all graduates of the University of Arizona,” according to a preface at http://home.comcast.net/~kirkej/hardrock/book.htm for Johnson’s life story, published entirely online.
“The author is a mining engineer who was placed in charge of a Philippine mine from its earliest unproductive stage to a bonanza stage which was interrupted by the invasion of Luzon by the Japanese army,” the website said, offering an example of one of Johnson’s adventures.
After getting a job with General Chemical and serving a year as an engineer at another company mine called Jamestown in Colorado, officials sent Johnson to Virginia to be superintendent of its mines in Carroll County.
“It produced pyrrhotite, a high sulfur iron sulfide which the company flash roasted at Pulaski, Va., to produce sulfuric acid,” Johnson wrote about the Gossan.
Workers at the mine pulled 1,000 tons of ore per day out of the ground, the former superintendent noted. The ore could be “upgraded,” by being sent through a mill, dried in a rotating kiln and passed over vibrating screens to end up with a fine powder.
“The dust, if allowed to accumulate, was inclined to ignite by spontaneous combustion, producing a colorless gas of sulfur dioxide, which could be detected only by smell,” Johnson wrote.
For more on the hazards of mining, see GOSSAN MINES: A dangerous place to work.
Also: read the story of Randall Warf, one of the brave men who worked Gossan. He survived World War II only to die under "The Ridge." — see GOSSAN MINES: Miner's family laments their loss.
Gossan had seen its peak production of pyrrhotite during World War II. Conditions had declined by the time Johnson got there, according to the memoir.
“The property, which was required to produce at top capacity during the war and with minimum maintenance, had not kept up its ore reserves or repairs,” the Gossan mines superintendent wrote.
Contributing to tensions at the mine was the rise of unionized labor and a previous superintendent that had been “inadequate” in the challenge of managing the mine, according to the book.
“Into this situation, Fred needed all his skills of diplomacy,” Johnson wrote, referring to himself in the third person, as the latest superintendent to enter the situation.
“[Company official] R. H. Dickson, a wartime Colonel, in the New York office, was under extreme pressure to keep the cost of Gossan production very low, otherwise he would lose his largest mine,” the memoir said. “The labor group, feeling the power of their newest union, were set to exercise that power, in every petty detail. The new superintendent found the grievance committee in his office at the drop of a hat.”
Energy at the mines on Sundays got directed towards a wide range of repairs, including replacement of decaying oak timbers in the mine shaft, cleaning out the combustible dust from the mill, inspecting the lining of the ore dryer.
Johnson, his notebook in hand detailing the schedule of maintenance on his regular mine and mill tours, brought the operation back up to speed, averting the possibility of a shutdown by the company — at least for a while.
That’s not to imply that Johnson found oversight of the mines an easy task.
“The crew were all mountain born, set in their ways, and not at all sympathetic with ideas brought in by someone from the West,” Johnson recalled. “The biennial labor contract negotiations were always a struggle. The superintendent was nominally in charge, assisted by a lawyer from corporate headquarters.”
Union representatives would insist on benefits like higher pay or “featherbedding,” but negotiations always ended in settlements and never a strike.
(That unions had gained that much leverage in the Twin Counties is not often discussed.)
During its heyday, Gossan Mines was quite the industrious place.
“Gossan Mines had a sawmill, utilizing timber from its largely forested 2,000 acres of land,” Johnson wrote. “Oak for mine timber, maple for flooring, and other woods, were harvested. The property was all land which had been farmed in early days.”
The small village — complete with store, school and houses that the company set up — had its own water system.
Johnson oversaw a replacement supply pipe installation, after the old cast iron pipe sealed with oakum and lead became decrepit with age.
But the new water ran with a strong flavor of creosote, the superintendent recalled. It was deemed unpalatable at first.
“The chief of Galax's water department came out, made a careful inspection of the system,” Johnson remembered. “’Too much chlorine.’ The mine system was purified by liquid chlorine, fed at the well. The chlorine feed was adjusted down and in due course the taste of the water returned to normal.”
Despite all the hard work Johnson invested in the Gossan mines, the family felt the pull of home calling them back closer to their roots.
“The Johnsons were none too happy with life on Iron Ridge,” it said as the chapter on their Virginia lives closed. “Their Christmas card in 1952 mentioned that they were eager to return to the West.”
Ten years later, General Chemical decided to shutter Gossan Mines, after 57 years in operation, putting 90 workers out of a job in 1962.
Company officials explained that the shutdown had been forced by the “depletion of high grade ore reserves and other economic factors,” according to a March 26, 1962, Gazette report on the closure.
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