(By Geno Ludwig/Chewelah Independent)
Despite environmental concerns, Magnesite Plant continues to host business activity…
In 1923, six years after the Northwest Magnesite Company began operating its plant south of Chewelah, a local farmer named John Ehorn filed a law suit against the company. Ehorn owned 106 acres near the plant and alleged that the dust and smoke particles from the plant was destroying his crops and was killing his cattle which ate the crops. He claimed that the dust from the plant’s smoke stacks settled on his land and formed a crust that hampered the growth of his crops. Four of his livestock had died.
Furthermore, Ehorn asked the court to stop operations of the plant until the company fixed the problem.
After the judge personally visited the property and inspected the apparent destruction, the court awarded Ehorn $9,932 in damages to his crops and $1,150 for the loss of his livestock.
The Northwest Magnesite Company appealed the decision, claiming that the amount awarded by the court was excessive and reported that since the suit had been filed it had installed dust arresting devices in its smoke stacks that would prevent 92 percent of the dust from going into the air. The appeal was denied.
Today, 94 years later and nearly 50 years since the closing of the plant, bumper crops of alfalfa hay are being harvested in the southern end of the Chewelah Valley. Could this possibly be partly due to the residual magnesite dust in the soil?
“No, I don’t think so,” said longtime farmer Glen Hafer, “This year’s hay crop is due to the rain and the flooding of the valley this spring.
“I don’t think the dust from the plant did that much to help or harm the soil, but there were times when the smoke was bad.
“Clay soil was the biggest problem here in the valley. My grandfather, Eli Hafer homesteaded this land beginning in 1892, back when the valley was known as Fool’s Prairie. That was because only a fool would try to farm it then because of the clay soil.”
Loren Hagen, who owns the land directly west of the plant site, agrees with Hafer.
“This year’s hay crops are due to the wet cool spring, not to magnesium in the soil,” he said.
However, he has had a much different experience with the effect of magnesite in the soil.
“We bought 80 acres just west of the plant, and we couldn’t get anything to grow there,” Hagen explained. “When we had the soil tested, it was toxic with magnesium. It was off the chart. So, we added manure, potassium, and phosphorus to the soil three years in a row, and now it is finally producing alfalfa.”
When more modern steel-making technology was developed, the Bessemer process quickly became obsolete, whereby magnesite was no longer needed. Therefore, the Northwest Magnesite Company shut down its kilns in 1968, never to rotate again, and threatening to turn Chewelah into a ghost town.
Originally, the sudden need for magnesite surfaced at the beginning of World War One in 1914. Prior to that, steel mills in the United States got their magnesite from Austria. But, when Austria became an enemy, shipments ceased and the US government started a countrywide search for domestic magnesite to support the war effort.
A constant supply of steel was needed to make all kinds of military weaponry. Geologists confirmed the existence of a magnesite belt, called the Stensgar Dolomite Formation, extending 30 miles along the eastern side of the Huckleberry Range west of Chewelah, and quarrying began in 1916.
Chemically speaking, magnesite is a close cousin to limestone, dolomite, and marble. In fact, the first magnesite deposits found here were being mined as marble. R. S. Talbot identified the U.S. Marble Company's Keystone quarry as magnesite. He acquired it, organized the Washington Magnesite Company, and started immediate production.
This deposit had been opened as a marble quarry and was operated for perhaps 18 years by the U.S. Marble Company.
Sometimes it was referred to as the green marble quarry because the rock was stained with green streaks.
Likewise, the Red Marble deposit had been opened to produce marble. The rock was reddish a color, hence the name. The deposit was identified as magnesite, not marble, by Raymond Allen of Ione in the summer of 1916.
By 1918, the Northwest Magnesite Company became the world’s largest producer of steel production grade magnesite, shipping over 94,000 tons to the mills in the East.
After a lull during the Great Depression, the beginning of World War Two signaled another strategic need for magnesite, and the plant responded by upping production to nearly 500 tons per day.
The installing of a floatation mill near the washing and crushing facilities at the Finch Quarry also helped increase production. (That is a different story to possibly be told later.)
Today, like with the Pyramids of Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome, only hints of what really took place at the Northwest Magnesite plant have survived. The tall smoke stack still stands, but all of the exhaust ducting from the furnaces and the waste-collection bins have been removed.
During production, ash was filtered out so that only smoke went up the chimney. This waste was dumped in an area on the northwest side of the plant.
A scrap metal business, Terrific Auto Salvage, now sits where the inclined railroad ramp brought carloads of coal for the furnaces and dumped their contents onto a huge pile.
A conveyor belt then transported the coal to be crushed into powder and fed to the furnaces.
White Stone Calcium, Inc., a wholesale marble products manufacturing company currently uses the south end of the plant to crush and bag 12 colors of rock into a variety of sizes and blends. The rock is used for terrazzo floors, precast building products, and landscaping, with an output of that averages 850 bags per day. The company currently has 18 full-time employees. Future plans call for the eventual demolition of all the Northwest Magnesite buildings, replacing them with modern covered storage structures.
The company has enjoyed a 35 percent expansion since 2012.
Wildfire Cannabis, a recreational marijuana growing business, now occupies the old Thermax plant on the north side of the site. (Thermax was a material that was manufactured into thick sheets of insulation.)
Wildfire Cannabis has a five-year plan to expand its business. This includes the tearing down of all of the old magnesite plant buildings and replacing them with new ones.
Currently, Wildfire is using 34,000 square feet of indoor space and 30,000 square feet of outdoor growing space, with expansion taking place this summer. It currently grows 12 different strains of marijuana and hopes to exceed a million dollars in sales this year.
Only sections of the east side of the magnesite plant with its scale and storage bins facing the highway still remain, but only as a façade. The rest of the plant has been gutted. When the plant was closed, everything that could be sold was sold. All else was cut into scrap metal, from the tram buckets to the rotary furnaces.
However, the success and planned expansion of the new business now operating on the property are providing employment for local workers and are contributing to the area’s economy.
For those few who still remember the magnesite plant in its heyday, it now only exists in the recesses of their memories. Some photos have survived, but, unfortunately, there is no longer anyone left to tell their stories.