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Underneath Lake Buchanan

An excerpt from

Lone Star Guide:

by Richard Zelade


A cleverly-planned narrow escape from a lynching, minerals we've managed to live without, and why it's imperative to hold your breath if and when you decide to visit Barringer Hill.

Over the years, we've remembered bits and pieces of stories, but could never remember their source. Some were funny; some were sad; some were unbelievable. When we bought the new edition of "Hill Country" by Richard Zelade we were suddenly reminded that most of the stories came from this book.

This is travel writing at its best. There's enough information to guide you, warn you and enough left over to read yourself to sleep. Mr. Zelade has graciously allowed us to excerpt this story from his book. - Editor

Lake Buchanan post card
It's a fine line between fishing in Lake Buchanan
and looking down on Barringer Hill
Old postcard, TE archives

Underneath Lake Buchanan

Buried beneath the waters of Lake Buchanan near the dam is the legendary Barringer Hill. Only a small mound of rock and dirt 34 feet taller than the surrounding country, Barringer Hill was not even remotely interesting in appearance to the average viewer. But in the words of the U.S. Geological Survey, "Few if any deposits in the world, and certainly no others in America, outside of the localities where monazite is found, have yielded such quantities of rare earth metals as that at Barringer Hill."

The mineral wealth contained in Barringer Hill was revealed in 1886 when its owner, John Barringer, was doing some prospecting. He accidentally found an outcropping of a heavy greenish-black ore, which he sent to scientists in Philadelphia. As a result, a Dr. Niven was sent to the hill, where he discovered 47 minerals, 5 of which were new to science. The ore Barringer had discovered was identified as gadolinite, which was used in early pre-incandescent electric lights. At that time the only gadolinite known in the world was located in Russia, so in 1889 Niven bought the hill for $5000 in gold for the Piedmont Mining Company.

Piedmont did not commence mining the hill in earnest until 1902. A little gadolinite went a very long way in those days, and only sporadic mining was necessary. Rare-earth minerals were quite valuable. Yttrium, of which gadolinite is roughly half composed, cost $144 per ounce in 1887. Shipments were wrapped in tissue paper and sent by express, encased in locked iron boxes.

When large-scale mining began in 1902, it lasted only a year. The incandescent light bulb had been invented, and the need for gadolinite was gone, in the face of much cheaper, wire filament. The Barringer Hill mine closed for good in 1904, and a man nearly lost his life as a result.

Marshall Hanks had been sent down by Westinghouse to supervise mining operations in 1903. Then he received orders to close the mine. The miners were boiling mad at the prospect of unemployment and Hanks had had nothing but trouble with them from the beginning of his stay. The miners had not been told what they had been extracting, and they imagined that they were mining radium. So they struck for hazardous duty pay. Hanks solved that problem, but soon afterward received the closing orders.

It took 13 boxes to hold all the mining equipment that was being shipped back to company headquarters at Pittsburgh, but there were 14 boxes on the railroad station loading dock in Llano. That last box contained Hanks, who rightly surmised that his former employees were out to kill him. Secreted in his box, he could hear the ex-miners rampaging through the streets of Llano in search of him. As they searched, workers loaded the crates onto the train. When the miners could not find Hanks, they began to suspect that he might be in one of the Pittsburgh-bound boxes. They marched to the station and demanded to search the boxes. But the Wells Fargo Express Company did not have a tougher-than-any-desperado reputation for nothing, and the miners didn't get past the angry express agent. Soon after, the train pulled out of Llano, and once it was out of the county the conductor pried open the right box and set Hanks free, alive and well by the skin of his teeth.

No more serious mining was done at Barringer Hill and it was one of the first areas to be covered by Lake Buchanan.

Courtesy author Richard Zelade
About the author :
According to his biographical sketch from his book Hill County, Richard is a writer, historian, explorer and bicyclist.

Readers' Comments

I very much enjoyed navigating your fascinating site and particularly enjoyed reading about Lake Buchanan and the Barringer Hill mine.

On this page you say: "A cleverly-planned narrow escape from a lynching, minerals we've managed to live without, and why it's imperative to hold your breath if and when you decide to visit Barringer Hill."

As one interested in chemistry, I must take gentle issue with your comment "minerals we've managed to live without...." Live without? Hardly, as it turns out.

Do you know anyone with a color TV set? The improved red/orange phosphor used in color TV picture tubes since the late 1960's and today's fluorescent lights use europium-activated yttria or yttrium vanadate. Apparently other sources of this again-valuable mineral have been discovered as the usage to make the red/orange phosphor amounts to considerable consumption of yttrium.

Here is a quote from the page on yttrium:

"Yttrium oxide is one of the most important compounds of yttrium and accounts for the largest use. It is widely used in making YVO4 europium and Y2O3 europium phosphors to give the red color in color television tubes. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds are now used in this application....."

Now, it is true that when Buchanan Dam was built and Lake Buchanan rose behind it in the late 30's, yttrium was of little commericial value, but as you can see, all this has changed. ...

Thank you for your kind attention and a most entertaining website. I want to visit the Hill Country some day -- I'm in Nebraska. -
Regards, Lee Lowry, December 07, 2002

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