Texas HistoryRare Earths, Buchanan Dam, and Federal Funding: A History of Baringer Hill

One of the largest deposits of rare-earth elements discovered in the Lone Star State now sits beneath a lake.
April 14, 2022
A hundred years ago, the modern technologies used every day — from computer chips to car batteries — would have been ideas left to the fanciful minds of writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

One geologist with the United States Geological Survey noted a Texas-sized treasure trove of rare-earth minerals, one of the key resources in the manufacturing of 21st-century inventions.

“Few if any other deposits in the world, and certainly no other in America [. . .] have yielded such amounts of the rare-earth metal minerals as Baringer Hill,” wrote surveyor Frank L. Hess in his 1907 report about the landmark geological discovery.

But to get to Baringer Hill now, one would need to drive almost 70 miles northwest of Austin, boat out into the middle of Lake Buchanan, and take a dive.

The Mine

The Texan Tumbler

The hill — which, according to Hess, was more of a “small mound” that originally “rose perhaps 40 feet above a surrounding flat, was about 100 feet wide, and from 200 to 250 feet long” — was mined for a brief period in the late 1800s and early 1900s before it was closed for good.

John Baringer first discovered the deposit and began initial excavations at the site.

William Hidden posing beside a mass of gadolinite at Baringer Hill. Photo from June 1905 issue of American Journal of Science.

Portions of gadolinite from Baringer Hill wound up in the hands of geologist William Hidden, and another mineralogist, William Niven, was sent to the site to conduct an analysis of the resources it contained.

According to a history of the site written by Arthur Smith, a member of the Houston Gem and Mineral Society, that was published in the September 2008 issue of The Backbender’s Gazette, Hidden purchased the hill from Baringer through Niven and then sold it to Thomas Edison’s Piedmont Mining Company.

Ownership of the mine then went to the Nernst Lamp Company, which was interested in using yttria found at the site for its street lamps.

But the company only needed to operate the mine sporadically for its needs.

“After enough yttria minerals are obtained to supply its wants for a few months ahead the mine is closed,” wrote Hess. “But a few hundred pounds per year are extracted.”

Marshall Hanks, an engineer who found a way to extend the life of the yttrium-powered Nernst lamps, was sent to Baringer Hill to run the mining operations.

But, per Richard Zelade’s Lone Star Travel Guide to Texas Hill Country, Hanks was disliked by the miners for his habits of secrecy.

The miners were also purportedly concerned about the potential dangers of their job in interacting with radioactive materials.

“[I]n mining ore of the largest pockets the faces and hands of [Hidden] and his assistant were affected as if by sunburn, and, as in sunburn, the covered flesh was not irritated,” wrote Hess. “He suggested radioactivity as the cause, and inasmuch as the minerals under consideration are radioactive, the explanation seems plausible.”

When Hanks received orders to close the mine, he had a harrowing escape from Texas.

The mining equipment was packed into crates on an outbound train in Kingsland. Hanks, who Zelade says thought “that his former employees were out to kill him,” hid in one of the crates while the shipping agent warded off the miners who were loudly searching for their boss.

Whether they actually intended to harm Hanks or, as Zelade puts it, “were just having a bit of fare-thee-well fun with their disliked, gullible, ex-boss,” is up for debate.

Though some more mining may have been done at Baringer Hill in the following decades, including “some sporadic feldspar mining” according to Smith, Hanks’ departure signaled the beginning of the end for the mine.

As lighting technologies continued to develop after the turn of the century, interest in yttrium — and thereby Baringer Hill — faded away.

The Dam

While work at the mine was largely abandoned, a different kind of work at a nearby site began: the construction of a dam on the Colorado River.

Decades before the rare earth minerals were discovered by Baringer, a young surveyor named Adam Rankin Johnson conceived a plan to build a dam along the river.

Despite some efforts, Johnson himself was never able to follow through on his dreams and construct a dam where he wanted. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, earning the nickname “Stovepipe” and losing his eyesight, and then went on to establish the community of Marble Falls.

But in the 1900s, more work began to build a dam where Johnson had originally planned.

Proponents of a dam saw numerous benefits: better irrigation for farmers, electricity generation, and flood control for the region of the state now sometimes called “Flash Flood Alley.”

As John Williams notes in his book, The Untold Story of the Lower Colorado River Authority, business magnate Samuel Insull became involved in the financing of a dam that began construction in the 1920s.

But when Insull’s business empire collapsed in the early 1930s, construction halted.

According to Williams, the project was left a little less than half complete with $3.9 million in sunk costs from Insull and other previous investors.

Following the collapse of the project, San Antonio businessman Ralph Morrison stepped in with a plan to finish the construction and begin generating electricity.

Morrison worked with former state senator Alvin Wirtz and Congressman James Paul Buchanan to devise a plan to solicit funding from the federal government to complete the project.

Portrait of James Paul Buchanan. Photo from the Legislative Reference Library.

Williams writes that Morrison first established the Colorado River Company and attempted to solicit funding from the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, but was unsuccessful because it was a private, for-profit corporation.

So the proponents got to work pushing legislation in the state to establish the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to oversee the project.

Efforts to create the new government entity initially stalled out, but Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was persuaded to call a fourth special session of the 43rd Legislature.

The first subject included in the call was: “Authority for completion of what is known as the Buchanan Dam or dams on the Colorado River as now proposed, and necessary funds therefor.”

With some opposition to the project in the legislature, Buchanan sent a telegram explaining his views on a few of the controversial amendments that had been proposed.

“If the Legislature will pass this bill with the amendment above mentioned eliminated I feel reasonably sure that the Federal Government ultimately will allot ten to fifteen million to complete the entire project,” wrote Buchanan, as recorded in the House journal.

In addition to completing the dam that was already named after him, the Buchanan Dam, the congressman said that Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration would also be able to help “three or four other dams on other good dam sites immediately below the Buchanan Dam.”

The legislation was ultimately approved by both chambers, and when all was said and done, Buchanan succeeded in funneling a fraction of the billions spent in Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program to complete the construction of the dam.

In 1937, Buchanan Dam was finished, Buchanan Lake was created, and Baringer Hill vanished.

Workers at the Buchanan Dam construction site in 1937. Photo from the Lower Colorado River Authority.


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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is the Marketing and Media Manager for The Texan. After graduating with a double-major in Political Science and Humanities, he wrote for The Texan as a reporter through June 2022. In his spare time, you're likely to find him working on The Testimony of Calvin Lewis, an Abolition of Man-inspired novel and theatrical podcast.