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OPINION | REX NELSON: Bauxite mining country

by Rex Nelson | January 6, 2021 at 4:16 a.m.

In Sunday's column, I wrote about the monumental changes seen in Saline County since my father grew up there during the Great Depression. In the 1940 census, when my dad was still in high school at Benton, the county's population was 19,163. There are now an estimated 125,000 people living in Saline County.

In those years before white flight out of Little Rock changed this into a county of commuters, Saline County was identified by most Arkansans as the center of the state's bauxite mining industry. Bauxite was first mined in Arkansas in 1896, nine years after state geologist John Branner identified its presence in Pulaski County.

"The Arkansas bauxite region covers about 275 square miles in the northern part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and is divided into two mining districts," J. Michael Howard writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "One is in Pulaski County, south and east of Little Rock, and the other is in nearby Saline County, northeast and east of Benton. Many of the early-mined Arkansas bauxite deposits were exposed on the surface as outcrops or were beneath only a thin layer of sedimentary cover. Consequently, surface-mining methods were initially the most practical and economical.

"Before and during World War II, significant tonnages were mined underground. Some years after the war, surface operations resumed. Open-pit panel mining has been the normal surface method used since the early 1960s. A strip or block of bauxite is exposed and mined, and then another panel is exposed. The first panel is normally refilled with waste rock. Several panels typically were open at the same time to supply the proper blend of ores to meet mill specifications. Beginning in the early 1900s, major reclamation projects were begun to restore not only the recently mined land but much of the land that was disturbed before reclamation laws went into effect."

Arkansas provided almost 90 percent of the bauxite mined in this country during the 20th century. World War II sped up construction of aluminum plants in the area. The last year in which bauxite was mined in Arkansas for aluminum was 1982.

"Tonnages of bauxite mined in Arkansas increased much more slowly than U.S. national consumption because larger deposits supplying higher-grade bauxite were readily available in the Caribbean region," Howard writes. "In the early stages of World War II, merchant freighters carrying bauxite to the United States suffered losses to enemy submarines. The tonnage of bauxite mined in Arkansas quickly increased to meet wartime demands for aluminum, which was especially critical to the military aircraft industry.

"During the war, the federal government essentially controlled national production of certain strategic minerals like bauxite. In 1943, more than 6 million long tons (2,240 pounds per long ton) of bauxite were mined. Small tonnages continued to be mined after mining for aluminum ended. This bauxite was used in the production of a variety of alumina-based materials, including various chemicals, abrasives and propants (high-density spherical grains that are used in the oil and gas industry to fracture formations and maximize gas or oil flow)."

In the late 1800s, large tracts of land in Saline County were purchased by the Southern Bauxite & Mining Co. In 1895, General Bauxite Co. acquired that property. The company mined and shipped its first bauxite in 1896. The area was known as Perrysmith until the name was changed to Bauxite in 1903. Bauxite was a company town from the start. The company built churches, a general store, the post office, a barbershop and a movie theater.

In 1905, Pittsburgh Reduction Co. bought out General Bauxite. In 1907, the name of the company was changed to Aluminum Company of America (later shortened to Alcoa).

"Perhaps the most important thing the company built was a school, parts of which are still used," Laura Harrington writes for the encyclopedia. "Services were reserved for workers and their families. For example, employees paid a small amount into the hospital fund each month, but then the hospital would treat miners and their families at little to no additional cost. With the outbreak of World War I came a higher demand for bauxite ore, which was used to make a variety of war supplies, the most important being aluminum. More workers were brought into the mines, and this meant a need for houses.

"The company built various housing settlements or camps for its employees with names such as Alabama Town, Church Row, Italy, Mexico and Africa. Like much of America at the time, camps were segregated. The inhabitants of Italy were Italian, those in Mexico were Mexican and the ones in Africa were African American. The company treated its employees well during the turbulent years of the Great Depression. A company farm produced vegetables that were given to employees. One resident remembered the huge turnip patch the company provided. It covered four acres, and turnips were free." Water was furnished at no cost.

After the start of World War II, the U.S. government needed aluminum to build planes. The chairman of the War Production Board requested that Alcoa mine bauxite ore three shifts a day. Thousands of miners were brought in from across the country.

The Hurricane Creek plant, which transformed the ore into aluminum, opened in 1942. In early 1982, Reynolds Metals Co. closed and disassembled that plant. The community of Bauxite had ceased to operate as a company-owned town in July 1969.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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