Tom Dillard: Mineral Cove a treasure trove of raw materials and great stories

When driving from Malvern to Hot Springs on U.S. 270, I often take a short detour through one of the most interesting and unusual places in the state: Magnet Cove.

Geologist Michael J. Howard has written that Magnet Cove is "about the most mineralized five square miles in Arkansas." The very name points to the unusual geology of the area.

Magnet Cove is in the Ouachita Mountains, about 12 miles southeast of Hot Springs. It is, according to Howard, "a 100-million-year-old igneous intrusion of some rare and unusual rock types."

Igneous rocks are made from magma or lava, which has hardened after reaching the surface of the Earth. It is called an intrusion because it was not an erupting volcano; the magma cooled and solidified near the surface. The shallow intrusion later collapsed, creating a depression, which over time eroded into what Howard described in a recent email as "a subdued caldera-like form."

Humans have been attracted to the area that became Magnet Cove for thousands of years. A large deposit of novaculite, which was prized by Indians for projectile points, was mined long before the arrival of Europeans.

The first mention of Magnet Cove in the Arkansas Gazette appeared in 1833 when U.S. postal authorities advertised a weekly mail route from Little Rock to the Hempstead courthouse, with Magnet Cove being a stop.

Postal service no doubt made Magnet Cove a more appealing place to settle; the area also attracted migrants for its productive agricultural soil, numerous streams and the nearby Ouachita River. Its access was greatly enhanced by the location nearby of the military road stretching from Little Rock to Texas.

An early visitor to Magnet Cove was George W. Featherstonhaugh, an English geologist and traveler, who left an interesting account. He arrived there on Nov. 28, 1834, having received an invitation from James. S. Conway, the territorial surveyor general.

Conway, who would soon become Arkansas' first governor, owned considerable land at the Cove, though his major plantation was in Lafayette County.

As a surveyor, Conway knew the area was geologically unusual because "the [compass] needle would not traverse on approaching this locality ..." That fact accounts for the name Magnet.

Featherstonhaugh, whose name was apparently pronounced "Fan-shaw," was properly impressed by the mineral richness of the site. He recognized that the minerals were igneous: "Upon considering all the circumstances connected with this cove, the intrusive character of its rock, their distinct origin and separation from the sandstone, its minerals, the quasi-crater form of the cove, and the immense deposit of magnetic iron, I could but be impressed with the opinion that Magnet Cove owes its origin to an ancient volcanic action ..."

As Featherstonhaugh prepared to leave the area to continue his journey toward Mexico, he was full of praise for Magnet Cove: "I left this place full of admiration; if it were in social respects a desirable situation for a residence, the proprietor would certainly possess one of the most enviable estates in America."

Society was indeed wanting when Featherstonhaugh was visiting, but settlers began to arrive in a short time. They found good rolling farmland, an abundance of timber, and several springs and creeks. Soon the area sported both a gristmill and sawmill.

Churches would be established with time, mostly Baptists and Methodists. Today the Methodist congregation meets in a picture-perfect structure resting atop a rise.

Early church houses often served as schools. Today the area is served by the Magnet Cove Public Schools, which have grown dramatically in the past two decades.

Exploitation of the unusual minerals found at Magnet Cove was slow to materialize. Albert Pike, a Whig political leader, among many other things, promoted the Cove as a tremendous resource. Addressing a railroad convention in Little Rock in July 1852, Pike spent much of his speech on the "inexhaustible" coal deposits -- "as good "as the best Liverpool" -- but he also drew attention to Magnet Cove, "where the volcanic fires ... shot up."

Not all the promoters were well intentioned. In 1880, one man claimed falsely to have found a trace of gold and "a rich silver ore."

About 100 minerals have been identified at Magnet Cove, many of them rare. Perhaps the most widely mined mineral commercially is vanadium. It is used for a multitude of purposes, most importantly as a strengthening alloy in iron and steel.

Union Carbide Co. discovered vanadium deposits at two locations in the Ouachitas: one at the cove and one nearby in Garland County. In 1966 Union Carbide opened a vanadium processing mill near Hot Springs and began mining at the Garland County site.

Barite was mined extensively at Magnet Cove, the mineral being used primarily in oil drilling applications.

A titanium mine operated from 1932-1943. Titanium is used as an alloy to make metals such as aluminum stronger for aerospace and other uses ranging from orthopedic implants to mobile phones. Titanium was present in several forms.

One of the rarest minerals found at Magnet Cove is kimzeyite, a dark brown zirconium-rich garnet. It was named for Joe W. Kimzey, a local resident and landowner, who served in both houses of the state Legislature during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a self-taught geologist, and served in the 1940s as Arkansas State Geologist. He was a dedicated promoter of Magnet Cove.

In 2000, the community was incorporated with 467 residents. Six years later the town voted to repeal the incorporation. No commercial mining is currently carried out at Magnet Cove.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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