The Magnesite of Chewelah

The backbone of two world wars

The Northwestern Magnesite Company, with its main processing plant just south of Chewelah, Washington and various mines and quarries in Northeastern Washington, helped supply a majority of the nation’s magnesite which used to be an integral component in the production of steel.

As war erupted in Europe in July of 1914, its effects hit the shores of the United States years before its own entry into the war. In the industrialized world of the early 1900s steel was a much needed, if generally available resource. However, the process of making steel that was used then required a mineral called magnesite. This resource was mostly mined and exported to the world by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the world descended into conflict the Austrians, aligned with the Central Powers against the Entente, limited the export of strategic goods, magnesite included. This put a large strain on the United States and the steel mills that imported it.

The United States responded to this crisis by putting out a call to surveyors and geologists across the states to look for any sign of major deposits of magnesite. A man named R. S. Talbot was searching the Huckleberry and Selkirk mountain ranges for dolomite, a related mineral, for the Inland Empire Paper Co. of which he was the Vice President. He was given a sample especially rich with magnesite, and after having it tested and discovering it for what it was, he proceeded to cut ties with the paper company and worked towards forming his own company; The Northwest Magnesite Company.

Forming the main office in Spokane, a secondary office in San Francisco for the Board of Directors to meet in, and a smaller office in Chewelah itself for the accounting department. Of note in board members, other than Talbot himself, were B. I. Thane, manager of the Alaskan Gold Mines company, and F. B. Morse, manager of the Pacific Improvement company. The company was started in late 1916, with one of Talbot’s first moves being acquiring the U.S. Marble Co.’s Keystone Quarry in the area after discovering that the marble being quarried there was in fact magnesite. By August of the next year, it was producing 225 to 250 tons of refined magnesite to send to steel mills. As the war neared its end there was a fear that the company, which by that point was employing roughly a thousand local workers, would be forced closed by reopened trade routes with Austria bringing magnesite back to the east coast. However, the production and quality of the magnesite out of Chewelah was able to keep the company in business through even World War Two. The company lasted until 1968 when a faster method of forging steel was developed. After the plant closed the machinery was sold off or scrapped, ending the fifty-year life of the Northwest Magnesite Company.