A Story About Thomas Edison's Brief Attempt To Mine Gold In New Mexico

Edison's Folly

By Dr. Ralph E. Pray

Long before Los Alamos became the brain center of the Atomic Age, America's foremost scientific mind of the time, Thomas Alva Edison, made the long train journey from his famous Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory to meet the challenge of recovering gold from the difficult ore in the Ortiz Mountains southeast of Santa Fe. Santa Fe County had the first North America gold rush west the Mississippi. The 1828 discovery attracted 4,000 fortune seekers to the 95 square mile grant bestowed by the Spanish government upon Jose Francisco Ortiz. The vast placer gold area contained loose small specks and flakes of gold in the high desert sand. Water was needed to separate the heavy gold from the less dense sand. But water was not available, and mining became dormant by the 1880's.

Edison's arrival on the scene a dozen years later followed his invention of a machine designed to separate non-magnetic iron ore from sand-like particles in the absence of water. He was heavily engaged in iron ore mining and processing in the east. His electrostatic separator Accepted a thin film of dry particles to pass over an electrically charged drum. He learned that gold, like his iron ore, would stick to the drum while sand was repelled by it. When Mr. Edison heard about the Ortiz Mountain placer gold perched high above available water, he obtained a sample for testing. It was an immediate success. Using his machine in the laboratory, the New Mexico gold was separated from sand without the use of water. Edison signed a 1ease on 54,000 Ortiz acres in January, 1898. Shipments of mill machinery began immediately by rail and horse-drawn wagons. By the time the mill had been built, With its multiple conveyor belt assemblies, bucket elevators, engines, generators, sand screens And static machines, he had already spent $500,000. Preliminary testing began in mid-summer, 1898.

One of the first results, a decided departure from the laboratory success, indicated that the sand an inch or two below the sun-baked surface contained enough moisture to short-circuit the electrostatic drum. The feed to his machinery would have be dried. It was a major disappointment, but the optimistic, hard-driving Edison forged ahead. One disaster after another struck down his attempts get his mill into production. Rain from sudden storms drenched the outdoor mill components, washing sand down the conveyor Belts into the machinery. Metal gears broke apart and bearings melted. Power and conveyor belts snapped. Harsh winter set in. The entire operation was suspended in late November when a blizzard isolated the area. Everything froze. Workers from Cerillos failed to show up. The Wizard of Menlo Park donned many layers of clothing to ward off the bitter cold. He worked until he exhausted, once collapsing in sleep on the floor before reaching his bed.

He finally shut the operation down for the winter of the following year. Edison commuted by rail between Menlo Park and New Mexico, stopping in the midwest to Tell the St. Louis Republic, and the nation, on September 10, 1899, "This process for extracting gold from sand is certainly the biggest thing I ever invented. Near Santa Fe, New Mexico is a region of 10 square miles containing gold worth 800 million dollars. (At the time, gold was selling for $20.67 per ounce. At its present value, his estimate would be worth 15 billion dollars.) Edison's attempts on site proved, repeatedly how futile the working process was compared to controlled laboratory conditions.

By 1903, the Edison mill in the Ortiz Mining District was closed, ending his interest in the area. Left behind, and still there, are the many screened heaps of desert surface, coarse portions full of large rock, cactus and gray pinon wood, beside large heaps of fine sand made ready for Edison's machinery. At the time Edison was struggling with New Mexico gold, his engineers were scouring the world for tungsten, the metal employed as the filament in his newly developed electric light bulb.

Exactly 50 years later curious students at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, working with a sample from one of Edison's heaps, found tungsten in it. The discovery was confirmed throughout the placer area and prompted large-scale drilling. The electrostatic separator did not go the way of the Ortiz project. A now vastly improved machine serves a wide variety of metallic and non-metallic industries around the world.

Published in New Mexico Magazine, July 1999.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy 805 S Shamrock Ave Monrovia, CA 91016

Telephone: 626-357-6511 Fax: 626-358-8386