Europeans came to the New World, not for land, but for minerals. England had hopes for a harvest of gold and silver from North America, much as Spain had brutally reaped in Central and South America. In Virginia (and what became Maryland) they were to be disappointed.
The early "Adventurers" were just that. They expected, not to farm or fish to feed themselves, nor to grow crops for money. They were continually "discovering" (exploring) up the river- the James, Potomac, Patuxent, Patapsco-in search of anything....ANYTHING, that looked like gold.
Exploring the Potomac, John Smith and his crew discovered what was either Rock Creek in today's District of Columbia or Aquia Creek on the Virginia shore and found glittering stones, which the native Americans traditionally pulverized and spread on their skin for decoration. Although John Smith knew better, his companions eventually barreled up this "spangled scurf" and shipped it to England to be tried for gold.
It was worthless. Fool's gold; the iron pyrites that have fooled prospectors for ages. On the Aquia, though, the pyrites were eventually mined for their own value, as a source of sulfur, among other things for the manufacture of sulfuric acid.
Sulfur, also obtained in times of tranquil trade from volcanic vents in the Caribbean, was vital in the domestic manufacture of gunpowder. With sulfur from pyrite, nitre from aged livestock manures and carbon from charcoal, one could wage war. The names Powdermill Road and Gunpowder River reflect this legacy.
During his exploration of the Patapsco John Smith wrote: "that the clay in many places under the cliffs by the high water mark, did grow up in red and white knots as gum out of trees; and in some places so participated together as though they were of one nature, excepting the color, the rest of the earth on both sides being hard, sandy gravel which made us think it bole armeniac..."
Bole clays are often rich in iron, and in 1608, the practical Smith shipped barrels of ore back to England. Smelting for local use began as early as 1681 and deposits were later dug in what is today the Canton district of Baltimore, as well as beneath the point of land later occupied by Ft. McHenry.
In the 18th century, one Charles Carroll raised a son, also named Charles Carroll. The son, together with a man believed to be his cousin called Charles Carroll "the Barrister," formed the Baltimore Company to exploit these mineral resources.
Whole regions of England are monumented with the tall, masonry chimneys of long-abandoned smelters and refiners works, although the toxicological effects of their tailings and slags will shape and stunt vegetation for centuries.
Both copper and tin were similarly smelted. These two metals were useful in themselves, but when combined in proper proportion, they produced the alloy bronze, a durable metal still used to make some of the best marine hardware and ship's fittings in the world.
This rough technology was transplanted to the American Colonies and with similar environmental effects. At least three copper mines were operating in Colonial times but it's not known when the extraction began. All the Maryland mines were located in what have become Frederick and Carroll counties and the Bare Hills site near Baltimore.
Copper, with its many industrial, domestic and maritime uses, became a significant contaminant in Chesapeake Bay, with the highest mainstem values clustering in and around the ports of Baltimore and the lower James River. It is the "active ingredient" in ship anti-fouling paints, which protect hulls against destructive shipworms and the costly slowing effects of dense barnacle growth.
But, a mineral of further importance to the Bay was in the serpentine rock outcroppings near Jones Falls, at Bare Hill and Soldier's Delight. (Soldier's Delight has an unusual history. It was land given to surviving veterans of the American Revolution in thanks for their service.
Depauperate thanks, gentlemen: These sites were poor in vegetation and often without trees-a poor bet for struggling farmers in an agrarian economy.)
People from Cornwall at least knew that this greenish mineral, with darker streaks or flecks of red and yellow, was soft enough to be sawn and polished as building stone. This "Maryland green marble," as it is called by some, is incorporated in some Baltimore churches. It was used as interior trim in New York City's Empire State Building.
Serpentine is also an extractable chromite ore. But, it was up to Isaac Tyson, born in 1792, to begin mining this in 1808 and processing it into chemicals in a facility at Fells Point on the Patapsco, where tobacco ships were laden in the 1600s. His products became the basis for a dark yellow, paint pigment called "ocher." (George III's son, George IV, ruled England from 1820-1830. His daughter Princess Charlotte, fancied this ocher yellow and had her carriage painted with it, a tradition carried to the present.)
As chromium oxide, it produces a dark green paint long associated with park benches and house shutters. Chrome salts are also used to tan leather. Then there's chromium itself, the durable corrosion-resistant metal, which long became the symbolic trim on all U.S. cars!
The trivalent chromium ion, however, is both biologically active and very toxic. One hundred and forty years of activity at the site created a serious metal contamination that has spread from and lies beneath more modern facilities at Fells Point, and is one of the most serious contamination sites along the Bay. This thorny problem which has its roots in early America, may have finally been contained by modern technology, at a cost of more than $100 million to stabilize the site.
It's important when we decry problems with toxics in the Bay and ask, "Why isn't the government (or all those big polluters) doing something to clean up these problems?" to know that many sources of contamination are rooted in the interaction between geological and human history. Still, while we may have explanations for how some of our problems arose in the past, these aren't excuses for not facing up to the required remedies.