Barringer Hill

William P. Niven, a practical geologist, archaeologist, and mineralologist, among his many other talents, figures greatly in the following story. Niven discovered buried cities in Mexico, notably, Atzcapotzalco, which he and a German geologist assessed to be 12,000 years old. Niven’s just claim to fame was largely overshadowed by Col. James Churchward who incorporated Niven’s very real discoveries into a series of mystical fantasies centered around an Atlantis-style sunken Pacific continent he called Mu. Mu itself, seems to be a conflation of the discoveries of Augustus LePlongeon and the writings of Helena Blavatsky, though Churchward claimed much of it was derived from his own research and discoveries. Whatever his source, William P. Niven’s discoveries were, in my opinion, vastly more significant.
When I recently went to my bookmark on Barringer Hill, I found it was gone. Fortunately it had been archived elsewhere and so in the spirit of preserving this fascinating, informative information here as a kind of backup.

The Story of Barringer’s Hill
by Jean Hackett and Robert Wilkes
At times during the 1990’s, Lake Buchanan in central Texas has looked a little low. During the Drought of 1996, racked mud flats and ghostly tree stumps created a damp, stinking moonscape on what is usually the lake bed. Water-skiers, fishermen, and anyone who got water from the lake looked to the skies and prayed for enough rain to raise the lake level. Not so for geologists and rock hounds! Secretly, they wished the lake would continue to fall– by about 90 feet or so–far enough down to expose what the United States Geological Survey has described as one of the greatest deposits of rare-earth minerals in the world: Barringer Hill.

Despite its geological significance, Barringer Hill was really only a “mound,” 34 feet high and covering a few acres of floodplain, visible only because it proved to be more resistant to erosion than the surrounding granite. Prior to the construction of Buchanan Dam in 1937, it was located on the west bank of the Colorado River, 12 miles north of Kingsland, just downstream from Bluffton, between Redrock and Campground creeks. It’s location is best shown on the 1912 USGS Areal Map (11). (Click here to see > More Maps.)

The late Virgil Barnes, a senior geologist from the Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, visited the area on a number of occasions during the 1930’s out of curiosity and to collect rocks from around the burned remains of the Barringer homestead. As he recalls the place, by that time, it was just a mass of milky quartz that “looked like a lot of other places in the Hill Country, except that it stood out like a sore thumb.”

Barren quartz pillar near center of Barringer Hill pegmatite (8). Full Size Image, 167K JPEG

The origins of Barringer Hill lie deep in the past. Around 1.1 billion years ago, North America was on the march. As slowly churning convection currents in the mantle pushed the continent along, the relatively thin ocean crust of some long-forgotten ocean was being overrun and pushed deep into the mantle. When this wet ocean crust and its covering of sediments got deep enough and hot enough it melted and expanded.

Now buoyant, this blob of magma, now called the Lone Grove pluton, melted its way upward through the thick continental crust of Llanoria. As it neared the surface, the magma began to cool. Some of it may have even risen far enough to stoke the cauldrons of volcanoes. At a depth of about 20,000 ft (6 km) below the surface, crystals of hornblende, biotite, feldspar, and muscovite started forming, creating a 2000°F (1100° C) granite slushy. As it cooled slowly over millions of years, this molten slush and the surrounding rocks contracted and cracks opened. Water, volatiles and the minerals with lower melting temperatures filled these cracks because they were still liquid.

Among the last elements to crystallize were the heavy metals because they were too big to fit into the crystal lattices of ordinary minerals. Carried along with the molten silica and other fluids, they found refuge in a common place and crystallized. The minerals were deposited in this pegmatite in two distinct phases: a magmatic and a hydrothermal phase, which are described in detail by Landes (8).

At this time simple life forms like bacteria and algae had colonized the sea. The land, however, was as barren as Mars except for a few algae covered hot springs. As time marched on, the overlying mountains were eroded away and the pink granite plutons exposed. Later, when the supercontinent Pangea formed, the mountains of the Ouachita orogeny were built up just to east as this crustal block collided with western South America. After Pangea broke up these mountains were eroded away completely and the Cretaceous sea of central North America flooded the area laying thick sequences of limestones from Texas to the Arctic. Only in the last few million years did the Colorado River grind away at the bedrock to finally uncover this pegmatite in all its glory.

And glorious it was! To those who visited the area soon after its discovery, Barringer Hill made quite an impression. Frank L. Hess, who wrote a study of the area’s rare earth elements in 1907, describes it as being composed of “graphic granite of supreme quality, having interlocked crystals of clear quartz and brown colored microcline . . . with distinct white bands. Between the bands, the quartz is glassy and clear.” Like Barnes, he mentions a large, 40 foot wide quartz mass in the center of the pegmatite, but he also describes other geological wonders, such as a cavity “lined with smoky quartz crystals reaching 1,000 pounds or more in weight” and sheets of mica up to 3 feet across and an inch thick.

Large microcline crystals surrounded by quartz (8). Note size of hammer at center. Full Size Image, 234K JPEG

Barringer Hill was named for John Barringer, a young carpenter who acquired the land in 1886 as part of as swap, when a Mr. Wills was unable to pay him the $50 due for a house he’d just had him construct. Mr. Wills considered it the most worthless part of his farm, and most likely felt he’d come out ahead on this deal. What good was a chunk of rocks in the middle of a floodplain, anyway? Barringer, however, soon realized he had something of interest. In 1887, he stumbled upon an outcropping of heavy, greenish-black ore while prospecting. Evidently, once this deposit was discovered conventional wisdom about the area also changed some. Between 800 and 1200 pounds of the mineral were carried off as curiosities by local people in the late 1880’s.

When Barringer stumbled onto the ore, no one knew what it was; nothing like it had ever been seen before in these parts. That was about to change. Late in 1887, Professor N.J. Badu of Llano sent ore samples to Philadelphia and New York. Badu was one of those flamboyant characters who seems to flourish in Texas. A geologist by training, he is best remembered for numerous schemes to promote Llano and its surrounding environs in just about anyway possible. No doubt, he had high hopes for the mysterious greenish-black rock from Barringer’s hill.

Sure enough, the samples were found to be composed primarily of a radioactive yttria mineral, known as gadolinite, that had previously only been found in small amounts in Russia and Norway. Because they were so rare, yttria minerals were extremely valuable. In 1887, pure yttrium brought $144 an ounce. In comparison, pure gold brought $19 an ounce on the London exchange that same year. Because the minerals from this deposit were so valuable, they were wrapped in tissue paper, packed in iron-bound boxes, and shipped by express at 100 pounds a box. At best, obtaining each pound of ore cost $10.00.

As is true when anything of great economic value is found, the discovery of gadolinite at Barringer Hill triggered the interest of the rich and famous, in this case two of the most important inventors of the nineteen century: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The race for control of the area began when William E. Hidden, a Newark, New Jersey mineralogist with connections to both companies read a newspaper account about the discovery. At that time, Edison and Westinghouse were looking for gadolinite to use in the creation of a filament for electric light bulbs but had found no accessible sources of the mineral. Never one to miss an opportunity, Hidden dispatched Dr. William Niven, a Scottish born Texan, to investigate Barringer Hill in 1889. Niven identified forty-seven minerals there, including five previously unknown rare earth elements: fergusonite, monofergusonite, thorogummite, yttrialite, and rarest of all, nivenite. Years later, Hidden experimented on all the Barringer Hill minerals to ascertain the extent of the “new” form of energy present (e.g., radioactivity). When radiographs were produced by exposing photographic plates to the minerals in the dark, Nivenite produced the most beautiful radiographs because of its pronounced radioactivity.

Hidden then commissioned Niven to buy the land. In 1889, during Niven’s second trip, Barringer agreed to sell his land through Hidden and him to the Piedmont Mining Company of London, England (which was owned by Edison.) Depending on the source, the company paid him either $5000 or $10,000 in gold because that was the only way he would take anything in exchange for his land. The gold was picked up in Burnet by Barringer and seventeen year old Tad Casner of Llano County, who was serving as his body guard.

Although Edison experimented with all 47 Barringer Hill minerals, by 1903, the company could find no use for any of them. Amazingly, during the same year, a German chemist named Hermann Nernst, working for Westinghouse, developed a street lamp that used raw gadolinite as a filament. Later, Nernst would become famous in his own right for discovering the Third Law of Thermodynamics (entropy approaches a minimum at absolute zero), which he won a Nobel prize for in 1920. His original design for the lamp required modification, however.

Initially, the Nernst lamp had a life of only two hours. Soon, this number was increased to seven hundred hours by another Westinghouse engineer, Marshall Hank. The lamp’s design was also modified to accommodate a filament consisting of 25 percent yttria and 75 percent zirconia. These ingredients were made into a paste, squirted into strips, baked, and then cut into the proper lengths. When the mixture was cold, it was nonconductive, but after being heated, it became a conductor that gave off a brilliant light with wavelengths penetrating deep into the infrared. With its technical problems solved, the Nernst Lamp Company, no doubt a subsidy of Westinghouse, decided to put the lamp into production and bought Barringer Hill through William E. Hidden.

During the winter of 1902-03, the Nernst Lamp Company sent Hidden, himself, to begin excavation.

William E. Hidden next to a 73-lb. mass of Gadolinite in place at Barringer Hill, 1903 (6). Full Size Image, 194K JPEG

For four months that winter and six months the following year, a dozen or so miners worked full time for the company, including Tad Casner and Barringer, who was probably once again somewhat of a laughing stock for not getting as much money as he could have for the land. Work was slow because the minerals appeared in pockets. The miners struggled to remove ore using picks, shovels, and dynamite to quarry rock from open 40 foot deep pits around the edge of the mound. Despite the difficulty of their task, the men made progress. By 1904, they had blasted away the top of the hill. A 30 foot high quartz pillar, however, was left standing in the middle of the quarry because it contained almost no rare earth minerals.

Hidden and the miners made many curious discoveries about the minerals at Barringer Hill. Masses of purple and green coarsely crystallized fluorite up to 400 pounds were fairly common, as were enormous crystals of feldspar, some over five feet in diameter. From a cavity big enough to hold a horse, the miners removed a 600 pound single smoky quartz crystal which measured 43″ X 28″ X 15″.

Other rock samples were radioactive, such as a seventy-three pound double crystal of gadolinite. Even seemingly common minerals could be radioactive. For example, in a 1905 publication, Hidden mentions that much of the fluorite from Barringer Hill exhibited “brilliant green light when strongly heated and viewed in the dark,” and one piece was “self-luminous at night without heat.”

73 Pound double crystal of gadolinite (6). Full Size Image, 167K JPEG

18 Pound mass of Yttrialite (6). Full Size Image, 198K JPEG

More ominous still were crystals taken from areas where the rock matrix contained radiating lines that resembled stars. The stars possibly formed when rare earth elements crystallized from the magma before the quartz in the matrix did, thus causing the quartz to crack as it accommodated itself to the incompressible crystals.

70 Pound mass of mixed zirconium-yttrium-uranium and thorium ore which was a nucleus to one of the “stars” (6). Full Size Image, 167K JPEG

Hidden writes that while removing a mass of mixed zirconium-yttrium-uranium and thorium ore from one of the stars, his hands and face began to burn as if from the effect of strong sunlight. After two or three days of mining, he felt soreness in the parts of his hands and face that had been directly exposed to the minerals.

Because the effects of radiation were not well understood at the turn of the century, Hidden could only speculate as to the cause of his curious symptoms. He reports (6):

My assistant (Mr. J. Edward Turner) asked me “if these minerals could be poisonous?” As no arsenic was present . . The thought came to me that this action might be the work of a radio-active element and it is offered now more as a suggestion than as a proven fact.

William Hidden was not the only employee Nernst/Westinghouse sent to work at Barringer Hill. In 1903, Marshall Hanks, the engineer who had improved the Nernst Lamp, arrived to run the mining operation. Although Hidden, at least in his writings, seemed to find no fault with the Hill Country or its inhabitants, Hanks did not fare as well. Hanks was unpopular with the miners because he kept secrets from them. In addition, he had heard many stories about what murderers and scoundrels Texans were. The miners, therefore, took every opportunity to play pranks on this “green as a gourd” Yankee.

In 1904, Westinghouse had enough gadolinite to suit its needs and decided to recall Hanks. Availing themselves of this last, great opportunity, the miners decided to play one final trick on their boss. At that time, Wells Fargo was in charge of shipping Barringer Hill ore out of Kingsland by train, so the miners brought the Wells Fargo express agent in on the prank. The agent convinced Hanks that the only way he would get out of Texas alive was to mail himself to Pennsylvania in a crate of ore.

After he was loaded up, the miners pretended to search for him in the baggage car. Just as they threatened to shoot at the crates to flush him out, the agent bellowed out, “You fellows better not mess with Wells Fargo! Get out of this baggage car!” Hanks escaped in the crate and always believed the miners had wanted to kill him. Like Hidden, his life does not seem to have been cut short due to exposure to radioactive materials, and he went on to have an illustrious engineering career in Pennsylvania.

For several years, the Nernst Lamp Company continued to annually extract a few hundred pounds of yttria minerals from Barringer Hill. Eventually, however, Nernst ceased operations as newer technologies surpassed the lamp.

From the time mining operations ended until the building of Buchanan Dam flooded the area, Barringer Hill was of interest primarily to mineralogists. One of the best collections of minerals from the area was that of Tillie Badu Moss, Professor Badu’s daughter. Among her specimens were pieces of quartz which had been beautifully colored through exposure to radiation. According to Tillie Badu Moss specimens are to be found in many museums, including the Houston Museum of Natural History and the New York Museum of Natural History. The University of Texas at Austin also possesses a number of rocks from Barringer Hill, including the 600 pound smoky quartz crystal that so impressed William Hidden. For many years, it was displayed on the Little Campus at UT until renovation began in the 1970’s. Like many other exotic Texas mineral specimens, it is now squirreled away as part of the geology department’s Barron Collection. (Note: Since the original publication of this article in 1996 we have been contacted by Rob Reed, a doctoral candidate at UT who is doing research on the granites in the vicinity of Barringer Hill. He once had a summer job updating the cataloging of the Barron Collection and has no recollection of a 600 lb. smoky quartz crystal.)

Other crystals found their ways into museum collections across the country. For instance, the Smithsonian Institute has a large, faceted piece of gadolinite that was once part of a neckdrop. Supposedly the radioactivity from this gem led to the premature death of its original owner.

Although more amazing specimens of rare earth elements may remain embedded in Barringer Hill, don’t count on being able to go out and collect them any time soon. Every year, the Colorado River brings in several thousand acre-feet of silt, which will continue to bury the area ever deeper until the lake is topped off with sediment in approximately 320 years. Unfortunately, the Lower Colorado River Authority has no immediate plans to “drain the lake for the rockhounds’ sake.”

Hope springs eternal, however, because other deposits of rare earth elements exist in the Llano Uplift. There are at least a half dozen other plutons exposed in the area, each one covering 30 or more square miles. Previously unknown rare earth elements are also still being discovered from time to time. For example in 1975, a 5 cm X 5 cm sample of Texasite, a radioactive apple green mineral, was discovered in the Clear Creek pegmatite in Burnet County. Who knows what’s out there? Perhaps the next magnificent collection of minerals like Barringer Hill lies just beneath some pasture, road, or hill.



Barler, Miles, Early days in Llano, 1905.
Fry, Tillie Badu Moss, A history of Llano County, Texas. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1943
Geologic Atlas of Texas: Llano Sheet, Bureau of Economic Geology – The University of Texas at Austin, Virgil E. Barnes Edition, 1981.
Govin, Charles Thomas, Sedimentation survey, Lake Buchanan Texas. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1973.
Hess, F. L., Minerals of the rare-earth metals at Baringer Hill, Llano County, Texas: U.S. Geol. Survey Bull. 340, pp. 286-294, 1908.
Hidden, W. E., Some results of late mineral research in Llano County, Tex. Am Jour. Sci., 4th ser., vol. 19, No. 114 – June 1905, pp. 425-433.
Highland Lakes north, Buchanan, Inks, L.B.J., and Marble Falls Lakes; contoured depth aerial map for the fisherman, boat.. A.I.D. Associates, 1971.
Landes, K. K., The Baringer Hill, Texas, Pegmatite: Amer. Min., vol. 17, pp. 381-390, 1932.
Llano County centennial, Llano County Centennial Association, 1956.
Oatman, Wilburn Jr. and Sarah Oatman Franklin, Llano Gem of the Hill country: Revisited, 1988, Anchor Publishing, San Angelo.
Paige, Sidney, Description of the Llano and Burnet quadrangles: U.S. Geol. Survey Geol. Atlas, Llano-Burnet Folio (No. 183), 16 pp., 1912.
Rob Reed’s Granite Page ( an excellent site covering not only research into the granites near Barringer Hill, but also the geology of the area.
Yarbrough, C.L., Canyon of the Eagles: A History of Lake Buchanan and Official Guide to the Vanishing Texas River Cruise., 1989.
Lower Colorado River Authority, Lake Buchanan Fishing, Recreation, and Tourism Map, (Contours from August, 1991 LCRA Hydrographic Survey), LCRA, 1993.
© Copyright (1996, 1998) by Robert P. Wilkes and Jean E. Hackett


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