Chromium pioneer Honor: Quaker geologist Isaac Tyson Jr. who started with rocks and built an empire of chrome in Fells Point is being inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame.

September 07, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A little-known Baltimore Quaker geologist, whose passion for some greenish-black rocks off the Falls Road enabled him to become the founder of the American chromium industry, is being inducted into the National Mining Hall of Fame tomorrow. The belated honors go to Isaac Tyson Jr., whose bronze plaque calls him the "Renaissance man of the early U.S. minerals and chemical industries."

"The mining industry is so dominated by the West, it is unusual for an Easterner to get some recognition," said Harald B. (Johnny) Johnsson 3rd, a 33-year-old Baltimore mining engineer who has devoted five years of research to Tyson's life, career and influence.

That influence is substantial. Tyson's industrial chemistry survives today in pressure-treated lumber used in decks and porches, the color of a yellow cab and the silvery-blue chrome on a Chevy.

Tyson, who lived from 1792 to 1861, was the son of a Baltimore flour exporter. An uncle, Elisha Tyson, for whom Tyson Street in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore is named, was a leading Quaker abolitionist.

Isaac Tyson had studied geology and chemistry in France when a gardener showed him some blackish rocks found off the Falls Road at Bare Hills, a small Baltimore County address just north of Mount Washington.

The appearance of these heavy, dark-colored rocks made Tyson believe they might contain chromite. Tyson soon set up a mine here and was exporting the chromite to England. In time, he processed the chromite vein into chemicals at a waterfront Fells Point plant.

His chemicals became the basis of certain paint colors, especially a dark yellow known as ocher.

Mineral scholars say that the daughter of King George IV, Princess Charlotte, selected this paint color for her carriage. The color caught on and remains in use today.

Chrome paint pigments turned up in other shades. Chromium oxide became the dark emerald green associated with park benches, house shutters and asphalt housing shin

gles. The chrome tints went into ceramics, often a dull tannish yellow found in kitchen mixing bowls.

The chromium-based yellow was also used for many years to paint highway lane marker lines. Chrome's best-known application is on automobile trim, while it is also used to tan leathers and as a wood preservative.

Bare Hills, where Tyson first saw the rock that changed his life, takes its name from the environmental conditions there. Normal vegetation does not flourish there. When serpentine weathers over thousands of years, it dissolves rather than breaking down into clay and top soil. Without top soil, normal vegetation does not flourish. Hence the name, Bare Hills.

He soon found other chromite deposits at the serpentine barrens at Soldiers Delight near Owings Mills, today preserved as a natural environment area with visitors' center, marked hikes and an historic mine.

Tyson found more chromite at the old Reed farm in Harford County's Jarrettsville. Soon he had secured so many mineral rights that by the 1840s he had monopolized the world supply of chromium. (The local serpentine band runs in a southwest to northeast direction from Carroll and Howard counties, through Soldiers Delight to Harford and Cecil counties and Chester County in southern Pennsylvania.)

Serpentine rock, named because it is said to resemble the dark color of a snake's skin, also shows up in a few local landmarks. The exterior walls of Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church, an 1870-2 structure at the northeast corner at the Washington Monument, is partially constructed of this greenish-gray material.

"As a child I had a rock collection and wandered through Soldiers Delight. It got my interest going and I've never stopped," said Johnsson, the Arundel Corp.'s director of environmental affairs who plans to be present at the induction ceremony staged at a Las Vegas banquet. The National Mining Hall of Fame, which also includes a museum, is housed in a converted Victorian schoolhouse in the silver-mine boom town of Leadville, Colo.

Other inductees include Charles A. Steen, a prospector whose discovery helped touch off the 1950s uranium boom, and Philip Argall, an Irish-born gold mine owner who introduced the eight-hour work shift to his Colorado operation. Previously inducted were President Herbert Hoover, who was a mining engineer, labor leader John L. Lewis and pneumatic drill inventor Simon Ingersoll.

Johnsson's research has taken him to Tyson's plain grave at the Friends Burial Ground in the 2500 block of Harford Road, south of Clifton Park. He has tracked down some of Tyson's descendants in Vermont, where Tyson was also active in copper mining.

"There are a lot of things that Tyson was responsible for but he gets so little recognition. He wasn't a flashy man. It was his son who built Cylburn, the great Victorian mansion that is an arboretum. Even his chrome plant has been given a bad name," Johnsson said.

His plant, which Tyson called the Baltimore Chrome Works, was established in 1845 on Block Street at the western tip of Fells Point. It was here that chromite ore was manufactured into chemicals. The plant remained in production through the 1985. After several changes of ownership, the site became known as the Allied Signal.

With the coming of the environmental movement of the 1970s and '80s, the old Fells Point Baltimore Chrome Works plant was called out of date.

Allied Signal agreed to shut it down and build a protective cap over the site. Workers garbed in protective suits and headgear disassembled the buildings that once housed the world's largest production of chromium chemicals.

"The only place in Fells Point you'll see his name is inscribed in one of the bricks on the promenade at the foot of Broadway," Johnsson said.

Pub Date: 9/07/96

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