"Old timers" in Butte dispute about who first discovered this process. Some attribute it to a man named Miller, who never developed much out of it, while others give the honor to W.L. Ledford, who, in 1894 certainly made the first practical application of the principles on which the business of "precipitating copper" is conducted today.
Ledford secured from Marcus Daly a lease on the waters pumped from the Butte mines ullder his management. That lease created a tremendous demand for tin cans and scrap iron in Butte, a demand which now gives employment to many men steadily and to many small boys occasionally, and mare than that, the lease made half a million dollars for Ledford, until Daly became aware of the profits he had practically given away. Then Daly, Ledford claimed, began to precipitate copper underground, secretly, pouring out to Ledford waters almost barren of copper. Litigation followed, but Daly won out, and Ledford quit, with much of his fortune gone. but in no immediate danger of starvation.
Today, the water which gushes forth from the Butte mines at the rate of 4,000 gallons a minute, is robbed of its three per cent of copper by the iron and tin cans over which it flows, then it is sluiced upon the old mine dumps, the slag dumps from the now extinct smelters, and the miles of tailings stretching about the city. From this copper-saturated earth it sucks new supplies of the red metal, which are again taken from it by the seductive iron.
The chemistry of the process is simple. Butte's ores are sulphide ores, and the water from the mines, by seeping through miles of drifts and stapes, where the are has oxidized or where the great underground fire is raging, becomes impregnated with copper in the form of copper sulphate.
Now iron has a greater "affinity" for sulphur than has copper. That means that the chemical attraction of sulphur and iron is greater than the chemical attraction of sulphur and copper. Naturally, then, when the copper sulphate pours over the iron, the iron takes the place of the copper, and forms ferro sulphate, which is carried away by the water. Thus constantly the copper coats the iron scrap and the tin cans over which the "copper water" pours, and gradually the iron is wasted away until there remains nothing but copper, save for such impurities as mix in the product. This copper forms the "precipitates," which run from sixty to eighty per cent pure copper.
The water from which this rich treasure is lured comes mostly from the mines, It is pumped-by phosphor-bronze pumps, through wooden-lined or leaden-lined pipes, for it would destroy iron or steel in a few days-to precipitation plants at the Leonard and High Ore mines.
The High Ore is the deepest mine in Butte and to it runs, by gravity, all the water from all the Anaconda Company's mines. From the High Ore sump it is Iifted to the surface by enormous force pumps at the rate of 1,200 gallons a minute.
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