Aluminum industry essential during WWII

This Fourth of July holiday is a good time to take pride in the contributions of the Arkansas aluminum industry to the building the Arsenal of Democracy in the 1940s. This is a brief history of the aluminum industry in Arkansas and the essential role that this industry played during World War II.

Aluminum was the metal of choice for the fabrication of military aircraft. Over 300,000 military planes were manufactured by the U.S. during World War II and the war effort required the production of more than 3 billion pounds of aluminum.

Bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made, was discovered in Arkansas in 1887 but not commercially developed on a large scale until the early 1940s. Known as the "Arkansas deposits," Saline and Pulaski counties were the site of the largest deposits of bauxite ore in the United States. However, the Arkansas bauxite was of a lower grade than bauxite available from South America.

Before World War II, most bauxite processed in the United States was imported. But the risk of German U-boat attacks on our ships carrying bauxite was too great so in 1939 the government decided to ramp up the production of both bauxite and aluminum in Arkansas. Arkansas provided almost all of the bauxite ore that was mined in the United States during World War II. Over 6 million tons of Arkansas bauxite was mined in 1943, the peak year of production.

In the early 1940s, both the Hurricane Creek Alumina Plant (located in southeastern Saline County) and the Jones Mills Reduction Plant (located in Hot Spring County) were built and operated by Alcoa Co. for the U.S. Defense Plants Corp. The Hurricane Creek Plant was the largest alumina plant ever built. In the aluminum making process, bauxite ore is first refined to make "alumina" which is then transported to smelting plants that produce metallic aluminum. The alumina was shipped to sixteen aluminum reduction plants located around the country, including in Arkansas, the Pacific Northwest, and several other states.

The Jones Mills community is located in northern Hot Spring County, close to the Garland County line. Alcoa Aluminum built its aluminum reduction plant at Jones Mills in 1942. The plant employed hundreds of workers and on-site housing was built to accommodate many of the employees and their families. The Jones Mills reduction plant produced 8 percent of the total aluminum production in the U.S. in 1943.

Aluminum metal has two basic ingredients, bauxite processed into alumina and huge amounts of electricity. Over 20 percent of the cost of production of aluminum is electricity. For example, 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity is required to produce one pound of aluminum. This is the same amount of electricity that would be required to heat a kitchen oven for four hours. Jones Mills at its peak consumed over 120 megawatts of power, or more electricity than was being produced in the entire state of Arkansas at the time. The Jones Mills Plant relied on the newly formed Southwest Power Pool, a consortium of power companies from Arkansas and surrounding states, to provide the enormous amounts of electricity needed to operate its smelting plant.

Following the end of World War II, two major companies continued the production of aluminum in Arkansas. In 1946, Reynolds Aluminum Co. leased both the Hurricane Creek and Jones Mills plants and subsequently purchased these facilities in 1949. In the early 1950s, four major new aluminum industry plants were built in Arkansas including the Patterson Reduction Plant near Arkadelphia, the General Motors Casting Plant at Jones Mill, and the Alcoa Chemical Products Plant and the Alcoa Alumina Works Plant both located at Bauxite (close to the city of Benton).

By the late 1950s, most domestic aluminum production had moved to the Pacific Northwest and only 5 percent of American aluminum production remained in Arkansas. The last year which bauxite was mined in Arkansas for aluminum production was in 1982. Currently, there is only one remaining aluminum-related plant located in the Jones Mills area, the Reynolds Metals Aluminum Rolling Mill, that produces sheet aluminum from which aluminum foil is made.

In summary, at this Independence Day holiday, it is appropriate to acknowledge the hardworking Arkansas men and women who helped produced the billions of pounds of aluminum that was essential to the success of our country in World War II. And if you should get a chance to see a military aircraft manufactured during World War II, you can take pride in the fact that the aluminum used in the plane's construction was probably produced from bauxite ore mined and processed right here in Arkansas.

Retired local attorney Clay Farrar writes a monthly column about Hot Springs history. Email [email protected] with questions or comments.

Editorial on 06/29/2018