Copper was first reported in Texas by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy in his exploration of the Red River in 1852. In 1864 a small amount of high-grade copper ore was smelted in Archer County; a part of this ore is said to have been used for percussion caps for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war, Gen. George B. McClellan became interested in the copper deposits in North Central Texas and organized a company that started a mine near the Pease River in Foard County.
The remains of the resulting shaft were still called the Old McClellan Mine in 1950. Subsequent trial shipments of copper ore made from Baylor, Clay, Hardeman, King, Knox, and Stonewall counties did not encourage commercial development. About 1885 copper production in connection with silver began at the Hazel Mine near Van Horn in Culberson County; this production continued, with intermittent periods of inactivity, until 1942 and produced about a million pounds of copper. Between 1926 and 1928 about 12,500 tons of low-grade ore, averaging nine ounces of silver to the ton and 0.42 percent copper, were shipped from the Van Horn-Allamoore district of the Trans-Pecos area; in 1929 new underground developments produced ore of 1.53 percent copper. The total amount of copper produced in the state between 1885 and 1944 was 1,251 short tons, of which 60,000 pounds were produced in 1940, 128,000 pounds in 1942, and 230,000 pounds in 1944. Other mines in the Trans-Pecos area that have produced copper in small amounts are the Sancho Panza, Black Shaft, and Pecos. There are known deposits of copper in Burnet and Llano counties. The last reported copper production using ore from within the state was eighteen tons in 1952, valued at $8,712; it mostly used ore from the old Hazel Mine in Culberson County. During the mid-1950s most of the Texas copper mines were inoperative. Large deposits of ore were known to exist in the North Texas region but were not developed because of their low copper content.
Despite the state's relative lack of ore, copper refineries have been established in Texas to supply regional demand for metal goods and to make use of readily available fuel for metal plants. A copper refinery was established at El Paso by Dr. W. H. Nichols of Nichols Copper and was later acquired by Phelps Dodge Corporation; the refinery employed 750 persons by the 1950s. Eventually up to 30 percent of all the copper processed in the United States was produced at this refinery. Much of the refined material was subsequently manufactured by Phelps Dodge Copper Products Corporation into wire, tubes, and pipe for use in the building industry. In 1966 this refinery and a copper smelter were operating in El Paso County, using ore from Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona to produce refined copper, copper anode, and copper sulfate. A copper refinery was also established by the American Smelting and Refining Company at Amarillo. In the 1970s Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation began an expansion of its copper refinery at El Paso and reached full operation at its copper-rod mill (copper rod is used for cable and electrical wire).
The ASARCO El Paso metallurgical smelter produced blister and anode copper from ores and concentrates mined outside of Texas. In a joint venture with Phelps Dodge, the firm planned to test a new process to reduce its emission of pollutants. ASARCO established a department of environmental services and curtailed smelter operations during the year to control sulfur-dioxide pollution of the atmosphere. In 1975 ASARCO completed its refinery at Amarillo and began production of refined copper.
Plans were made in 1980 to modernize the ASARCO smelter and to increase its capacity to 135,000 tons per year by 1991. Copper continued to be refined at the ASARCO plant in Amarillo and by Phelps Dodge at its El Paso refinery. Phelps Dodge Copper Products Company, the manufacturing division of the corporation, planned to add a continuous casting copper-rod mill to its facilities in El Paso by 1982. In 1986 the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued final rules on arsenic emissions from copper smelters, requiring the El Paso smelter and two other plants to install additional air-pollution control equipment to comply with standards. By 1990 the Texas Copper Company, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Metals Corporation and four other Japanese firms, was at work on a new 250,000-ton-per-year copper smelter at Texas City, and Tatsumi Texas planned to construct a marine service terminal for raw materials destined for the smelter.