California brick

Rose Fire Brick Company


Red Mountain magnesite mine
View of the Red Mountain magnesite mine. Photo by Dan Mosier, 1975.

In 1904, James V. Rose, who manufactured refractory brick in Sharon, Pennsylvania, was interested in opening a new firebrick plant in Oakland, Alameda County, California. This decision was based on the discovery of the largest magnesite deposit in the state made by John Merchant in 1900 at the Red Mountain mine located 32 miles southeast of Livermore. The United States Steel Corporation was hungry for magnesite bricks to use in their open hearth blast furnaces and they were hoping that the California product would provide a cheaper source for such bricks over the imported bricks that they were purchasing at that time from Germany and Austria. Some of the directors of the U.S. Steel Corporation proceeded to form new companies that would make this possible. In 1904, the American Magnesite Company was incorporated in Portland, Maine, and its officers were G. Watson French of Chicago, president; Henry C. Stilwell of Fruitvale (Oakland), California, vice-president; Frank A. Daily of Chicago, secretary; and Gustave F. Fischer of Chicago, treasurer. This company spent over $550,000 in purchasing the magnesite claims on 240 acres of land, developing the magnesite mine, building a magnesite ore processing plant, building a wagon road from the mine to Livermore, purchasing 30 acres of waterfront property at Session Basin in Oakland for the shipping dock and industrial plants, and building the Rose firebrick and Pacific carbonic gas plants. Charles H. Spinks was the manager of the magnesite mine at Red Mountain.

Charles H. Spinks
In addition to the American Magnesite Company, four other subsidaries were formed. The Magnesite Dock and Land Company was organized to hold the waterfront property in Oakland, with Henry C. Stilwell as president and Morton French, manager. The Pacific Carbonic Gas Company was formed to process the carbonic gas by-product at its Oakland plant, with Wallace Taylor as president and George P. Lovegrove, manager. The Plastic Construction Company, with Edwin D. Weary of Chicago as president and Peter Burg Jagger of London as vice-president, was organized to manufacture oxychloride, or Sorel cement, and fireproof flooring. The Rose Fire Brick Company was to manufacture the main product, magnesite brick. James V. Rose was president, Louis S. Tainter was vice-president, treasurer, and general manager, and Froome T. Watson was secretary, with their office at 508 5th Avenue in Oakland.

James V. Rose was born at New Castle, Pennsylvania, on August 2, 1851, to Isaac P. and Margaret Rose. James Rose was reared on a farm and graduated from high school at New Castle. In 1872, he marrried Sarah Geddes and they had two sons, William G. and James V., Jr. He learned the brick masons' trade and became a general contractor in Sharon, Pennsylvania, in 1874. In 1883, he purchased a firebrick business and ran that with the help of one of his sons. He incorporated the Sharon Fire Brick Company, which operated two plants, a firebrick plant at North Sharon, Pennsylvania, and a red brick plant at Brookfield, Ohio.

Rose Fire Brick Co. brickyard
View of the plant of the Rose Fire Brick Company in Oakland. From the Oakland Tribune, 1905.

The Rose firebrick plant was located at the foot of 6th Avenue in Oakland. This plant was constructed in 1904 and 1905 at a cost of $400,000. The plant contained three large rotary calcining kilns, each 64 feet long and 8 feet in diameter. The pan room for brick molding was 70 feet by 180 feet, the dryer was 150 feet by 120 feet, two warehouses were 150 feet by 75 feet, and eight rectangular kilns were each 50 feet by 30 feet. The plant had a capacity to produce 100,000 brick per day.

Raw magnesite was shipped by wagons from the Red Mountain mine to the Livermore depot and then loaded into the cars of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The cars were transported to the Rose Firebrick plant, where they were pushed up an incline so that the magnesite ore could be dumped into bins. The magnesite was ground into granules in the crusher and raised in automatic elevators to the higher end of the rotary kiln. As the magnesite granules passed through the rotary kiln, they were calcined, whereby carbon dioxide was driven off by high temperatures (2,800 degrees F) to reduce the ore to a dead-burned magnesia, or fine pure crystals of periclase (magnesium oxide). Carbon dioxide was collected and sent to the Pacific carbonic gas plant to be converted into a liquid product. In the pug mill, the periclase was mixed with a little water, a pinch of crushed quartz, and not more than 10 percent iron. This mixture was then sent to the molding room to be power pressed into bricks and then sent to the dryer to drive off any remaining water. After drying, the bricks were fired at a high temperature in the rectangular kiln. The finished magnesite brick was shipped locally by rail and by ship to New York for use in the open hearth furnaces of steel mills.

According to Charles H. Spinks, the manager of the Red Mountain magnesite mine, only a few thousand tons of ore was shipped to the Oakland plant. This was mainly because of transportation problems from the remote and mountainous location of the mine. Initial wagon deliveries were found to be too slow, so the use of traction engine trains was tried. But this proved to be too costly when it was found that it was the same as the cost of the ore. Plus wet weather ceased shipment of the magnesite ore, thereby making it an unreliable source for the Rose firebrick plant. These problems finally forced the American Magnesite Company to close their mine.

The Rose firebrick plant in Oakland had problems as well. Apparently, it was reported that the magnesite brick did not perform at high temperatures as expected and was said to be inferior to the imported product. Although the magnesite was of very high purity (over 92 percent magnesium), which is desirable for refractory brick, it may have been in the mixture of the ingredients or the binding that contributed to the problem. The brick spalled easily. Then the earthquake on April 18, 1906, severely damaged the firebrick plant causing it to shut down operations for the rest of the year. Although the plant was repaired, operations ended in 1908, when the American Magnesite Company ended shipments of magnesite ore. I estimate that the Rose firebrick plant produced less than 800,000 bricks in the four years of operation from 1905 to 1908.

Attempts were made in 1908 to revive the Rose firebrick plant by the Livermore Fire Brick Company, but the plant was never brought to production. The plant was abandoned and eventually dismantled.

Rose Firebrick

Rose magnesite brick is buff and has a gritty surface. White periclase and brown iron are visible on the surface and are flattened. Edges are straight and dull. Corners are dull. The marked face contains the name "ROSE STEEL" in recessed block letters that span 5 1/8 inches in length and is 5/8 inch in height. The interior contains mostly subangular blocky white periclase that range up to 1/4 inch across, 5 percent brown iron, some with blister holes, ranging up to 1/4 inch across, and 2 percent subangular gray quartz up to 1/8 inch across, in a fine granular body of grayish white periclase. The interior is rather weak and crumbles easily. The exterior spalls easily. This brick was made using the dry pressed process. Length 8 1/2, width 4 1/4, height 2 1/4 inches.

Rose Fire Brick Co. brick
View of the marked face of the Rose magnesite brick.

Rose Fire Brick Co. brick interior
View of the interior of the Rose magnesite brick showing mostly white periclase and brown iron.


Aubrey, Lewis E., The Structural and Industrial Materials of California, California State Mining Bureau Bulletin 38, 1906, p. 204.

Brick and Clay Record, Oakland Builds Firebrick Plant, v. 26, no. 10, 1905, p. 29.

Cutler, Robert W.P., Red Mountain, The Rise and Fall of a Magnesite Mining Empire, 1900-1947, Robert W.P. Cutler, 2001.

Davis, Fenelon F., and Jennings, Charles W., Mines and Mineral Resources of Santa Clara County, California, California State Mining Bureau, California Journal of Mines and Geology, v. 50, no. 2, 1954, p. 321-430.

Oakland City Directories, 1906-1908.

Oakland Tribune, Alameda County Has Largest Mines In World, December 23, 1905.

Oakland Tribune, To Install Big Factories, August 6, 1904.

Spinks, Charles H., Magnesite, Oakland Tribune Year Book, 1922.

White, J.G., A Twentieth Century History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, v. 1. The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1909.

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