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Borderlands: Mining Became Big Business in Southwest 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Mining Became Big Business in Southwest

Article first published in Vol. 21, 2002.

By Michelle Stuckwisch, Patricia Padilla, Gretchen Dickey and Ruth Vise

"THAR'S GOLD IN THEM HILLS!" And silver, copper, lead, iron and many other metals and minerals. In the early 1800s, Easterners flocked to the Southwest and became miners because of the abundance of silver and copper and the occasional pocket of gold.

The resources found in the southwestern mountains of New Mexico attracted prospectors, and towns began to flourish. Among others, Pinos Altos, Santa Rita and Silver City all can trace their beginnings back to mining in the late 1800s.


Image caption: Huge open pit Santa Rita copper mine has engulfed the town.   Photo by Eddie Vasquez

Gold was discovered as early as 1859 close to what would become the town of Pinos Altos (Tall Pines). Over the next several years, about 1,000 tons of ore were produced daily, with a total worth over $1 million. By 1868, Pinos Altos was a thriving town with saloons, hotels, more than 100 houses and its own 15-stamp mill used to crush ore.

Miners discovered silver about 1866 in what became Georgetown in Grant County, 18 miles northeast of Silver City. Close to $3,000,000 of silver came out of one mine - the Naiad Queen.

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By 1888, the mine was producing 350-600 ounces of silver every day. Two five-stamp crushing components at the Mimbres Mining and Reduction Company owned by George Magruder reduced the ore. When the price of silver dropped in 1893, most of the 1,200 residents left the well-planned town. Only about 100 remained by 1900.

By far the best known of southwestern New Mexico mining towns was Silver City, originally known as La Ciénega de San Vicente. When rancher John Bullard realized that the ore samples he saw in Ralston (now the ghost town of Shakespeare) were silver, he knew he had seen the same ore in San Vicente.

In 1870, Bullard began mining a hill behind the current courthouse, naming his mine the Legal Tender. The ore from his mine produced 100 ounces of silver per ton. However, Bullard's success was cut short when an Apache killed him the next year.

A town site developed in 1871 at San Vicente, but the name changed to Silver City. The boomtown became the county seat as well as the center of mining and ore processing in the region. Banks, saloons, retail stores and services as well as several newspapers sprang up in Silver City, along with the requisite brothels and gambling halls.

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Close by, Lorenzo Carrasco discovered even richer veins of silver at Chloride Flats and built adobe furnaces to smelt the ores. Silver and gold came into Silver City from mining camps as far as the Mogollon mountains by 14-horse teams and after 1881, by railroad.

Silver and gold were not the only treasures found in Grant County: copper became king and reigned into the 21st century. About 15 miles east of Silver City, the town of Santa Rita evolved from the abundance of copper. A huge open-pit mine, once the largest in the world, has changed corporate hands several times, but even before this mine came into being, Apaches, Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans mined copper in this region.

Francis L. Fugate says in about 1535, Indians gave the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca a rattle made of copper, which had come from a Santa Rita mine. Spanish explorers wrote detailed accounts of the mine in the late 1700s.

In the 1800s, the Spanish government established a garrison in the heart of Apache country at Janos, in Chihuahua. During a battle with a band of Apaches, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco and his men took a few prisoners. An Apache warrior told the Lieutenant about the native copper located in the hills northwest of Santa Rita.

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Returning to Chihuahua, Carrasco aroused the interest of a banker named Manuel Elguea. After obtaining a land grant, they began mining copper with the help of prisoners, Indian slaves and children. Carrasco soon sold his share to Elguea, whose family mined in Santa Rita until 1825.

As mining operations began, the Mexican government sent convicts to work in the mine. Indian captives worked in dark tunnels, and stories are told of finding skeletons when copper began to be mined on the surface, suggesting frequent cave-ins and live burials. Children dug out ore with their hands and small tools in tunnels as small as 36 inches wide, passing ore one to another through their legs. Mules transported the copper through the Sierra Madres to Mexico City where it was turned into coins.

Don Juan Ortiz owned the mine when the first Americans arrived in Santa Rita - trappers Sylvester Pattie and son -- who leased the mine in 1826. The Spanish abandoned the mines in 1837 when white traders precipitated a brutal massacre of native Apaches and the Indians began to avenge the deaths of their families. Several parties leased the mines over the next decades and J. Parker Whitney bought the mines in 1886.

In 1900, some New York investors took over and created the Santa Rita Mining Company. By 1904, the ore contained less than 10 percent copper. That's when engineer John M. Sully surveyed the area and discovered the land contained millions of tons of ore with low-grade copper, a bonanza for any company willing to finance a long-term commitment to Santa Rita.

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It took Sully five years to find financial supporters, but in 1909, he established the Chino Copper Company, named for one of the mines, "El Chino," meaning "the Chinaman." By 1910, the company started digging, beginning the open pit mine of today. A mill began operating in nearby Hurley in 1911.

In 1937, the Kennecott corporation bought the Chino Mines and operated them until 1980 when it sold one-third of the Company to the Mitsubishi Corporation. Phelps Dodge Corporation bought the rest of the company in 1987. Phelps Dodge and Heisel Minerals Company now own the Chino Mines. Exploration efforts found Chino has reserves to keep operating until the year 2008.

In 1899, an El Paso miner discovered tin deposits in the Franklin Mountains. Mining, milling and smelting of tin occurred on the eastern side of the mountains from 1910 through 1915. The only tin mines in the United States produced tin over 99 percent pure, but the veins soon gave out.

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Image caption: Smelter and mill processed tin on the east side of Mt. Franklin in 1914.  Photo by Jessie Peterson . Courtesy of Harry W. " Skip" Clark

West Texas lacked great mineral resources itself, but it specialized in smelting and refining the ores from northern Mexico and southwest New Mexico. Because of its railroads, El Paso was considered a prime location for refineries.

In 1881, Robert Safford Towne formed the Mexican Ore Company in 1883 and convinced Kansas City Consolidation Smelting and Refining Company, known as KASRCO, to build a smelter in El Paso.

In 1899, KASRCO, along with other companies, formed American Smelting and Refining Company, now known as ASARCO. For 100 years, the smelter was a landmark in El Paso, and the community that grew up around it was named "Smeltertown." In 1999, ASARCO was put on a "care and maintenance order," and the city lost a major employer. Southwest mining is synonymous with the name Phelps-Dodge, a company begun in 1834 by Anson Greene Phelps and William E. Dodge. The two men bought an Arizona mining claim, which became the Morenci copper mine, the largest open pit mine in the world.

Phelps-Dodge acquired a copper refinery in El Paso established by Dr. W. H. Nichols of Nichols Copper and employed hundreds. As much as 30 percent of all copper processed in the United States was produced at this refinery.

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While most of the mines have died out, their impact on our community lives on. In 1914, Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP) opened, with metallurgical engineering students receiving hands-on training at ASARCO. The Phelps-Dodge Refinery located at 6999 North Loop continues to be an important El Paso employer. El Paso's tin mines are open to the public. Individuals may tour the exploratory Cottonwood Mine on the west side of the Franklins by appointment.

Many New Mexico mining towns, such as Georgetown and Mogollon, have become ghost towns. Shakespeare is a privately owned ranch open to tourists a few times per year. On the other hand, Pinos Altos is a delightful mountain town with both permanent residents and a growing tourist presence. Silver City has become a retiree's dream, a sportsman's center and a tourist attraction.

The actual town of Santa Rita is no more, sacrificed to the very open pit mine which gave the town its life. Ironically, Phelps Dodge has announced the indefinite closure of its Grant County smelter and mine, placing more than 800 residents out of work.

Nevertheless, no one who travels this area can ignore the huge hole in the ground - the Santa Rita Mine. For the moment, copper has been dethroned and those families who have depended on mining to provide a good living over the years must find another job, leave the area or stick it out. The hope is that once again, copper mining will save the day and prevent several other little towns in the area from becoming ghost towns.

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