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Cemetery, Terlingua, Texas

Terlingua Cemetery
Both Study Butte and Terlingua were mercury mining towns. It was hard work in rough country and the graveyard tells its tale. Here's a story about those hardships that originally appeared in The San Antonio Express-News (Copyright San Antonio Express-News) that I picked up off the web:

By Jesse Bogan

San Antonio Express-News

Border Bureau

Long before the original town died, and long before Domingo Zavala’s bones grew weak, he heaved rocks below the Chihuahuan Desert for $2 a day.

To get there, the miner rode a bucket connected to a cable he held onto for his life. Four men at a time were lowered into the shaft.

“I put one foot inside the bucket and the other one was just hanging free,” said Zavala, 82, who worked for the Chisos Mining Co. before it closed in 1944.

He is one of the few people left who can remember what life was like raising a family on a miner’s scant wages in this scrap of parched land near Big Bend National Park. That’s why he and anyone else who grew up here were invited for a reunion this weekend.

Nearly 250 people who moved on to places including Odessa, El Paso and Fort Stockton showed up and strolled through the adobe and rock remnants of what once was their town.

A few identified limestone-stacked graves staked with worn wooden crosses a short walk from a covered mineshaft. Some of their stories were recorded for a library of oral histories. Some sang Mexican corridos.

“We who live here now need to know who you are,” Cynta de Narvaez, one of about 30 residents referred to as hippies by neighbors, living in the ruins of Terlingua Ghost Town, told the former residents, who mainly spoke Spanish among themselves.

It was an unusual gathering of nontraditional West Texans who relish seeing the Chisos Mountains change colors as the sun goes down. For instance, a local woman who moved here four years ago from Massachusetts wore a purple dress and a bright green cowboy hat. Her husband wore a kilt. The survivors of the town didn’t seem to care what people wore.

Requests to tell their stories was something they never heard when the mine was open.

“Remember, a long time ago white people would not gather with Mexican people,” said Elena Urquieta, 81, whose husband worked in the mine.

When times were good, the company produced the largest amount of mercury in the country, thanks to large deposits of cinnabar ore, from which mercury is taken at a high temperature. About 2,000 people lived off its proceeds.

Howard Perry, of Chicago and Portland, Maine, owned the mine, but spent little time there.

The survivors did not speak highly of Perry.

“When you hear a dog barking, that is Perry,” quipped Herminia Esquivel, 78, of Anaheim, Calif.

Perry built a mansion on a hill above the mine so that when he was there he could watch over the entire village and business.

According to the 1976 book Quicksilver, about the company and town, the cinnabar ore miners in Texas were mostly Mexican and the lowest-paid in the country.

In 1912 the workmen wrote a letter to Perry, asking for a favor:

“The favor is that we do not work on Sundays, that you tell us we are at liberty to rest, for working every day without rest wearies oneself.”

Perry denied the request because it “necessitated closing the furnace, and several days would be required to regenerate sufficient heat for metal extraction.”

While a miner earned $547.50 in a year, he produced $4,381.31 in mercury, the book states.

Narvaez, a raft guide on the Rio Grande who helped organize the reunion, mentioned that detail during a tour of the ruins.

“That’s a businessman,” she said. “The great thing, though, he died bankrupt.”

Perry died in 1944, around the same time the mine went dry. Several people stayed in Terlingua a few years after that. But without the mine the town was just a hole in the ground 80 miles south of Alpine. It became a ghost town and stayed that way until the early 1970s.

Even today it’s secluded. The nearest Wal-Mart is more than 150 miles away in Fort Stockton.

Zavala, somewhat of a celebrity here Saturday as one of the few miners who made it to the reunion, said he enjoyed mining, even though many people, including relatives, fell to their deaths or were crushed.

His daughter Mary Acosta, 61, shook her head as she led him by the arm over rocky ground. Then she leaned over and said, “He didn’t know any better.”