Terlingua, near the Chisos and Christmas mountains in Texas’ Big Bend region, owes its existence to the blood-red ore cinnabar, from which quicksilver, or mercury, is extracted. But its character stems equally from one overbearing Yankee entrepreneur, hundreds of Mexican laborers and its remote location.
In 1853 MajorWilliam H. Emory surveyed the region for the United States. Hoping to prevent a rush to the barren land, Emory omitted from his reports any mention of exposed cinnabar deposits. In the early 1880s the railroad followed Emory into the Big Bend, giving rise to the supply towns of Marfa, Alpine and Marathon.
In 1884 Juan Acosta brought a specimen of cinnabar ore to an Alpine merchant named Klein, and the two filed a claim. They soon sold it to a group of California mining entrepreneurs, who named the site California Hill. But it was another 10 years before a national mining journal reported activity in the region.
In 1887 Howard E. Perry, a wealthy Chicago shoe manufacturer, acquired land in southern Brewster County and promptly expelled several miners who had established furnace operations on his property. In 1903 he founded the Chisos Mining Co.
Terlingua—a corruption of the Spanish words tres and lenguas (“three tongues”) —geared up to service the company. In 1902 a passing geologist described the town as “a sprawling camp of temporary sheds and shelters composed of… tin, canvas, old sacks, sticks and adobe bricks,” adding, “There were from 200 to 300 laborers of the lowest class of Mexicans there.”
By 1905 the Chisos Mining Co. was thriving in a district that produced 20 percent of the nation’s quicksilver. Perry took a personal interest in his mine. After a trip to Spain to inspect the Alameda —the world’s largest quicksilver mine— in 1908 he built a state-of-the-art 20-ton Scott furnace at the Chisos.
The 1910 Mexican Revolution brought asylum seekers and the threat of bandits to Terlingua. In 1912 the U.S. Army, at the behest of Perry, sent the 60-man Troop A, 13th U.S. Cavalry, to town.
By World War I Terlingua had a wellstocked commissary, an ice-making plant, a jail, a two-story hotel, a company store, a dependable water supply, erratic telephone service and regular U.S. Mail deliveries. Mine employees lived in brick or adobe houses or tent houses—framed walls with a canvas roof—while Perry lived in a hilltop mansion adorned with Moorish arches.
In 1917, with wartime demand and prices for quicksilver at an alltime high, Brewster County produced 10,791 flasks grossing more than $1 million. The Chisos netted about $2,000 per day that year, and by the early 1920s it was the nation’s largest producer.
Workers at the quicksilver furnaces faced unsafe conditions, as mercury fumes damaged the teeth and gums. “Every tooth in my head became loose, and I could no longer eat solid food,” recalled furnace operator Harris Smith. “My total diet consisted of bean soup, crackers, coffee and mouthwash.”
Relations between Perry and the Mexican workers were sometimes strained. The mine owner paid them the rate of two pesos per dollar, initially stamping the currency with a “C,” for Chisos, to ensure they spent it at the company store. In 1912 Mexican workers drafted a letter directly to Perry, requesting “distraction one day of each seven without exception, Sunday, and another day would not be good.” Perry refused them.
In the 1930s debts, dwindling ore reserves and languishing machinery slowly sapped the Chisos. From 1934 to 1938 the number of employees dropped from 150 to 20, and the mine finally closed in 1942. Frustratingly for Perry, the price of quicksilver was at an all-time high of $193 a flask.
Since the 1960s Terlingua’s claim to fame has been the celebrated annual Terlingua International Chili Championship. The town, with its half-dozen frame and adobe houses and a high school built in the 1990s, lies just outside Big Bend National Park, 12 miles from the Mexican border.
Thanks to Bud and Sue Gardner for their assistance. To see their ghost town photos visit www.ghosttownsofthewildwest.com.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.