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Old Texas Mercury Mines Attract Tourists, Danger; Fatal Falls, Dynamite, Rattlesnakes--and Still the Visitors Come

By Esther M. Bauer
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 20, 2000; Page A03

Some of the hundreds of abandoned mercury mines honeycombing this part of the Chihuahua desert are gaping holes that endanger tourists and other unwary humans.

Most of the mines have been covered with steel grates or are filled in, financed by a federal tax on the mining industry administered by the state to make the area safe.

Although the local populace of 700 residents generally welcomes the influx of tourists, the uncovered mines near the edge of Big Bend National Park are a continual worry for their owners.

Carolyn Small and Barbara Trammell have owned the remote Buena Suerte, or Good Luck, mine since 1985. They have found that locked gates don't deter trespassers who are drawn to the area's rustic beauty.

"You tell them to stay away, and they go in anyway," said Small, who with Trammell operates the Easter Egg Valley Chisos Mining Co. Motel and has lived in Terlingua for nearly 30 years. "They just wander up close to see things or tear things down and haul it off. . . They don't know the meaning of 'Don't take it'--they're tourists. . . . If they fell to their death, we'd be blamed."

Some trespassers are tourists passing through Big Bend. It is located in the elbow of Texas and is separated from Mexico only by the Rio Grande--a river that upstream is broad enough for rough river rafting and downstream is hardly more than a dirty creek.

Trespassers also include some of the area's temporary residents from other states. They are known locally as Winter Texans, because they live here in motor homes only during the temperate winters, then flee the searing summers.

The trespassers are mostly drawn to Buena Suerte, which at the turn of the century and midway through the 1900s was home to hundreds of miners, primarily Mexicans, who lived in the sandstone barracks that now stand silent against the harsh landscape.

For wages of three pesos, or less than 30 cents a day, the miners dug shafts up to 300 feet deep. They also built the tipple, or tall wood frame, that is still astride Buena Suerte's main shaft. There they tipped the carts of cinnabar ore from which they refined mercury.

The area around Buena Suerte is riddled with excavations of 10 to 20 feet deep, due to miners digging for ore, finding none and moving on. A thin crust of earth covers some of the holes, and a rotting wood ladder descending into the main shaft invites the foolish to take a closer look.

Nearby is the WhitRoy Mine, now part of the Big Bend Ranch State Park but closed to the public because of 25 to 30 mine openings and pits. A makeshift barrier, hardly more substantial than a set of trundle-bed springs, protects trespassers from falling into the main shaft, which miners cored through solid rock.

These mines are among the last to be covered over as part of the state's effort to make the area safer for tourists--a closure process by the Railroad Commission of Texas that began in 1984. More than 500 mines have been closed, at a cost of about $1.1 million.

The closures began in Terlingua after a 14-year-old boy at one of the chili cook-offs hiked to an open mine and began swinging on the overhead timbers. He plunged to his death when the rotting wood gave way.

"That's the only real documented case we have of someone being killed," said Mark Rhodes, the commission's abandoned land program manager.

Falling into the mines isn't the only hazard.

"Rattlesnakes like to hang out at the mouths of some of the openings," Rhodes said of the horizontal tunnels burrowed into the hillside to connect to a winze--a vertical drop in an interior tunnel.

Equally dangerous is the forgotten dynamite embedded in the roofs of some mines--just one of the things miners left behind when the price of mercury dropped and the mines closed after World War II.

As many as 1,000 workers had been employed during peak production, and the Terlingua Ghost Town cemetery attests to the price many paid for their jobs. A flutter of renewed mining in later decades fizzled after technology found substitutes for many uses of mercury and prices continued to drop, making mercury mining obsolete in this region.

Dale Blackstock, 75, a weather-toughened contractor in Pecos who lives part of the year in a Terlingua recreational vehicle park, has closed many of the mines.

In the beginning, the smaller pits were simply bulldozed and vertical shafts cemented over. Because of environmental concern about the region's 14 species of bats, the mines are required to be covered with an iron grate so the creatures can fly in and out, Blackstock said.

The raised grates are see-through platforms strong enough to hold several tons. One such platform covers a pit less than 100 yards behind the Terlingua Trading Company complex of stores and adventure outfitters for tourists.

The grates are chained off, and the overall results are almost beautiful. A scrubby tree growing through one of the grates blends Blackstock's handiwork into the scenery.

"I had to use the same color fill dirt to make it look natural," Blackstock said, admiring his craftsmanship. He has studied the history of the mines, knew a few miners and remains awed by the intensity of their labors in temperatures that reached 140 degrees due to the thermal water vapor.

"They could stay down in the mines only 20 minutes at a time, and the only people who would go down there were Mexicans," Blackstock said as his pickup bounced along the bulldozed road to Buena Suerte. Blackstock is among the bidders on the contract to close the remote mine, which he said will cost a considerable sum just to get workers and equipment to the site.

"This is pretty close to where they insert the tube to give the earth an enema," he said of the region. "It isn't fit for anything that doesn't eat rocks."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company