Saturday Art and Archaeology: Ghost Town Terlingua, TX
Ghost Town is the remains of the town that was lived in by the miners at the Chisos Mine, owned by Howard Perry. He had leased the land for pasture then the grasses petered out there, but some later visitors saw that cinnabar, the ore that produces mercury, was present and it was used in the form of mercury fulminate, in blasting caps, with WWI just starting so there was a need.
After receiving an offer of $.25 an acre to lease and ignoring it, then getting an offer of $.50 an acre, he sent out a geologist and found out what he had. He started up the mine which became the 3rd largest in the world, in 1913 having 3 mining shafts and 500 miners. The shafts stay at 83F, so are inhabitable year round, and from the area, limestone was picked up as the miners broke through it to mine for cinnabar. To build houses, the men would put in foundation large stones, then when they went to the mine in the day, the women and children filled in with smaller stones to fit.
The houses have the shape of 10 by 13 feet because that was the size of roofing material they could get for the least amount. They’re all built at an angle to the westerly wind, so that the house stayed warm in winter, cool in summer, with doors and windows all built to keep the best climate control, and the stoves all outside. The people also slept outside in summer.
The walls are 18 inches thick, and modern science now recommends over 16 inches for limestone for the best use of its properties, they all learned by doing. There were curtains in the windows, and no bugs, since the process of extracting mercury from cinnabar produces sulfur, an extremely good insecticide.
It was the smell of sulphur from the refining that greeted Perry’s wife when she arrived to see the mine, a smell that sent her back to the east coast never to return.
Perry was committed to making himself rich, and put in a dance hall that had musicians to play, and the miners all could come in after work or before going to the night shift. He put in a large mercantile store, a theatre and a school and kept two cars for sale outside the store so the miners would save toward buying a car instead of throwing money into other pleasures (one was a Mercury.)
The mine was successful beyond Perry’s dreams, but WWI ended, and electronic caps replaced the pyrotechnics of mercury and in the end he died in 1911 a bankrupt, the mine was bought out by Brown and Root’s predecessor, but the cinnabar was played out and it closed in 1913. The houses stayed and began to fall in, and what’s now left is the ruins of what was a lively and prosperous community.
Miners’ families come back to the reunions now and recall they had good lives and could keep what they made – which was not true in Mexico for the ‘campesinos’ who were ruled over by the rich and had no rights of their own or their own money earned for labor. The whites and Indian descendants mixed freely and there was no stigma with their mixed blood.
The homes the miners lived in remain, fallen in but still a small torn, around the central area of the store, Starlight Theatre, the old dance hall and the church. The present owners carry on the tradition of keeping a mercantile store, and let local interests run a restaurant in the theatre. The dance hall houses an assistance office, and there is a communal garden and farm market beside the park that sits in front of the central store.