Mining Detonator, 1930s

Boom to bust in Texas mining towns

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by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

In the early 20th century, the southwestern desert of Texas was interrupted only by a few farms along the Rio Grande and a small number of goats, sheep, and cattle grazing around water holes. For years, rumors circulated that mercury, called quicksilver, could be found in the area. The silver-white liquid metal was a valuable ingredient in thermometers, vapor lamps, and insecticides.

No one took the rumor seriously until the late 1890s, when a few mines began limited operations. Chicago businessman Howard Perry bought a tract of nearly 3,000 acres in the Big Bend region on a hunch that mining the desert on a more massive scale would pay off. Despite the isolation and hostile climate, Perry organized the Chisos Mining Company in 1903. By 1940, Texas was ranked second in the nation as a producer of quicksilver, producing millions of dollars’ worth of the liquid metal.

Miners primarily of Mexican descent worked 12 hour days, six days a week to harvest mercury from the underground mines that went as deep as 1,000 feet. The work was dangerous, and many men exposed to polluted air suffered from a lung disease called miner’s consumption. Using devices like this “DuPont blasting machine,” miners blasted pathways through the rock. They then chipped the cinnabar ore with hand picks and carried loads of it on their backs up to waiting wagons, where it was transported to furnaces. There the ore was burned until the quicksilver liquified, condensed, and ran into buckets.

Mercury demand plummeted following the end of World War II, creating such an oversupply in the United States that Texas mines were abandoned by 1946. Today only a few remnants remain of the mining days including a ghost town of the Howard Perry-owned Chisos Mining Company and several nearby capped and abandoned mines.

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Mining Detonator, 1930s Artifact from Terlingua, Texas
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