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Santa Rita — the town that vanished into thin air

By John L. Sinclair

Last updated on Monday, March 17, 2003

The mine encroaching on Santa Rita, circa 1915. Photo courtesy Silver City Museum

"The Santa Rita is, perhaps, the most famous mine in Western America, for it was here that the techniques of copper mining were first developed in the Southwest." So wrote Carey McWilliams in his 1949 book, North From Mexico.

Santa Rita - some 15 miles east of Silver City, site of today's mine and yesterday's town - is in a region of greasewood flatlands, of yucca patches and carpets of creosote brush, with an offering of cacti in many varieties. Wildlife is abundant: canine and feline mammals, reptiles and a bird congress created to make sweet an ornithologist's dream. Hazy mountains humpback on all horizons, abrupt arroyos cut into the hard desert earth. But in spite of the wildness, the loneliness, the feeling of things far away from everywhere, the air is sharp with industry, for in its midst the Kennecott enterprise is ever burrowing, digging, loading, hauling, milling and smeltering the precious substance - ripping out the Santa Rita as mining men have for all but 16 years of the last two centuries.

But where is the town of Santa Rita?

You won't find its location on any up-to-date map because it isn't there anymore. They just moved it out of the way to satisfy the strip mine's ravenous Glory Hole. But there was a town of Santa Rita, once upon a time, a typical Southwestern mining community that held its frontier flavor to the end.

Only on the pages of history does Santa Rita remain as the pioneer of mining methods in the Southwest, flavored with early Spanish New Mexico, challenge and valor, greed and treachery - all the dust of the rawhide West.

Early in the first year of the 1800's, the Spanish governor in Santa Fe ordered the military to take drastic measures against the Apache Indians, then the most troublesome of all tribes. Every Apache man, woman and child was to be killed by any method and no mercy extended. A garrison was established at Janos, in Chihuahua, not far below the present Mexican border - one of many in the very heart of the Apache country.

The mine encroaching on Santa Rita, circa 1915. Photo courtesy Silver City Museum
The mine encroaching on Santa Rita, circa 1915
Among the officers at Janos was Lieutenant Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco. While scouting the Rio Mimbres not far from the garrison with a troop of cavalry, he met a defiant band of Apaches armed and painted for war. In a skirmish a number of the band were killed, and a few taken captive. For some reason, Carrasco spared the life of one warrior in the band, actually befriended him and let him escape. In gratitude the Indian gave the colonel a token of gratitude - small in the palm of the hand but of value beyond reckoning to the eye of the Spaniard: an arrowpoint chiseled out of the purest copper. When questioned, the Indian told of an outcropping of this metal far up the Mimbres toward the snowy mountains known to the Spaniards as the Pinos Altos. Furthermore, the Indian said, the place could be easily identified. A hill with a peculiar rock formation rose directly above, one known today as Ben Moore Mountain. From there came the arrow point Carrasco held in his hand.

Jose Carrasco knew copper, could measure a bonanza should he ever meet up with one. He was born in Spain on the Rio Tinto, a place famed for its copper mines. Now in 1800, he realized that if he searched for the location, he would find a terrain in New Mexico similar to that he had known in his youth. It was time now to quit the army.

Carrasco resigned and with 24 companions left Janos for the upper Mimbres. He readily found the location described by the grateful Apache, and then returned to Mexico to look for backers. In Chihuahua City, he aroused the interest of Don Manuel Francisco Elguea, a prominent banker. Together they obtained a land grant from the Spanish government and named it Criadero de Cobre - Nursery of Copper. The miners they employed erected a village for themselves and called it Santa Rita del Cobre.

Elguea contracted with the government to provide copper for coinage. Southward from Santa Rita the Chihuahua train ran 400 miles, and along the route went crudely smeltered copper to be melted into bars, carried by muleback and on oxcarts. The journey was a cruel one through Apache territory and over rugged terrain under a death-dealing summer sun. To provide labor for the mine, the government established a penal colony at Santa Rita. During that period Carrasco sold his share to Elguea and departed the scene with nothing more to be heard of him.

By 1805, 600 men were employed at Santa Rita. With their families they gave size to the new community. Shafts were sunk and crude ladders rawhided together for descent and ascent. The ore was brought to the surface in tenates, crude leather bags strapped to the shoulder of men the miners called tenateros. The Elgueas built a small but sufficient smelter and kept a packmule train always ready to carry the product southward.

On arrival in Chihuahua the copper sold for 65 cents a pound. It was deemed necessary that the impoverished peon population have copper coinage, and through that necessity the Elgueas made a fortune.

Don Francisco Elguea died in 1809 and the mine was worked by his widow until 1822. Nowhere else was copper found of such high quality. After further refining in Chihuahua, relays of up to 100 pack mules, each loaded with 300 pounds, carried it down the Camino Real to the Royal Mint in Mexico City.

Business district east of Santa Rita, 1919 Photo courtesy Silver City Museum
Business district east of Santa Rita, 1919
In 1825, Don Juan Ortiz was in charge of operations for the Elguea estate when the first Americans arrived. They were the trappers Sylvester Pattie and his son. Their trapline was set along the Gila River and they were familiar with all that was happening at Santa Rita. Pattie negotiated a successful partnership with Ortiz, who apparently left the scene (history does not tell us what happened to him), and it seemed that Pattie would be lord and master of Santa Rita. But the devil works his mischief in the happiest of circles. A trusted scoundrel in his employ made a sudden exit, taking with him $30,000 in working capital, never to be seen again. Bankrupt, Pattie went back to the trapline collecting furs.

Then came an honest and able man, Robert McKnight, who worked the property from 1826 to 1837. At the close of his tenure an act of treachery occurred at Santa Rita, one so villainous that it was to affect the lives and properties of all settlers, both Mexican and American, who resided within the Apache tribal range - a huge area in New Mexico, west Texas, Arizona, Chihuahua and Sonora.

On an afternoon in 1837, a ruthless band of traders led by James Johnson arrived in Santa Rita. Knowing that the Mexican government still offered a bounty for any Apache taken dead or alive - an offer ignored by most settlers - Johnson and his group made a pact with some Mexicans at Santa Rita to rid New Mexico of the "Apache menace."

Keeping the plot from McKnight and his American staff, Johnson arranged for a trading meet - a grand gathering of Apaches and Mexicans near the Santa Rita mine. Juan Jose, chief of the Mimbreno Apaches, was the chosen guest of honor. The traders also hoped that Jose would bring Mangas Coloradas, a subchief. Second to Cochise, Mangas Coloradas was the greatest of Apache leaders and the most ruthless. However, up to that point, the Apaches had always made friendly visits to the mine to trade and to beg. Their war had long been with the Mexicans, never forgetting the extermination order given by the Spanish governor in Santa Fe some 40 years before.

But Johnson had in mind two scalps of such quality as to command an extra bounty when delivered to the garrison at Janos.

The party was everything promised. Objects of trade were laid out in an open space among the hills, and the feast of roasted game and bread, the favorite Apache diet, was stacked like cordwood on spread-out hides. Indians and Mexicans mingled at the banquet with excitement growing rampant as the trade goods were handled. Later, there would gambling, perhaps. But no intoxicants. McKnight was emphatic about that when he was told of the celebration already planned. He praised Johnson for his generous move to build harmony with the Apaches.

As this was purely a Mexican-Apache affair, Mcknight and his few Americans stayed away. Juan Jose and Mangas Coloradas sat together watching the show, stoic with the dignity their social status commanded. There were women attending, some with their very young in cradleboards of wood and buckskin.

Johnson's voice was loud above the festivities, encouraging all to enjoy themselves, full of good humor. However, a few of Johnson's trappers were absent - busy on a hillside overlooking the gala scene. A howitzer was concealed in the dense brush with ample ammunition ready for use. Johnson gave a signal the miners moved away form the stacks of food and trade goods. Only the Apaches were bunched together, gorging themselves and inspecting the treasures.

The howitzer roared, quivering the hills, followed by a blast of pistol and rifle fire. Havoc overtook the sunbright afternoon. Juan Jose was numbered among the many dead. A few Apaches made their escape, among them Mangas Coloradas.

Throughout the Apache region, runners carried word of the slaughter. In the quiet hills about Santa Rita, Mangas Coloradas, skilled in the art of blood-for-blood retaliation, went about the business of revenge. A planned act of treachery had brought on actual war, one that would last for almost half a century.

Johnson, of course, did not collect his prize scalps. He miraculously made his escape, but nearly all his trapper friends were caught, tortured and killed. He made his way through the heart of Apache land and on to California, where he died in poverty. McKnight, who made a fortune from the mine, managed to get through the Apache cordon with his American friends. Now only the Mexican miners and their families were left to keep Santa Rita alive.

But for how long?

The scattered Mimbreno Apaches were gathered together - and the slaughter began. The first to taste vengeance was a party of 22 trappers camped on the Gila, every man killed, the bodies mutilated. Benjamin Wilson along with two trappers met up with Apache warriors east of Santa Rita. The trappers were tortured to death, but Wilson got away.

Although Wilson's trappers had been left for the buzzards, their deaths were speedier than the sort that threatened the 400 men, women and children who stayed on at Santa Rita. Day and night they were aware of Indian eyes watching from the hills. Devoutly religious, the people kept themselves in constant prayer. Their only hope was the long supply train due to arrive from Chihuahua. Never had it failed to reach its destination. It was comprised of trailing ox wagons, carts, pack mules, burros, all laden with foodstuffs, clothing; tools for the shaft and smelter, and above all, ammunition for the pistols and rifles.

Hunters ventured out, but never far from the village, and brought home venison, bear and wild turkey. All the while the staple food supply was dwindling, the ammunition was running low. Each sunrise brought new hope that this day would see the arrival of the supply train, but always the sun faded into twilight leaving only bitter disappointment and fear.

When a few fearless young men suggested they go down the trail to find the train, their offer brought protest. If any were to leave Santa Rita, then all must go - every man, woman and child. But the supply train, of course, was never to bless little Santa Rita. Mangas Coloradas had seen to that.

So the miners and their families left Santa Rita - left their homes, the mine shafts, the tiny smelter, their livestock - left it a ghost town. Theirs was a pathetic procession as it moved southward, each under his or her load. The cargo was mostly carried on horses, mules and burros. A few strong men pushed laden wheelbarrows.

They decided, as they went on, that if the train was not met they would go the entire 400 miles to Chihuahua. They were aware that warriors followed - hidden from view but hungry to avenge the slaughter at Santa Rita, a blood payment for the life of Juan Jose, for the trusting women, for the innocents in cradleboards. In bright sunlight there came a time for the massacre. Out of the 400 who started, only six lived to reach Chihuahua.

Santa Rita was still deserted some 12 years later when an overflow of "forty-niners" from California prospected for gold in the surrounding area, and the bonanza camps of Pinos Altos, Georgetown, Silver City and Mogollon were staked out for residence while working the lodes. A company of cavalry then occupied the old Santa Rita torreon, or fortress, built by the Elgueas a half-century before, while they protected the gold miners against Apache attacks. No interest was shown in copper. gold and silver shining bright were the twin elements that gave lift to the muckstick and sound to the blast.

By 1872, Cochise of the Chiricahua Apaches had succeeded Coloradas as supreme chief. He made a treaty with the government that put the tribesmen on reservations, and it seemed that at last peace had come to the hills and flats and arroyos that were the Mimbres.

So a Denver man, Martin B. Hayes, took over the Santa Rita mines. Obtaining a patent was no easy task, as the Elguea heirs were scattered over Mexico and Spain. He obtained ownership, however, the 45 claims, each with a name recorded by its former operator. One was called El Chino, translated form Spanish as "The Chinaman."

But peace, such as it was, did not last - could not last. Santa Rita enjoyed only a few years of revival. Geronimo escaped form the reservation hating all Mexicans and Americans, among the latter, the Spanish-Americans of New Mexico. He fled southward to Mexico where, with a band of feisty warriors, he set up a stronghold in the Sierra Madre. From there he continued a war of vengeance.

In 1879, Victorio, another Apache leader, with a large following of Mescalero braves, crossed the Black Range into southwestern New Mexico. Other bands attacked other locales. All this didn't help harvest the copper at Santa Rita. Then Victorio was killed in Chihuahua in October 1880. in 1886, Geronimo surrendered to the military in Skeleton Canyon in the Peloncillo Mountains, thus ending the Apache wars that began with Johnson's howitzer party at Santa Rita in 1837.

J. Parker Whitney purchased the copper mine from Hayes sometime before 1886 and operated it until the turn of the century. Then a group of New York investors established the Santa Rita Mining Company and leased the claims to miners. The miners, in turn, brought up the ores. The job of milling was done by the company.

Santa Rita was then 100 years old. The high-grade ores were ready to play out. Bodies of sulfide rock were showing, but little did the people concerned realize that this massive geological change was a herald of the real bonanza - the priceless treasure chest of Chino mines.

In 1904, the ores assayed less than 10 percent copper content, no longer considered worth processing. But that same year there arrived in Santa Rita a young and ambitious engineer, John N. Sully, sent by the Hermosa Copper Company, which hoped to purchase Santa Rita. Converting low-grade ore to profit was Sully's stock in trade.

He explored the old diggings, then in 1905 came up with the news that there were six million tons of undeveloped ore averaging 2.73 percent copper, the huge amount making mining worthwhile for a company that could afford the initial capital outlay to finance it. Hermosa gave up its plan to purchase, which set Sully free to do as he pleased with the survey. In 1909, after four years of trying with no results, he attracted backers and formed the Chino Copper Company. In 1910, the steam shovels began biting into the earth, and the great open pit of today began to take form. A mill was erected at nearby Hurley in 1911, a smelter in 1939, a fire refinery in 1942. After years of company mergers and consolidations, Chino became part of the worldwide Kennecott Corporation.

And as the width of the Glory Hole expanded, so the town of Santa Rita moved back to make room for the harvest - for Copper the King - and finally at the monarch's command be gone, dissolve, live only on the pages of history. At Santa Rita all has become change, from the big to the mammoth, from the earliest event in the chronicles of the American West to the spectacular of present-day industry.

What sound and clatter, what dust, upheaval, joy, pain and death have sprung from a small copper arrowpoint held in the palm of the Spaniard Carrasco, the gift of an Apache warrior in exchange for a show of compassion.

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