Features

100 Hikes in a Year
What one hiker learned along the way, and some of her favorites for you to try

A Little Night Music
Still playing at 86, Silver City musician Dane Dexter knew all the greats

Mining Santa Rita's History
Terry Humble has a passion for the mining district's past

A Real Hoot
Meet the burrowing owl, Frank Sinatra of the owl clan

Columns and Departments

Editor's Note
Letters
Desert Diary
Tumbleweeds
Henry Lightcap's Journal
Borderlines
The Starry Dome
Talking Horses
Ramblin' Outdoors
Guides to Go
Continental Divide


Special Sections

40 Days & 40 Nights
The To-Do List

Red or Green

Millie's Bake House
Dining Guide
Table Talk


Arts Exposure

Arts Scene
Las Cruces Arts Association at 50
Narrie Toole
Gallery Guide



Body, Mind
& Spirit

What Do You Need?


HOME
About the cover



Looking Backwards

Mining Santa Rita's History

Terry Humble has a passion for the past of Grant County's mining district.

by Ann Mcmahon

 

He leaned into the drill, pressing hard to complete the last of the 30 holes for this dynamite round. As he did so, his boots made a gentle sucking sound as his weight transferred forward, pulling his heels out of the muck of the stope in the tunnel floor, where the mining had progressed that day. As he pushed forward, he was thinking about riding the cage back up the shaft to sunlight, getting his diggers off in the dry room and feeling the hot shower wash away a day's worth of the muck, as the miners called the mix of dirt and ore.

mining
Terry Humble demonstrates the operation of an old ore shoot. When the mine was in operation, a train or mule team would have been positioned under the shoot and the operator would have been responsible, by moving the handle, for making sure just the right amount of ore went into the receiving container. Operation of the handle requires a lot of strength.
(All photos by and copyrighted by Anita F. McMahon)

Suddenly the drill plunged forward through the hole, snatching away his thoughts, and a cold, hard spray of water pounded his hard hat. Instinctively he jumped back, the drill followed, and the water blew out in a painful and dangerous stream from the freshly drilled hole.

Years later, his research would uncover a record, kept by the mining company, recording the details of that day. Details showed he had penetrated a small cavern in the rock on the other side of the face of the drift. That record would also show the small cavern to be 3 feet by 4 feet by 12 feet. It stated the drill hole was releasing 230 gallons of water a minute and would continue to do so for a full month before mining could resume in that area of the mine.

When work did resume, the water had slowed to 45 gallons a minute and several men rushed in to open the small cavern and grab the crystals they knew would be inside. They looked black and dirty underground. Brought to the surface and cleaned they were beautiful works of nature's art, carved by water out of quartz and other crystalline minerals.

It was August 1967 and Terrence M. Humble — or Terry, as everyone called him — had a grin on his face as he watched his mining buddies hustle to open up the cavern and grab the crystals. He too felt the excitement of finding out what treasure was on the other side of that drift wall.

In his new book, Santa Rita del Cobre, Terry Humble finds many such treasures in the rich history of Grant County's mining district. He not only writes about such adventures but he and co-author Christopher Huggard explore the fabric of the 50 square miles encompassing Fierro, Hanover, Georgetown, Turnerville, Santa Rita and Bayard. They begin with the discovery of copper by the Spanish, the relationship with Mexico, the influx of Anglo-Americans into this culture and the fate of the Native Americans. The two authors continue with chapters exploring mining technology in detail, the labor movement it fostered and the effects of over 200 years of digging in the ground on the individuals, the communities and the environment.

While Humble and his family are natives of Santa Rita, Chris Huggard comes to this new book as an accomplished writer of the history of copper mining in the West. He earned his PhD in history from the University of New Mexico in 1994 and has published extensively on the history of mining and its environmental impact in Grant County and elsewhere in the American West. Huggard is part of the Honors Program faculty at Northwest Arkansas Community College. Like Humble, he is a Rodman Paul Award Winner for outstanding contributions to mining history. He is also a former editor of The Mining History Journal.

 

Terry Humble is the grandson of miners. His grandfather, on his mother's side of the family, came to the Silver City area in 1917 after receiving letters from relatives who were already working at Santa Rita. Those letters told about available jobs. Humble's grandfather was a water well driller near Corpus Christi, Texas, and was eager to hear about the work in New Mexico. The mines needed men with knowledge and experience of drilling and, it was said, the mines paid really good wages.

mining 2

Terry's grandfather worked for the Chino Copper Co. on the Chino Mine, at the foot of the Kneeling Nun. He worked there for more than 40 years, from 1917 to 1959. When he retired, it was the Kennecott Copper Corp. that marked the occasion.

During those years, Humble's mother, Margaret Barber, was born in Santa Rita. She eventually married a man from Deming, Pat Humble. Pat was the son of a rancher who came to Deming from Kansas in 1910. But it was mining and not ranching that attracted young Pat Humble. He started his long mining career in 1938 at the ASARCO "Ground Hog" mine, located just behind the present-day Vanadium Cemetery on Highway 356. He would prove himself an excellent miner, one of the few men around who could actually sink a shaft. Pat had the skills and the strength to drill, blast and then set eight-by-eight timbers, working his way straight into the earth six feet at a time. Pat loved mining and his smile was eclipsed only by his flaming red hair. He was proud of his profession.

His son Terry Humble was born in Santa Rita in 1941, a few months before America's entry into World War II. Many men from Santa Rita were enlisted, although their skills were in tremendous demand on the homefront, extracting copper, silver and gold for the war effort. So Humble learned about mining from the miners who were his dad's friends and from listening to his dad tell story after story of his work in both open pit and underground mines. This chapter of his life came to an end in 1959 when Humble joined the Navy.

When he returned to Santa Rita in 1963, he was shocked. House after house was being moved to other locations around Grant County as the non-stop excavating of the mines sought out the quality copper ore that lay beneath the little town of Santa Rita. The town where Humble and much of his family had been born and raised was literally disappearing. It was the place where his Boy Scout troop would hike up to the base of the Kneeling Nun and where he would ride his bike around the equipment yards and operations. "We always took Santa Rita for granted," Humble states with some residual pain, "and it was then I knew we would never be able to go back."

 

In the years of the century just passed, the 1920s through the 1950s, much mining was conducted underground, with the familiar wooden or steel superstructures, called headframes, dotting the landscape. The technology in those decades started a mine with a main shaft straight down into the earth. The start of this shaft had a reinforced concrete area around all sides at the surface called a collar. Depending on the size of the mine, the headframe contained one to four areas of the shaft for lowering the men and pulling up ore containers.

The men descended into the mine, from three or four at a time in smaller mines to as many as a dozen in larger mines, standing in a small cast-iron container called a cage. These cages were secured on a huge cable covered in a special grease. The cable unwound from giant spindles in the hoist building, which faced the headframe. The cable left the hoist building via a special opening in the roof, went to the top of the headframe over a grooved wheel and from there straight down the middle of the headframe and into the shaft. There was no counter balance to the cage containing the men.

mining
This image reflects over 200 years of mining in Grant County’s Central Mining District—with one of the last remaining wood headframes, dating from 1917, to a more modern metal headframe, to the Kneeling Nun where copper was first discovered, to the waste pile of today’s present day open pit mining.

Should misfortune arise, only hand brakes on the side of the cage called "dogs," worked by the hoist operator, could slow or stop the cage. The dogs were cog-like protrusions on the side of the cage designed to dig into the wood rails along the mine shaft to keep a cage loaded with men from plummeting hundreds, even a thousand feet, should the cable break.

While Humble never experienced a plummeting cage, work in the mines took a toll on him and others physically. "It was very dangerous work," he says. In one recollection, he outlines a situation that injured men on three consecutive shifts.

"Two men on the day shift in the Continental #3 Shaft at the 1,000-foot level were driving a development drift through some bad ground that required support timbers to be placed," he recalls. A drift is a horizontal opening in or near the ore body and parallel to the course of the vein or long dimension of the ore body.

"They had just completed an eight-foot section with the required eight-by-eight timbers in place and had drilled and loaded the dynamite holes in the face of the drift. I walked into the drift to collect used drill steel that needed sharpening. Suddenly, a large rock fell out of the ceiling, hitting Mike Gonzales on the head and then dropping further, crushing my ankle. We were both down in the mud on the floor, but Mike was unconscious. We thought he was dead."

Humble's eyes widen as he relives the event. "The other miner in the drift that day was Ben Nations and, luckily, he was unhurt. He scrambled over to Mike and yelled that he was still alive. Someone rang the nine-bells emergency signal up to the surface as we began the process of getting Mike moved to the main shaft where the cage to the surface waited.

"Ben picked up the unconscious man under the arms, cradling his injured head and neck, while I crawled on my knees, because I could no longer walk. I was helping to push Mike's legs as Ben pulled. We worked along in this manner for several painful feet, finally managing to get Mike loaded on a nearby battery-operated locomotive. We took this to the main station at the shaft, where Ben rang the nine bells."

When they arrived at the surface, Humble was amazed to see a crowd of people gathered. "Mike was loaded in the back of an ambulance, while I hobbled to the front seat and we rolled off to the hospital. Meanwhile, Ben went back underground to blast the loaded round of dynamite holes. After all, the mine was paying a bonus for the amount of work completed."

The mine then sent two more men on the second shift to begin cleanup, and a man was injured when that area further caved in on him. The third, "graveyard" shift continued the cleanup and yet another man was injured before the soft rock was finally secured and they could continue work on that drift.

Reflecting for a moment, Humble quietly summarizes, "There were four lost-time accidents in less than 24 hours. In fact, Mike was injured so severely that he never returned to work underground."

 

Despite such harrowing experiences, Humble maintained a fondness for the mining district and an interest in mining history. As he saw his precious Santa Rita literally disappear, an idea for a book chronicling that history began taking shape in his mind.

His father provided incentive and assistance. Pat Humble liked history. He admired a former Silver City and Deming lawman, Dan Tucker, from the area's Wild West past. When author Bob Alexander came to Silver City to research a book about Tucker, he stopped in to visit with Pat Humble. Because Pat was still working six days a week in the mines, Terry found himself helping both men with the research for the book. By this time, he was working in the open pit mines himself, but he had Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. He would take those days to read microfilm and newspaper articles kept in both the Silver City and Western New Mexico University libraries.

mining
From the perspective of this image, you are sitting in the hoist operator’s chair. One of the hand brakes, to control the cable going down into the mine shaft, is seen at left, while the depth indicator wheel shows the end of the cable stopped between levels three and four when the mine was shut down years ago.

Meanwhile, the move of the town of Santa Rita continued and was completed by 1970, allowing the copper-hungry mine to resume its relentless, round-the-clock processing of the precious ground where Santa Rita once stood. It was then that Santa Rita's former residents began calling themselves "born in space" — because the ground where they'd grown up was gone.

Others had already begun capturing the history of Santa Rita and the mining district. In the 1950s, Lou Blachly formed a Pioneers Foundation and began interviewing those old-timers still living, recording them on reel-to-reel tapes. Blachly was the editor of the Silver City Enterprise newspaper, and he'd read stories of the pioneers of the area in the old editions.

When Pat Humble retired from underground mining in the 1970s, he pursued his interest in mining history, finding copies of the Blachly tapes at WNMU. Listening to each of the hundreds of tapes, he built a catalog and also made cassette copies for his own use. He would then take the stories he heard on the tapes and give talks to various groups around Silver City, such as The Westerners, Grant County Archeology Society and the Silver City Women's Club. Meanwhile, son Terry continued collecting as many photographs, stories and mining records that he could about Santa Rita del Cobre, keeping alive his goal of a book.

mining
The Princess Mine dates from 1940 and was owned and operated by United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Co.

Pat Humble died in 1997. Four years later, Terry Humble retired from active mining and proceeded with renewed vigor to capture every scrap of mining records and photographs possible.

 

In the early 1990s, while doing library research in Silver City, Terry Humble had run into a young man named Christopher Huggard who was also doing research. Huggard was working on his doctoral thesis in mining history. Humble mentioned his long-term desire to publish a book about Santa Rita and the mine. The two men agreed to stay in touch.

Then, in 2008 the break Humble needed happened, as Chris Huggard agreed to partner with Humble on his long-dreamed-of book. Huggard took advantage of a sabbatical to leave his teaching position in Arkansas and come to Bayard to work with Humble. Says Humble, "It was total immersion. We worked from sunrise to sundown three or four weeks at a time." These sessions went on over the course of two years, culminating in a manuscript that both men felt they could present to a publisher.

Huggard had already published two books on mining history. He was also known at the University of Colorado, whose publishing department specialized in books dealing with western mining history. As soon as Huggard's colleagues at Colorado heard about the book, they agreed to publish it and have the University of Oklahoma print it.

 

So what does the future hold for Humble and his not-to-be-forgotten Santa Rita? Prior to the intensive work sessions with Huggard, Humble had started a monthly Mine Tour, using the Corre Caminos bus to take people down Highway 356 out of Bayard and through the central mining district. He relates the history of what it was like to work in the mines and for the mine companies. The mine tour remains extremely popular, resulting in several tours a month, plus special tours for various Silver City festivals and events.

And then there's another book in the works. Humble is collaborating with Carolyn Davis and Arcadia Publishing on a volume dedicated to the town of Silver City and Grant County.

 

 

Santa Rita del Cobre: A Copper Mining Community in New Mexico by Christopher J. Huggard and Terrence M. Humble (University Press of Colorado, $45 hardcover) may be purchased from the author or from the Silver City Museum, Aunt Judy's Attic, JD's Feed and Supply and Royal Scepter Gem and Mineral in Silver City and at JW Art Gallery in Hurley. It is available online from Amazon (also in a Kindle edition, $34.95) and Barnes & Noble (also in a Nook edition, $19.22).

 


Ann McMahon is a photographer who moved to Silver City in mid-2010.
Visit her website at www.AnnMcMahon.com.





Return to Top of Page