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MERCURY MINING

MERCURY MINING. Texas has considerable quantities of ore from which mercury may be produced. Historically, several distinct uses made the metal so indispensable in time of war that a belligerent without it was at the mercy of one with ample supplies. Possession or control of quicksilver resources was greatly desired by all nations, but it was obtainable in quantity in only a few. More recently, mercury has been used in electrical apparatus, dental preparations, fungicides, bactericides, and industrial instruments. In Texas all mercury mining has been done about ninety miles south of Alpine in Brewster and Presidio counties. The producing area, known as the Terlingua District, is the third-largest mercury-producing area in the United States. Mercury mining is done by sinking shafts and running drifts. Historically, the miners were mostly men of mixed Mexican and Indian blood who worked under technical supervision. Until World War II hand drilling and mucking as well as outmoded methods of refining ore were used; operators converted to modern methods to meet war requirements and high labor costs.

Cinnabar, the brilliant red ore of mercury, was discovered and first worked in Texas by Indians, who probably used it as war paint and certainly used it in the paintings still to be seen on the rocks and bluffs of West Texas. In these paintings the deep red of cinnabar still shows brightly among the fading colors produced by other pigments. Cinnabar was probably an article of commerce among the Plains Indians, for Ferdinand von Roemer, who traversed the Comanche country in 1840, mentions trading a lasso for a small quantity. The first mention of the discovery of mercury by white men states that a sample was taken to Alpine, Texas, for identification in 1884. This event led to prospecting and additional discoveries, and the first flask of mercury was produced in 1886. (A "flask" of mercury is seventy-six pounds.) Desultory prospecting and production continued until 1898, when mining was started by what later became the Marfa and Mariposa Mining Company. By 1900 the company had produced about a thousand flasks by means of retorts.

The Big Bend and Texas Almaden at Study Butte and the Chisos Mining Company at Terlingua began production in 1903, and the Chisos Company operated continuously for the next forty years. The Mariscal Mine near Hot Springs operated intermittently from 1916 to 1942. This property adjoined the Chisos mine, and both closed at the same time for lack of ore. The Fresno Mines at Buena Suerte began production in 1940; the discovery of the ore body there extended the Terlingua District approximately seven miles westward. The lode was the first paying deposit opened in forty years. Numerous small properties operated when the price of mercury was above normal. During both world wars, under the stimulus of patriotic endeavor and the inducement of high prices, the United States led in quicksilver production. From 1939 to 1945 at least five mines were active, but with the end of World War II supplies from war-impoverished countries, principally Spain, were dumped into world markets and created such an oversupply in the United States that Texas mines were abandoned by 1946. After the war Spain and Italy produced 70 percent of the world supplies, and this country produced 20 percent. No reliable records of mercury production in Texas before 1919 are extant. Production from 1919 to 1941 inclusive was 55,081 flasks. The Chisos Mining Company produced 39,094 flasks; the Rainbow Mine produced 8,087 flasks. The Big Bend and Texas Almaden produced 4,554 and 417 flasks, respectively. The Mariscal Mine produced 484 flasks from 1919 to 1923, and the Fresno Mines produced 540 flasks by the close of 1941. Nine other mines produced 1,905 flasks during the twenty-two years.

In 1954 the federal government's price guarantee of $225 per flask and increased national consumption of mercury stimulated further recovery of mercury from cinnabar deposits around Terlingua, and the following year two Texas mines produced mercury for the open market. From 1955 to 1957 private interests and a company under federal contract conducted drilling operations without much success, while the establishment of thirty-ton rotary furnaces at Lone Star Mercury operations in 1956 made little difference in production. Texas-produced mercury continued to be insignificant, and in 1960 Texas and Arizona had a combined production of only 128 flasks out of the nation's total of 33,233. Mercury consumption in the United States reached 78,000 flasks in 1963, the highest in history, and the following year, mercury sold for the highest price in many years, $265 per flask. A 1963 Bureau of Mines survey of potential mercury resources, based on 1961 technology and production costs, indicated that the Texas mercury potential equaled 17,500 flasks. Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company, known as Diamond Alkali before its merger with Shamrock, leased mercury mineral rights on 28,000 acres near Terlingua and Study Butte in 1964. A price rise in mercury to $775 a flask led to considerable exploration and development by the company in 1965, and in that year Texas produced a small quantity of mercury, the first in nearly five years.

Diamond Shamrock began expansion of its Study Butte facilities in 1967 with the addition of a mercury furnace and processing plant with a capacity of 100 tons of cinnabar ore a day. Most of the mercury recovered by the company went into the production of chlorine and caustic soda at its Deer Park plant near Houston. In 1969 the Study Butte mine produced 1,000 flasks of mercury, but by early in 1970 the mine was shut down until July, when Mineral Industries, Incorporated, purchased the property from Diamond Shamrock and reopened the mine. Later that year the Anchor Company began development of a new mine in Presidio County, known as the Whit-Roy, where about 138 tons of ore was mined and construction begun on a furnace and retort. In the early 1970s the Texas Mercury Company reopened the old Lone Star Mine, and production was reported from the old Fresno mining area and other properties in the district. By 1971, however, because of decreased demand for mercury, the mines in the Terlingua area were again shut down. No further production has been reported since 1973. See also MINERAL RESOURCES AND MINING, and TERLINGUA, TEXAS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

W. F. Hillebrand and W. T. Schaller, Mercury Minerals from Terlingua, Texas (Washington: GPO, 1909). Kenneth B. Ragsdale, Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). Texas Business Review, August 1964, September 1964. Texas Industrial Expansion (Bureau of Business Research, Graduate School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, 1968). U.S. Bureau of Mines, Minerals Yearbook. University of Texas, Texas Looks Ahead: The Resources of Texas (Austin, 1944; rpt., Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968).

W. D. Burcham and Harris S. Smith

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

W. D. Burcham and Harris S. Smith, "MERCURY MINING," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/dkm02), accessed December 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.