Texas Times: Tales from Terlingua

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn | Nov 1, 2011

On the western edge of one of Texas' greatest natural treasures, Big Bend National Park, lies the true Texas ghost town of Terlingua. The eerie ruins of a once prolific mining town are sure to satisfy the interests of those looking for a haunting adventure during the Halloween and Dia de los Muertos season.

In 1903, Chicago industrialist Howard E. Perry established the Chisos Mining Company at Terlingua to capitalize on the rich cinnabar deposits, the ore processed to produce quicksilver, or mercury. The Chisos Mining Company soon became the most successful mine in the region and eventually one of the nation's leading producers of quicksilver.

Perry was notoriously secretive and many historical accounts suggest his less-than-ideal working conditions and sly business practices prompted his evasiveness. "For Perry, secrecy was an occupational necessity�a tenet by which one lived and survived�and in Terlingua, secrecy was synonymous with mystery and distrust," wrote Texas historian Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale.

In 1906, after returning from a visit to the quicksilver mines of Almaden, Spain, Perry constructed a mansion overlooking Terlingua, inspired by the Moorish architecture he had seen in Spain. Though he rarely visited the mine town, Perry's mansion, which he eventually expanded to include two stories and nine bedrooms, was said to serve as a constant reminder to Terlingua inhabitants that Perry�and Perry alone�held the keys to the city.

By 1913, the prosperity of the mine allowed for many modern comforts, such as a reliable water supply, mail delivery three times weekly, a school, telephone service, a company-owned hotel, and a general store that drew customers from as far as 100 miles away. Though details of Perry's operation and life are obscure, reports indicate that by 1934, the Chisos Mining Company had earned more than $12 million in quicksilver production over three decades.

With the ending of World War I, the demand for mercury began a sharp decline. On October 1, 1942, the Chisos Mining Company filed for bankruptcy. The mine's closure as well as an influenza outbreak caused the majority of Terlingua residents to flee the town, leaving behind their homes and businesses.

Today, the ruins of several adobe dwellings and mine shafts enhance Terlingua's ghost-town appeal. The Terlingua Cemetery also harkens back to the early 1900s with many simple, weathered wooden crosses still standing at the gravesites of miners and their family members. Two of the original businesses remain in use today: the general store and movie theater. Sitting side by side, the Terlingua Trading Co., now a gift store, and the Starlight Theatre, now a live music venue and restaurant, are Terlingua's main attractions. The front porch of the general store is somewhat of a historical marker, where tourists and locals alike gather to drink beer, watch the sunset over the Chisos Mountains and share legends and tall tales of the colorful mining town.

Though Terlingua maintains several hundred residents today and a steady beat of tourists throughout the year, the town truly comes to life every November, on the first Saturday of the month, when thousands of "chiliheads" travel to Terlingua for two famous annual chili cookoffs: the Chili Appreciation Society International and the International Frank X. Tolbert - Wick Fowler Championship Chili Cookoff.

Whatever the reason for your travels to Terlingua, this unique West Texas town is sure to live up to its unofficial motto: "expect the unexpected."

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