The Mariscal Mine once bustled as the center of the Big Bend quicksilver mining economy. From 1900 to 1943, Mariscal Mine produced 1,400 seventy-six pound flasks of mercury - nearly one quarter of the total produced in the United States! Now deserted, the mine and surroundings once provided the people who lived here an income, a community, and a home.
A visit to Mariscal Mine conjures up images of hard-working men, women, and machines. With a little imagination, you can get a feeling for the work of these early pioneers and their contributions to Big Bend's rich human history. The remains of the mine stand today as a symbol of a time when "quicksilver was king" and as a vivid reminder of the cycle of human activities and nature's reclamation.
Farmer Martin Solis discovered the bright red mercury-bearing ore called cinnabar near his farm in 1900, and set the history of Mariscal Mine in motion. Shortly thereafter, local U.S. Customs agent and Boquillas, TX, store owner Ed Lindsay filed the first mining claim on Mariscal Mountain. The Lindsay Mine produced some ore between 1900 and 1905, but Lindsay encountered numerous difficulties. Transporting the cinnabar ore 30 miles by mule was costly and a lawsuit challenged his ownership of the property. Subsequently, Lindsay sold his interests to Isaac Sanger of Dallas in November 1905. Only four years later, Sanger's Texas Almaden Mining company closed due to a worldwide economic depression.
World War I created demand for mercury because it was required in the manufacture of blasting caps and bomb detonators. Subsequently, W. K. Ellis, a Midwestern inventor, purchased the mine in 1917. He built a four compartment ore bin that fed into three stationary retorts, or glazed tubes. The Ellis Mine produced 894 flasks of mercury, but when prices plummeted at the end of the war, Ellis wisely sold the mine to William "Billy" Burcham. Structures from this early phase of cinnabar ore processing are visible at the lowest level of the mine complex.
In the summer of 1919, Burcham and several New York financiers formed the Mariscal Mining Company. Naming the company after the mountain it rests upon, Burcham opened the mine and invested in modern equipment and refining methods to increase efficiency and production. The large Scott Furnace and elaborate concrete condenser system that stands above it are the remains of the Mariscal Mining Company. Unfortunately, the system proved to be not so modern or as efficient as hoped. The declining mercury market doomed the mine to failure, and it closed in 1923.
At the beginning of World War II, Burcham reopened the Mariscal Mine under the name of the Vivianna Mining Company. He installed a 30-ton Gould rotary furnace. The high prices he anticipated for mercury did not materialize, and the mine closed for the final time in 1943, just a year before the establishment of Big Bend National Park. All items of value were sold at auction. Ironically, some of the mercury-soaked bricks from the Scott Furnace were processed, yielding a considerable quantity of mercury.
Life at the Mine
Between 1919 and 1923, Mariscal Mine employed 20-40 people. The miners were Mexican citizens who had walked into Texas to escape the Mexican Revolution. Only the manager, foreman, and brick-kiln specialist were American.
Newly-arrived miners usually lived in brush shelters at the foot of Mariscal Mountain. As time permitted, they gathered rocks and built houses. Their wives planted and cared for small vegetable gardens near Fresno Creek. Most of the ruins you see today were one to three room houses, built between 1919 and 1923. During 1942-43, the Vivianna Mining Company built ten concrete and stucco homes for the miners. Ironically, they were probably never occupied as the mine never realized its potential.
Water for the community was obtained from shallow, hand-dug wells along Fresno Creek, about a mile north of the mine. Mexican freighters also hauled large quantities of water to the mine from Glenn Spring, ten miles north.
Working six days per week, experienced miners were paid up to $1.50 per 10-hour shift. Less-skilled laborers earned $1-$1.25. Most of the miners' earnings returned to the mine owners via the company store, which provided supplies. Each employee also contributed $1 per paycheck to support the resident doctor in return for medical care.
Mariscal Mine and its community depended upon the Mexican freighters for all their supplies, including firewood for the Scott Furnace. The freighters hauled extracted mercury from the Mine to the railhead at Marfa for $1 per flask.
The work of digging cinnabar ore by pick and shovel from the depths of Mariscal Mine and then heating it to render mercury was both difficult and unhealthy. Many miners succumbed to mercury poisoning from handling the ore. Those who worked around the Scott Furnace often "salivated," meaning they produced abnormal amounts of saliva. Most veteran furnace men had no teeth and developed chronic respiratory problems from mercury fumes.
Cinnabar, the ore containing mercury, must be heated to release elemental mercury from the compound mercury sulfide. To do this, the Mariscal Mining Company built the large Scott Furnace, the remains of which you can see below the three large condensers on the hillside. Built of bricks made from local Pen clay, the furnace originally stood 20 feet square and 40 feet tall. Almost a year of steady burning was required before the porous bricks were adequately saturated with liquid mercury to allow commercial production to begin.
During the Mariscal Mining Company period, the ore burned in the 360 degree Fahrenheit furnace, where the mercury vaporized. Workers tended the furnace from a scaffold where they periodically inspected its interior by looking through peepholes covered by removable iron plugs. Each hour of the day and night, a furnace man at the bottom withdrew a quantity of burned ore, or slag, while a second man at the top quickly replaced it with a like quantity of unprocessed ore.
A system of several condensers was used to recover the mercury. Mercury-rich exhaust from the Scott Furnace was carefully routed though each condenser by way of iron pipes. These chambers trapped the mercury fumes until the temperature dropped sufficiently for the mercury to condense into liquid.
Little mercury was recovered in the first two condensers due to the high temperature of the vapor. But by the time that the gas reached the third and fourth chambers, it had cooled adequately for the mercury to condense. Less recovery took place in the remaining structures and only a trace of mercury was lost out the 30-foot tall smoke stack beyond the final condenser. The liquid mercury settled into the wells of the slatted condenser floors, dripped out of a pipe into a three-quart iron flask, and was ready for market.
Reaching the Mine
Mariscal Mine, a National Register Historic District, is located on the northern end of Mariscal Mountain, deep in the interior of Big Bend National Park. Easiest access to the area is via the River Road east, which begins just five miles west of Rio Grande Village.
High clearance or four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for traveling this dirt road; check with a park ranger for current road conditions before setting out. Allow at least one-half day for this excursion.
Safety Precautions and Regulations
While exploring the area, remember to leave all objects in place in the park; collecting is prohibited. Because they are old, fragile, and unsafe, please stay off of the remaining structures. Avoid handling the bricks of the Scott Furnace and condensers or handling mine tailings as they may contain poisonous concentrations of mercury. Finally, be careful around the mine shafts; although most are fenced, they are vertical and deep, and other unfenced shafts may exist in the area.