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.
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.
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.
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."
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