COPPER MINING IN SANTA RITA, NEW MEXICO, 1801-1838
This is the story of a fabulous ore body. It was first commercially developed in 1801 and is still being profitably exploited today over 200 years later. This mine has a fascinating history and a longer working life than any copper mine in United States history.
In her work, Helen Lundwall writes about the first development of the Santa Rita copper mines by the early Spanish colonizers. This book is thoroughly researched, well written and is the definitive record of the first chapter in the long history of the exploitation of this richly mineralized area in southwestern New Mexico.
But, it is a story of only the beginning. The Santa Rita del Cobre mine, as it was commonly called, grew over the years into a great mining industry which supplied a significant amount of the copper necessary for our country to become the economic leader of the world.
After the miners were forced to abandon the area in 1838, Santa Rita remained a virtual ghost town for a number of years. By 1872 the Apaches were subdued and various American entrepreneurs attempted to profitably mine the remaining high-grade veins. These high-grade veins began to play out into massive sulphide rocks that contained too little copper to warrant mining. At the time, no technology was available to recover this low-grade copper.
In the early 1900s, technology was developed, first in Utah and then at Santa Rita, to recover this low-grade copper. In 1909, the Chino Mines Company was formed. A young engineer named John M. Sully was the first general manager. In 1910 the first steam shovel began work at the mine and in 1911 a mill was built in Hurley to concentrate the ore. A railroad then transported the ore nine miles to the Hurley mill.
In the following years, Chino Mines grew at a rapid rate. Kennecott Copper Corporation acquired the property in 1933 and built a smelter, also in Hurley. The capital expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars for ever-improving technology over succeeding years allowed the company to continue to operate. First, steam was replaced by electricity as a means of powering the giant shovels, drills, and the full-scale railroad trains used in mining. Then the trains were replaced with large off-highway trucks. The trucks, shovels and drills became bigger and more efficient. Today (2012), 290 ton trucks and 21-cubic yard shovels are operating at the mine.
During the period from 1981 to 1985, $450 million in additional capital was employed to again improve the operation. The mining capacity was increased at the mine, as a new state-of-the-art computer-controlled mill was built which replaced the old smelting technology with an oxygen flash furnace.
The ownership changed again in 1988 when Phelps-Dodge Corporation assumed control of the property. This organization continued to install improved technology to process the ever-decreasing ore grade. A solvent extraction/electro-winning facility was built in order to recover the very low-grade copper in the ore types that could not be treated by concentrating and smelting.
In March of 2007 the ownership changed once more. Freeport MacMoRan, a mining company from Louisiana, bought the operations of Phelps Dodge Corporation, including Chino Mines Company. It would appear that the mine is under enlightened and forward-looking management, keeping in line with the management styles of previous owners.
Over this long period of time, Chino Mines has provided the basis for a fine living for thousands of employees and their families. It has been one of the largest private employers in New Mexico and has been an economic mainstay in the southwest part of the state. It will remain a successful mining operation in the future if technology improvement and employee productivity increases continue to offset declines in the copper content of the ores.
Santa Rita del Cobre tells us how this fabulous mining saga got its start. It also vividly describes an earlier epoch in the history of mining in the American West. I now invite the reader to enjoy this history that has fascinated us all.
—David A. Kinneberg
Former General Manager
Chino Mines Company
Santa Rita del Cobre is the story of the formative years of a remarkable mine in southwestern New Mexico that has produced copper for more than 200 years. Records of the Spanish Colonial and early Mexican period yield intriguing accounts of the people involved in the early development of the mines, the difficulties they encountered along the way, and the importance of this small settlement to the history of the frontier.
The middle of Apache homelands, 150 miles from the nearest Spanish settlement, seems a most unlikely place to find a successful mining operation. No one knew how the aggressive Apaches, who inhabited much of southern New Mexico and Arizona, would react to a Spanish settlement in their midst. These Apaches caused many problems and had a strong influence over the success or failure of the Santa Rita mining operation. At times the hostility and depredations of these Indians overshadowed the remarkable success of the mines. Over the years, the mining camp became the center of operations in the war against the Apaches. The governor of Chihuahua called Santa Rita del Cobre “the watchtower and guardian of the western frontier.”
Santa Rita copper played an important role in the economic development of New Spain’s northern frontier. The Sierra del Cobre mines, or El Cobre as Santa Rita was first known, had a seemingly inexhaustible store of exceptionally fine copper. An assay of Santa Rita copper at the Mexico City mint in 1804 established the fine quality of this metal. It was very pure, mallable and easy to refine, “the best copper that has come into this mint in many years.” The mint was ordered to pay top dollar (25 pesos per hundred weight) for all the copper these mines could produce. The Santa Rita mines prospered through the last years of Spanish Colonial rule. The mine survived a decade of revolution with few scars. As Mexico struggling to establish a stable government in the early years of independence, Santa Rita continued to turn out high-grade copper. During these often difficult years, there was always a need for copper. When one market faded, another appeared. Although the Santa Rita mines yielded a fortune to the few men willing or able to invest money in their development, it was always a difficult and hazardous undertaking. History professor Paige Christiansen stated, “by far the most interesting copper mine in the United States is the old Santa Rita mine . . .”
Santa Rita del Cobre is more than the history of a mine. It is the story of people of courage and determination who developed a thriving business and established homes in this out-of-the-way place. It portrays life as it was for the mineworkers and their families. These were tough, hardy pioneers who lived a harsh and unforgiving life. The miners worked long, hard hours under dangerous conditions. Their families endured hardship and privation. Mule trains brought in all the necessities of life–food, clothing, and mining supplies–from distant places. The mined copper was transported to market in the same manner. There was always the fear of a deadly raid from hostile Apaches. Many times, the future of Santa Rita was in doubt in these early years as the residents adapted, improvised and endured. This is their story.