Mexico - Luxurious Life At A Gold-Mine
( Originally Published 1912 )
ALTHOUGH Mexico is the greatest silver-producing country in the world and is also rich in gold and other minerals, the average tourist sees very little of the great mining industry. Nor is this surprising, for very few of the mines can be reached by railway, and to get to them one must oftentimes make long, tiring journeys on burro or horse-back over rough mountain trails. In this respect the city of Oaxaca is much more favorably situated, as a number of mines can be reached from there by a short railway journey or a day's horseback ride over fairly good roads.
In Ocotlan, Taviche, Ejutla, and other adjacent districts there are numerous mines producing gold, silver, copper and lead, the precious metals being invariably combined with other minerals. Some of these mines were worked in the early Spanish days and even in prehistoric times. One of the best known of them is the Natividad in the Ixtlan district, which is one of the oldest and richest in Mexico. It produces both silver and gold, and from an original capital of $25,000 has yielded many millions in dividends. Most of these mines are controlled by foreigners, chiefly Americans, some being operated by stock companies, others by individual owners. This has brought a number of American mining men into Oaxaca and also a few English, Welsh and Canadian mining engineers.
During my stay in Oaxaca I was introduced to Mr. W. H. Baird of Pittsburg, manager of the Zavaleta gold mine, some twenty miles out. Upon learning that I wished to see something of the mining industry, he invited me to spend a few days at Zavaleta, which invitation I gladly accepted.
It was arranged that we should start for the mine the same afternoon, and forthwith a horse was found for me, equipped with an American saddle, a great luxury for an unhardened rider, as the heavy Mexican saddle is usually very uncomfortable on first acquaintance. Just as we were starting on our journey we were joined by another American known as Don Carlos, his name was Charles,who had been employed at the mine, but was now prospecting on his own account and was going out to Zavaleta to spend Christmas with his friends.
It was about one o'clock when we mounted our horses and rode off through the cobble-paved streets ; and as it was market day, we had to pick our way among a procession of burros, ox-carts and Indians, some still straggling in from the country and others already leaving for their homes. The road that we took led down to a wide, shallow river with a long stretch of sandy bed on each side of it. Although the stream was spanned by a bridge, we crossed by a ford lower down, thus saving about half a mile. Most of the Indians took the same short cut, some removing their sandals and wading through the water, others splashing through on their horses and burros. Most of them had two or three ugly looking curs trotting at their heels; for how-ever poor an Indian may be, he is never too poor to keep a hungry pack of mongrel dogs. After crossing the river, a gallop along a very dusty road soon brought us to the open country.
The road after a short distance became a mere trail, and at times when we left it to take a short cut our horses had to climb up steep, rocky paths among brush and cactus, performing the feat with wonderful agility. For mountain-climbing the Mexican horses are unexcelled.
All around us were the towering, barren mountains, bordering a rocky plain, occasionally planted with maguey, and here and there was a bright green patch of sugar-cane or vegetables where irrigation was in progress. Occasion-ally we passed the crumbling stonework which marks the ancient irrigation conduits which were in use long before the Spaniards came to Mexico. The pre-Conquest natives of these valleys were an industrious race, and there is hardly a hill or hollow where it was possible to collect a little soil that has not been cultivated at some time. These plains, most of which are now arid in the dry months, were then kept fresh and luxuriant.
Among the bright green patches which here and there we passed would be seen a square adobe hut with a few shady trees, a perfectly Oriental picture. Sometimes there would be a herd of goats watched by a solitary shepherd with his crook, in the truly Biblical way. Once we passed a bare-legged ploughman in his white linen suit and big straw sombrero, ploughing with a yoke of oxen, using an ancient one-bladed wooden plough such as is seen in East-ern lands. Above was a cloudless sky, and the sun streamed down with tropical intensity. We were glad to take a rest at a wayside spring where the Indian Rebeccas from a neighboring pueblo (village) were filling their cantaros or tall red water-pitchers and going off with them balanced on their heads.
An American clergyman whom I met in Puebla told me that during a long residence in Mexico he had been greatly impressed with the numerous illustrations of Biblical customs that he found in the life of the people. Some of these had been introduced by the Spaniards, who, at the time of the Conquest, had retained many of the usages of the Moors, who had only recently been driven from Spain. Many of the customs, however, were in common use already when the Spaniards came to Mexico, and have been supposed by some authorities to point to the Oriental origin of the Aztecs or their predecessors.
On our way we passed a hill with a picturesque ruin, an old domed church, built by the Spaniards early in the sixteenth century. Tradition says that it was built by Cortes, and that he immured one of his numerous wives in the con-vent adjoining it. Mexico is full of legends of the great Conqueror and his wives; at one place you are shown the house where he is said to have strangled one of them ; at another, a well where he drowned one; and another, where he is said to have poisoned one.
Zavaleta is about fifteen hundred feet higher than Oaxaca, so that our ride was a gradual ascent. About halfway the country changed, the barren, sun-baked mountains giving place to towering heights of three and four thousand feet, covered with trees, most of them beautifully green. The air also grew much cooler. Onward we rode, up hill and down dale, along rocky roads, some of them so steep that our horses in descending almost slid down, their haunches being so much higher than their forelegs. Sometimes we forded a brawling stream which dashed along its rocky bed, winding in and out among the mountains. At last, about four o'clock, our journey came to an end and we entered the valley of Zavaleta, as wild as any glen in the remote Scottish Highlands.
A foaming stream, rushing down from the mountains, wound through the middle of the valley, leaping through a succession of beautiful cascades. Our road was about a hundred feet above this, and on the opposite side of the valley was a small group of huts of adobe, each standing in a small cultivated patch. Outside these the Indian
women were squatting, busily patting their tortillas, preparing the evening meal; the Indian children were playing about in their solemn way ; and the pungent smoke of the village fires was slowly rising in the air.
We passed the crushing works or stamp-mill, where the ore is ground, the mountain stream furnishing the power for this and also for the electric-light plant. A short distance beyond we reached a veritable oasis in the desert, a spot of marvellous beauty. Two picturesque stone houses, which furnished quarters for the manager of the mine and his assistants, were surrounded by beautiful irrigated gardens filled with trees and flowering plants in wonderful variety. The houses themselves were covered with magenta bougainvillea in full bloom; the gardens were bright with red and white roses, pansies, violets, camellias, scarlet hibiscus, red poinsettia and jasmine, filling the air with exquisite perfume. Through the gardens ran streams of clear water, irrigating them and keeping them perpetually green.
Baird told me that the houses were built and the gardens laid out by an Englishman interested in archeology who had formerly owned the mine. He had lived in the valley for several years, and while looking after the mine had explored the prehistoric ruins in that part of the country. He eventually sold the property to an American syndicate. Baird added: "If we had started the mine, you wouldn't have found a place like this. American mining men always work first and play afterwards, living in any kind of an old shanty until the mine has been developed and is paying. Englishmen usually do just the reverse. There is a mine in this district," he continued, "which belonged to an English company, and they sent out some young Englishmen to run it. The first thing they did was to build comfortable houses and make a good road to the town, so that they could gallop in there occasionally on their fast horses. Then they laid in a fine stock of provisions, all kinds of canned things, lots of wine, and lived like fighting-cocks. It wasn't surprising that the company couldn't pay dividends. Finally they sacked the Englishmen and employed some rough-and-ready, hard-working Americans, and are now getting a fair profit on the investment."
In point of solid comfort Zavaleta was far ahead of any-thing I had experienced in Puebla or even Mexico City. Not only were the houses at the mine cosily furnished and electric lighted, but they had joyful sight ! open fire-places; and when the sun sank behind the mountains, crackling wood fires were started, and one could sit down and positively enjoy life. Being nearly seven thousand feet above sea-level, with cool streams running through it, the valley has the usual characteristics of a mountain place. During the winter months it usually loses sight of the sun before five o'clock in the evening, and when the long shadows fall the air soon grows chilly; by night it is quite sharp.
The view from the porch of Baird's house was superb; all around were towering mountains covered with dense woods; and there were varied tints in the foliage which strongly reminded me of autumn scenes in our White Mountains. Each of the houses had an Indian woman acting as housekeeper, and during my stay we had very good meals, plain food but well cooked, and the keen mountain air was a great stimulus to the appetite.
On the following day, which was Sunday, I inspected the mine, which was about half a mile from the houses, and consisted of several tunnels driven into the side of a neigh-boring mountain. Along these tunnels tramway rails were laid, small trucks taking the ore from the mine down the line to the stamp-mill below, where it was put in the crusher. The tunnels were lit with electric light, and as most of them were quite dry, the miner's work was not unhealthy. About twenty peons were employed.
While I was in the mine Baird called my attention to a rude shrine near the entrance, consisting of a small hollow in the rock which held a rough wooden cross. Before commencing work, he said, it was the custom of the miners to pause at the shrine and say an Ave Maria, which was supposed to preserve them from accidents and bring them good luck in striking rich ore. The same custom is followed by Mexican bricklayers, who when erecting a building always set up their crosses in the scaffolding, firmly believing that these will protect them against falls. In factories, too, small shrines are usually set into the walls of the various work-rooms.
Baird's mining foreman was a very intelligent German called Gus, who came from a small town near Bingen on the Rhine. Having been apprenticed to a florist in his youthful days, he was something of a botanist, and when he was not at work in the mine he was always pottering about the gardens looking after the flowers. Another member of the staff was an American named Green, hailing from Boston, who superintended the stamp-mill and made assays of the ores, being a skilled metallurgist.
The gold in the Zavaleta rock is mixed with a certain proportion of silver, iron and copper. During my stay I saw the whole process of gold extraction. The ore, on being taken down to the mill, passed under six heavy iron stampers, which were continually stamping down like steam hammers; hence the name stamp-mill. These pulverized the ore into powder, which was then passed over a long, slanting metal table coated with quicksilver. Water was kept flowing over this table at the same time, and the powdered ore was thus converted into a sort of thin mud. All the free gold in it that is, gold unmixed with any other mineral amalgamated with the quicksilver. The rest of the mud, containing gold combined with other minerals, ran into a box called the "concentration box." There it was dried, eventually made into bricquettes and sent to a smelter where the gold was extracted. The mud containing no mineral runs off in a different direction and is called "the tailings." For over half a mile along the stream below the mill the bank was covered with tailings, and the stream itself was milky white from the waste running into it. Every day or so the quicksilver is scraped from the table and taken to the laboratory and there, with the aid of a furnace, a crucible and other apparatus, Green separated the gold from the quicksilver, the gold remaining in the shape of a small disc varying in size according to the richness of the ore taken from the mine.
Oaxaca is one of the richest mining States in Mexico, and quite near to the city Baird pointed out to me some rocks which he said contained a percentage of copper. The country between Sonora, on the borders of the United States, and Oaxaca is the richest in minerals of all Mexico. It is as yet but half realized by foreign capitalists what vast wealth still lies hidden there. Cecil Rhodes is said to have once declared, "I am not blind to the union of opinion as expressed by scientists and experts that Mexico will one day furnish the gold, silver, copper and precious stones that will build the empires of tomorrow and make future cities of the world veritable New Jerusalems."
Enterprise and capital, particularly the latter, are the essentials necessary for the great mining developments in the Republic, which a few years will probably witness. Good properties are not to be obtained for nothing, and the carpet-bag exploiter must ever meet with disappointments. The Mexican government is thoroughly alive to the value of the land, and good mining concessions are not in the gift of the "man with a scheme " and a piece of ore in his pocket. Many of the richest of the old Spanish workings will yield sooner or later, in return for a generous outlay of capital, fortunes for companies willing and able to take up con-cessions seriously and install machinery which will make possible what could not be effected by the antiquated methods of the seventeenth century.
The Spaniards overlooked very little of the best yielding properties; but here and there are districts which are almost virgin. For example, southwest of Oaxaca, and not far from the wonderful ruins of Mitla, are to be found free milling gold ores on which work has only just begun. Close at hand are the copper mines of San Baltazar, believed to be the place from which the ancient inhabitants obtained the copper used in the manufacture of the axes and other tools employed in the hewing and shaping of the great stones of which the Mitla palaces are built.
The Mexican mining laws, which are very liberal, give foreigners the same rights as Mexicans. Boards are established in every mining community to look after mining interests. Any one who discovers mineral can take up a claim by what is called "denouncing" it before the board. The ordinary claim is called a pertencia and is a hundred metres square, containing therefore ten thousand square metres. A tax of ten dollars must be paid annually to protect the claim from forfeiture. According to the government reports, over twelve thousand claims have been recorded. The Mexican government claims only a twenty-fifth part of the proceeds of a mine ; a fifth was exacted by the Spanish viceroys in the good old days.
Possession of a claim gives no right to the surface ground within its boundaries, and all parts occupied have to be settled for separately. There is, however, never any difficulty about this, as the surface ground can be expropriated from the owner if any trouble is experienced, and as a rule no compensation whatever is demanded. According to law, the owner of land can demand compensation only for the ground on the surface actually occupied by the miners and their buildings. The ownership of the land does not extend more than a certain number of feet under the soil, so that only the surface land actually occupied has to be paid for. After a miner has once settled for the entrance to the mine, he can drive his tunnels for miles beneath the ground without paying anything further. I may add that there is little or no placer mining in Mexico ; nuggets do not lie about in the mountains or in the streams as in Klondike and other gold-fields. Nearly all the gold is mixed with other minerals and must be extracted by the process already described or by what is called the "cyanide process," which is much more complicated and expensive. The ore in the Zavaleta mine was blasted out with dynamite and also removed with drills and other miner's tools, and then broken into convenient size with sledge-hammers for the stamp-mill.
Hundreds of American adventurers in Mexico go out prospecting for gold and silver, and if they discover a rich deposit they can start a gold or silver mine, provided they have enough money to pay the small government tax, settle with the native under whose land the mineral is situated and do a little preliminary work. In cases where mineral is found on public lands, no charge is made by the government for the surface land occupied, and only the tax has to be paid. Sometimes a prospector will strike some-thing rich and manage to sell out to capitalists and thus make a fortune.
Green and Gus were both practical mining men, and had worked in gold and silver mines in Colorado. They had been prospecting round Zavaleta, and having discovered that the vein of Baird's mine extended to a mountain still farther on, they obtained a concession for mining there and had driven a tunnel into the mountain side. Some good ore had already been found, and they expected to find eventually a purchaser for the property and so become rich. I rode out with them to see their mine the day after my arrival. The way was rough and rocky, and our horses had to climb up nearly a thousand feet to reach the place, the trail winding round the side of a ravine, where a false step would have sent horse and rider down an awful precipice. While crossing the stream which runs through the Zavaleta valley I noticed beautifully cool, placid pools where trout might lie, but there was not even a minnow. I was told that there are no trout in any of these mountain streams. A few of the rivers in Oaxaca have fish in them, but they are not prolific, which is probably due to the lawless methods of the Indians, who use fine nets, poison the water and even blow up the fish with dynamite.
Up in the mountains above the valley the air was delightfully cool even at midday. The mountain sides were thickly wooded, the rocky soil was covered with fine green grass, and beautiful ferns, from the delicate maiden-hair to the large, broad-leaved species, were growing luxuriantly. It was indeed almost impossible to realize that I was in the wilds of southern Mexico. I might have been in the woods of New England in early summer time or amid the Scottish Highlands, except that there were very few pine trees. Birds, too, seemed to be scarce in these woods, and save for an occasional whistle or chirp, silence reigned. There is, in fact, very little animal life in this part of the country. There are a few small gray deer in the mountains, but they are very rarely seen. I also noticed that there were very few insects at this season, no mosquitoes or other troublesome pests usually found in warm countries.
The State of Oaxaca is famous for its scenery and is exceedingly mountainous. Its southern boundary reaches almost to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the extreme south of Mexico. It is traversed through its entire length by a majestic chain of mountains (Las Sierras Madre del Sur), rising at some points to eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea. The State is surprisingly rich in its forests and valuable woods, of which there are a wonderful variety, including mahogany, ebony, rosewood, maple, walnut, acacia, cedar, pine, oak, holly, olive, poplar, apricot, lignum vitae, veneering woods of all kinds and a number of costly dyewoods. Oaxaca abundantly produces Indian corn, wheat, beans, cotton, barley, coffee, cacao, sugar-cane, rice, vanilla, pepper, tobacco, hemp and india-rubber, oranges, lemons, bananas, mangoes ; in fact, every known fruit and vegetable will yield abundant and profitable harvests.
The climatic range of Oaxaca is of a most charming character, varying from the cool, fresh, invigorating temperature found in the mountainous districts to that of tropical heat. In the uplands, from five to six thousand feet; the climate is the most genial and temperate on earth, from day to day and from season to season the weather changing only sufficiently to provide a gentle variety with-out violent transitions. A day's ride from the city of Oaxaca will take you to an elevation of ten thousand feet, where you can kick about among the pine cones and oak apples, experiencing the coolness of a northern October, or down to the hot lands to revel among the pineapples, strange orchids and rank vegetation characteristic of a tropical climate near the sea-coast.
The scenic beauties of the State are unrivalled. Majestic mountains whose peaks seem to melt into the clear blue sky form the background of scenery full of charming peace- fulness, of beautiful valleys enriched with nature's bounty of tropical verdure; whilst ravines, cascades and swift-flowing rivers and streams give a touch of the wild and romantic to every view.
The days of Zavaleta were like midsummer, but the nights were cool and bracing. There was a beautifully clear sky, and the stars shone with that dazzling brightness peculiar to the tropics.
If Zavaleta had been in any country less remote it would, by this time, have been transformed into a popular winter resort. A fine large hotel would have been established there, equipped with all modern luxuries; several miles of the surrounding lands would have been laid out as a great park ; the streams would have been preserved and stocked with trout. These attractions, combined with its superb climate and magnificent scenery, would make it an earthly paradise in the winter-time.
The country about Zavaleta is very scantily settled, with only an occasional Indian village of adobe huts. Only a fraction of it is cultivated, although its agricultural possibilities are unlimited. What a country it would be if, instead of the dirty, lazy Indians, it was inhabited by, say, the sturdy, industrious peasants of northern Italy ! Its barren hills and valleys would then be covered with vine-yards and fruit trees of every description. Peopled by an industrious, progressive race there would be no end to its possibilities.
It is pitiful to think of such a wonderful land remaining in the hands of the shiftless Indians. In a country where nearly every description of fruit, cereal and vegetable can be raised, they are content to live on tortillas and beans ; their little farms are rudely cultivated; they reap one large crop of Indian corn and then let the ground lie idle for the rest of the year, whereas they might gather two or three crops. Fruit trees might be easily planted or even raised from seed; but that is too much trouble. Nor have they any idea of beautifying their huts. I do not remember seeing one that had any flowers planted about it unless they were wild creepers planted by the hand of nature. The idle peon dawdles at home, smoking his cigarettes and living from hand to mouth. Give him enough tortillas and beans, a little sugar, coffee and tobacco, his wants are satisfied, and he cares not a jot about the world and its progress. Even if his contentment and his preference for the simple life are suggestive of a latter-day Arcady, he is undoubtedly an obstacle to progress and to the best interests of his lovely land.
As I rode through this fair country I thought how topsy-turvy the world often seems to be. Thousands of wretched, half-starved people herding in the great cities of Europe, their minds and bodies dwarfed by their surroundings, knowing nothing of the beauties of nature ; and here a great district capable of supporting a hundred times as many is literally going to waste.
I had a good opportunity of studying the indolent habits of the peon's life, for just across the valley the little group of huts was inhabited by typical Indian families. Most of the men worked in the mine when they were not celebrating feast-days; the women, when not engaged in making tortillas, spent most of their time in washing the household clothing in the stream. I often wondered why it is that with all this washing the peon generally appears to be so dirty. By some queer law of gravitation dirt seems to actually fly to him. Here, too, was another of those remarkable Mexican contrasts. On one side of the valley were the Indians living their simple, primeval life; on our side were the comfortable electric-lighted houses with all the conditions of civilization.
Looking across the valley one afternoon, I witnessed a touching little scene. It was a day or two before Christmas, and the children were gathered outside the Indian huts to celebrate the festive season. Suspended from the branches of a tree was a pinate, gorgeous with its colored tissue paper, tinsel and ribbons. The mothers stood in a group affectionately watching the children as they strove to knock it down, one after another being blindfolded, until one grave little maiden managed to strike and break it, when there was a general scramble for its sugary contents. They had probably been looking forward to this little festivity for weeks, and it was all conducted in such a quiet, subdued way, as if generations of oppression and squalor had crushed all the joy from their hearts. With their poverty and pitiful surroundings there was to me something extremely pathetic in this little scene. I forgot their dirt, their indolence and all their other bad traits, for this one touch of a common nature had made us akin.