Thursday, November 11, 2010
Mining New Mexico: A Turquoise Trilogy in Old Cerrillos, Part One!
Friends, I hope you can forgive my extended absence from the old FinderMaker forum; my existence has been rather untethered of late, and crafting doesn't come easily when one's materials and tools are boxed up and buried in a storage unit. It dawned on me recently that, although I may not be able to work on my own projects as readily as I had become accustomed to doing, it may be gratifying in the meantime to focus some attention on folks who truly embody the FinderMaker spirit of "finding things and making them into other, better things!"
And so I find myself now, for an indeterminate amount of time, in old Santa Fe, New Mexico. The nights are chilly, and smoke from burning piñon logs that warm the cozy adobe casitas drifts from chimneys and perfumes the air. In the picturesque downtown Plaza, visitors from around the globe embrace the attitude of the Old West and amble about in cowboy hats and boots; they'll make a point of strolling along a deep stretch of covered sidewalk in front of the Palace of the Governors, where Native peoples from the surrounding pueblos spread out their handicrafts on colorful blankets. You'll be hard pressed to board the plane back home without a beautiful souvenir of your stay in the "city different": perhaps a delicate pot from Acoma, or a bold Navajo bracelet accented with turquoise nuggets? It is this latter material that has captivated my attention of late; indeed, I fear I have come down with an acute case of turquoise fever!
Now, I've always heeded the old adage "Feed a cold, starve a fever," but this is one fever that may be fed with gusto, whether in the shops of Santa Fe, or a bit further afield, in the hills of nearby Cerrillos. Hoping a vigorous desert ramble might cool my fever, I headed for the hills. Driving south out of Santa Fe, I exited I-25 and merged onto NM 14, the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, which passes through a number of small, historic mining towns and scenic areas as it winds south towards Albuquerque. Be sure to keep an eye out on your right for a cluster of low but unmistakeable hills; within these hills are numerous abandoned mines, a few active ones, and Mount Chalchihuitl, the site of the most extensively worked prehistoric turquoise mine in North America!
Not far past those hills is an exit for the town of Cerrillos; hold on to your hats when you make that turn because pardner, you are about to enter the true Old West! The town itself consists of but a few dusty roads and a main street with a row of storefronts that look as though they could be the set for a Western movie; in fact, several have been filmed there. Friendly locals and old timers share a drink and swap yarns outside of Mary's Bar, prominent signs will point the way to the Casa Grande Trading Post (more about that later!), and the local dogs will trot along beside your automobile as you make your way towards the Cerrillos Hills State Park. The beginning of the park is marked by an information and pay station, where a mere five dollars secures your access to the area. Here I could go to great lengths to explain the history of mining in the area, how the park was created, and so forth, but there is an excellent website dedicated to addressing these and many other related topics, and so I will direct you to the Cerrillos Hills State Park site, where the embers of your interest in the subjects of mining and turquoise may be stoked to a veritable conflagration!
Rocky but well-defined trails wind through the hills and reveal evidence of the late 1800s mining rush: gouges and vertical shafts in the earth piled all around with the excavated waste rock.
Many of the shafts are deep enough to have warranted safety precautions: attractive observation decks allow visitors to get a bird's eye view, while sturdy steel mesh covers the opening, preventing anyone from accidentally (or otherwise) going overboard!
Historical information is posted at each of the significant mine sites:
See a whole bunch of historic photos of early mining operations in the hills here.
When is a stump more than just a stump?
When it reveals a story about the area's past! When miners flocked to the Cerrillos hills mining district in the late 1800s to find their fortunes, they needed firewood and timber to brace mine shafts; the juniper and piñon trees that dot the hillsides filled that need, and today you can still see many of the stumps of those trees with axe cuts and saw marks where wood was harvested over a hundred years ago! The park has several unobtrusive signs pointing out those interesting things that the casual hiker might otherwise miss.
Rambling my way towards the back of the park, I crested a hill and beheld one mammoth of a hill off in the distance:
That is what the miners called "Grand Central Mountain" on account of its stature and location in the mining district. Although the Cerrillos Hills State Park encompasses a large tract of the original district, Grand Central Mountain itself, which lies just outside of the park's northern boundry, was the site of several mining operations; out beyond Grand Central Mountain are more hills, and even more old mine sites!
By the end of my day exploring the park, I'm afraid my turquoise fever had advanced considerably. I spent the evening poring over the park's website, eager to find out as much as possible about the area's history and the locations of the mines. Many of the mine claims within the park were struck in pursuit of silver, gold, lead, copper, iron, and coal; little gold was actually discovered, but mine operators often exaggerated its existence to investors back East in order to secure funding to expand operations. Many of the historic turquoise sites are actually located in the hills out beyond the park boundaries. Curious to find out the ownership status of the land beyond the park, I pulled up a detailed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) map, and was surprised by what I found:
While a good portion of area around the old turquoise mines is privately owned, the areas overlaid in transparent yellow (above) are actually public (BLM) land, and that includes much of good old Grand Central Mountain! Now I'd be lying if I said that part of my intended cure for Turquoise fever didn't include finding a few bits of that lovely stone out in the field, but significant effort went into preserving the land and remaining sites within the Cerrillos Hills State Park; removing anything from the park undermines those preservation efforts, so "rockhounding" anywhere within the park must be strictly avoided. Likewise with straying off the trails... it damages the ecosystem and can alter the appearance of the area. I stayed up half the night plotting how I might access the BLM land without going through the park or overtly trespassing on private property, and determined that I might do so by following a dry creekbed that runs well outside of the park boundaries and ends up within the BLM land surrounding Grand Central Mountain. I decided that my goal for the following day would be to hike entirely around the mountain, avoiding the few privately owned sectors, while hopefully encountering some interesting scenery (and maybe a few bits of that mythical blue stone!) along the way. My path is highlighted with red dots in the map above.
Did I make it into the backcountry? Did I fall into a mineshaft? Did I even find a mineshaft??? I hope you will stick around for part two of the Turquoise Trilogy!