35 Pueblitos Road Belen, New Mexico 87002
My little half-ton pickup leaves the Rio Grande Valley behind and climbs the long hill to the Upper Plateau. The Upper Plateau reaches out long and wide toward the Continental Divide, but my little truck turns up a canyon and follows a centuries-old wagon road. The road takes us further up into the mountains, high above the now dwarfed plateau, then past the ruins of an ore smelter built by the Spanish Conquistadors. Another bend or two in the road, then we pause, unlock another gate, then climb even higher into the clear mountain air.
The road becomes steeper now, the transmission groans in low gear and the rusted wheel atop a mine head rig becomes visible over the top of the scrub pine forest. Then winding around the ore hoppers my little truck stops amid mine buildings and equipment.
Once a prosperous community of several thousand the town's only souls are now those who reside forever in the Boot Hill Cemetary across the creek.
There were a dozen or so separate mines here of varying size and wealth. At the upper end of the canyon at one mine is a hole several yards across and several yards deep, with no visible way showing how the rock was removed. 'Oh, that,' explains an old timer, 'was a cave in. More than twenty men were working in that stope. They quit for lunch. They were all out, then exactly at 12:00 o'clock noon the ceiling gave way and the mountain filled the stope completely up leaving the hole. Nobody was hurt. You see,' he continued, 'caveins happen at noon when the sun is overhead and the gravitational pull of the sun loosens the rock and WHAMO!' Myself, I think it was more pure bad luck than pure pull.
Scattered about the area is the litter of generations past; rusted cans that once held the carbide for the miner's lamps, bearings that made the wheels roll under the ore tubs, bits of separator screens, pipe fittings here, pieces of lubricators there, sintered firebox brick proclaiming to have been patented in December of '98, and everywhere the clear mountain air is fouled by the sulfur dioxide coming off the pyrites glistening in the sun.
One fellow I know was an underground map maker who traveled about the country surveying mines. He tells about the time in the early forties when he worked one of the mines here. The drift came down a 4% grade from the ore bodies about a quarter of a mile in and the miners would ride the loaded ore carts out. The drift was narrow, without light and wouldn't clear a man on the side of the cart, so he'd wait with his transit at the portals for a miner to come roaring by with a loaded cart before he'd dare enter.
The cable from the head rig extends though a hole in the rusted tin shed to the mine hoist which raised and lowered the miners and ore tubs alike in and out of the vertical shaft. The hoist was powered by a 20 HP Fairbanks and controlled by a lever-operated clutch and brake. A vertical screw is attached to the cable drum and as the drum turns, a brass arrow point rides up and down the screw telling the operator the position of the elevator cage which carries the tubs. In various places are strips of friction tape wrapped around the cable to further help the operator in the shed align the rails on the cage with the tracks hundreds of feet below ground in the mine at the various levels. If the cage is more than ?' too high a miner wouldn't be able to push a loaded tub onto the elevator cage.
Just behind the hoist in the shed is the one cylinder air compressor that the old timer called a 'hot-head-banger.' Made by the Chicago Pneumatic Tool Company, the 309 C.F.M. oil fired compressor was started by heating a bronze pin in the head with a blow torch while the engine was turned over by a 3 HP Witte that was belted to it.
A portable compressor on trucks stands along side of the shed. Both compressors pumped air down into the mine to run the drills and other pneumatic tools as well as the water pumps that drained the mine of the spring water that dripped through the walls underground.
It's said that one man brought it on a flatbed truck and installed it by himself. Cramped in the little shed, I was unable to fit all of it in the photo.
Near by among the trees stands the shell of a boiler with lettering above the firebox which reads 'James Beggs & Company, 109 Liberty St., New York City, New York'. The boiler is a remnant of the pre-gas days when the hoist was driven by steam cylinders. Down the hill from the boiler is a pile of coal cinders 25 yards across giving evidence that the boiler ran the mine for no short period of time.
The mines on this mountain produced metals for more than three hundred years starting with the first Spanish Conquistadors on through the Korean War. There are a few old miners left, but they live in the little town on the highway down in the valley below. Now and then a mine claim will be sold or leased out to a big out-of-state company and the people in the little valley town will turn and look up the mountain and wonder if it will once again come back to life. Meanwhile the equipment waits silently through summer sun and winter snow.