[I am starting a series of very subjective articles on the Big Bend based on my memories of growing up there. To help me maintain a little objectivity, here are some objective facts.]
Terlingua (Ghost Town) is a mining district in southwestern Brewster County, Texas, United States. It is located near the Rio Grande and the Texas villages of Lajitas and Study Butte, Texas,as well as the Mexican village of Santa Elena. The discovery of cinnabar, from which the metal mercury is extracted, in the mid-1880s brought miners to the area, creating a city of 2,000 people. The only remnants of the mining days are a ghost town of the Howard Perry-owned Chisos Mining Company and several nearby capped and abandoned mines, most notably the California Hill, the Rainbow, the 248 and the Study Butte mines. The mineral terlinguaite was first found in the vicinity of California Hill.
According to the historian Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale, “Facts concerning the discovery of cinnabar in the Terlingua area are so shrouded in legend and fabrication that it is impossible to cite the date and location of the first quicksilver recovery.” The cinnabar was apparently known to Native Americans, who prized its brilliant red color for body pigment. Various Mexican and American prospectors reportedly found cinnabar at Terlingua in the 1880s, but the remoteness and hostile Indians deterred mining.
A man named Jack Dawson reportedly produced the first mercury from Terlingua in 1888, but the district got off to a slow start. It was not until the mid-1890s that the Terlingua finds began to be publicized in newspapers and mining industry magazines. By 1900, there were four mining companies operating at Terlingua.
Due to its proximity to Big Bend National Park, today Terlingua is mostly a tourist destination. Rafting on the Rio Grande, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and motorcycling are some of the outdoor activities favored by tourists.
On the first Saturday of November, over 10,000 “chiliheads” convene in Terlingua for two annual chili cookoffs: the Chili Appreciation Society International and the Frank X. Tolbert / Wick Fowler World Chili Championships. In the late 1970s the Terlingua Chili Cook-Off sponsored a “Mexican Fence-Climbing Contest” to spoof the U.S. Government’s planned reinforcement of the chain-link fence separating El Paso, Tex. from Cd. Juárez, Mexico and San Ysidro, Cailf. From Tijuana, Mexico. The fence the “chili heads” used was constructed by undocumented Mexican workers who labored annually for the Cook-Off organizers at five dollars a day plus meals and rustic lodging. Among the founders of the first chili cookoff in 1967 was car manufacturer Carroll Shelby, who owned a 220,000-acre (890 km2) ranch nearby. [Courtesy Wikipedia.]
The name Terlingua has been applied to three different settlements in southwestern Brewster Country. The original site was a Mexican village on Terlingua Creek three miles above the confluence with the Rio Grande. With the discovery of quicksilver in that area in the mid-1880s, the Marfa and Mariposa mining camp became known as Terlingua; the original site was then referred to as Terlingua Abaja, or lower Terlingua.
In 1902, in addition to the mine complex, Terlingua consisted of several temporary structures occupied by some 200 to 300 laborers, mostly Mexican. Three years later the population had increased to 1,000. When the Marfa and Mariposa mine closed in May 1910, the Terlingua post office, which had been established in 1899, was moved ten miles east to the Chisos Mining Company camp; the name was retained. During the next two decades both the village and the mining company prospered. By 1913 Terlingua’s 1,000 inhabitants had access to a company-owned commissary and hotel, a company doctor, erratic telephone service, a dependable water supply, and three-times-a-week mail delivery. Brewster County organized the first public school at Terlingua in 1907; the first classes were held in a tent-house structure. In 1930 the mining company erected the permanent Perry School. Terlingua remained a segregated village. Mexican families lived east of the company store while Anglos lived on the village’s west side, a section dominated by mine owner Howard E. Perry’s mansion, erected sometime prior to 1910. Quicksilver production peaked during World War I. By 1922 40 percent of the quicksilver mined in the United States came from Terlingua, but production began to decline steadily during the 1930s.
On October 1, 1942, the Chisos Mining Company filed for bankruptcy. A successor firm ceased operations at the end of World War II when most of the population dispersed. Terlingua became a ghost town. During the late 1960s and early 1970s tourism brought new life to the village. Terlingua became famous for its annual chili cook-off and in 1967 was deemed the “Chili Capitol of the World” by the Chili Appreciation Society. The former company store reopened as a gift and art shop, river float trips are scheduled in the former cantina, and a dinner theater occupies the former motion picture theater. In 1994 Terlingua had thirteen businesses and a population of twenty-five. The population was 267 in 2000 with forty-four businesses. [Kenneth B. Ragsdale, Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1976). Sharon Sheppard, “Terlingua, Texas, U.S.A.,”]