Overview of the Hillsboro Mining District

The following was posted to The Free Range blog on March 23, 2015.  It remains a nice overview of the Hillsboro Mining District.

Inside the Eureka Mine of the Rattlesnake Mine Group. Hillsboro Mining District

Mine Map 1

Recently, Steve Elam took me to see some of the mines in the Hillsboro Mining District that he was familiar with:  Bonanza, Big-Low, Rattlesnake, and Opportunity.  Along the way we topped the ridge near Empire Peak and looked down on Copper Flats.  The route that we took on that day is depicted to the right.

Mine names were fluid in the Hillsboro Mining District.  Sometimes the names changed because of an ownership change.  Sometimes they changed because of a misunderstanding of what the name meant.  For instance, the Big-Low is also known as the Bigelow and the Big-Lo.  (The name is apparently a hyphenation of the first part of the original owners’ names, so Big-Low is most likely the correct name.) The Rattlesnake is also known as the Snake Mine but may also be referred to by the major shafts of the mine - Bobtail, Eureka, and Snake.

Bonanza Mine

Some mines were small claims worked by one person, others were major operations with substantial infrastructure.  The workings were under the ground.  Duh.  Yeah, I mean under the ground.  The Bonanza had three tunnels; the length of two are known, one was 3,500’ long and another was 2,000’ long.  The nature of the veins that the miners followed varied, sometimes significantly within the same tunnel.  For instance, in one of the Bonanza tunnels the vein was a fracture zone 2-8’ wide in one spot and a shear zone 80’ wide in another.  The nature of the mineralization varied within a tunnel as well.  

And they were close together, for instance, Bulletin 10 describes the location of the Bonanza as “in the arroyo east of the Garfield-Butler and Bigelow groups and west of the arroyo in which the Rattlesnake vein is located” (p. 148).  These mines are a short walk apart.  This is an aerial view of the Bonanza (center of photograph) prior to 1934; seen just over the ridge to the upper right (in the next wash) is the Rattlesnake.

And there was money to be made, sometimes.  An indication of how things were going at a mine was the building of a mill on site to process the ore.  A mill was constructed at the Bonanza in 1904, initially with 10 stamps - later increased to 20.  In 1932 the mill was remodeled.  The cost of the remodeled mill was between $25,000 and $30,000 (1932 dollars).  It is fairly easy to adjust monetary value from 1932 to 2014 (the last full year) using inflation as an adjustment.  The remodel would have cost $478,867 (based on an initial figure of $30,000) in 2014.  Maybe; this type of adjustment does not take into consideration the differences between 1932 and 2014 in wages, building practices, availability of material, all sorts of things.  Costs associated with environmental and worker protection were virtually unknown at that time.

W. H. Bucher, who was the vice-president of the Sierra County Bank in Hillsboro, which handled the ore shipments from the Bonanza, said the value of those shipments was in the range of $700,000.  The source document I am working from does not define “dollars” in this case.  All sorts of games get played with valuation, often centered around the definition of dollar.  For instance, $700,000 does not sound like that much when we look at it as “2015 dollars” but it represents a substantial sum for production between 1877 and 1931.  We can say that with certainity.  But what were the economics?  Some of it is easy to figure out.  Beyond that it gets a bit more complicated and subject to all sorts of bias.  Simply applying inflationary adjustments to that figure (assuming you knew what the production distribution was - in what years was how much produced?) leads to a “2015 dollar” figure which is not indicative of the value of the production in 2015 dollars.  The price of gold was fixed for all of the production period.  It is now driven by market demand, not by a fixed rate or by inherent value (value created by use).  Today, the price of gold is driven primarily by the assumption that it is valuable, by perception.  So how do you go about determining how rich the mining was in Hillsboro - pick from the menu of valuation techniques and someone will be able to tear your assumptions and analysis apart.  I’m not going there.  It was enough to form the economic basis of a small town in the outback of New Mexico, that is clear, and it was enough to generate small fortunes of investment from people “back east”.

Eureka Shaft-filtered

What was all that wealth buying?  If you were a miner, not a mine owner, it wasn’t buying you much.  Your wages were small, the hours were long, and the work was dangerous.  If you were a miner, at least in the early days, you were most likely Mexican or Chinese, because you worked for smaller wages.  It was a life, but for many it was a very hard life.

The tunnel at the Bonanza Mine caved in about a hundred feet from the entrance, opening a way to the surface (photo right).  Loose rock is held  up by bolts, some of which have eroded out, and wire in the Eureka Tunnel (photo above).  Rock fall, short of cave-ins was a frequent cause of death in mines.  Mines and shafts are dangerous places, you should not approach or enter them.

As we go about filling out the mining section of the Black Range Rag we hope to tell the story of individual mines, of individual miners, of individual investors.  The Tales of Lake Valley is a start in that direction.  And there is a wealth of other information which we will be linking to - stories like Played Out in Minneapolis: The Rise? and Fall? of a Hillsboro Mining Venture by Mark B. Thompson, III - From Volume 7, No. 1 of Guajalotes, Zopilotes, y Paisanos - a story about investors and Joe Diel’s survey of claims in the Hillsboro area at - Hillsboro and Las Animas Mining Districts by Joe Diel - From Vol. 6, No. 4 of Guajalotes, Zopilotes, y Paisanos.  And our interview with Federico Antonio Chavez Luna who was born in Hillsboro in 1919 and worked at the Big-Low mine in the 1930’s.

© Robert Barnes 2018