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Terlingua - Best Ghost Town in the Lone Star State

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Located between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park in southwest Texas, Terlingua is Texas’ most visited ghost town. The name “Terlingua” actually applies to a mining district, and there were three different settlements located here in southwestern Brewster County. The name derives from two Spanish words, tres and lenguas, meaning “three tongues,” called such for one of two reasons. Still debated today, some say “three tongues” refer to the three languages spoken in the area long ago – English, Spanish, and Native American. The second reason refers to the three forks of Terlingua Creek.


The first settlement in the area was a Mexican village located on Terlingua Creek three miles above its confluence with the Rio Grande River. In the mid-1880’s, cinnabar, from which the metal mercury is extracted, was discovered, which would slowly change the region from a single sleepy village into a mining district. 


Terlingua, Texas, 1936

Terlingua, Texas George A. Grant, 1936, courtesy

National Park Service

The local Indians had long known about the cinnabar, which they prized for its brilliant red color for body pigment. Later, other Mexican and American prospectors also found it, but the remoteness of the area, lack of water and hostile Indians deterred any mining.


However, with the Indian threat past, several locals began small mining operations by the late 1880’s and began to produce mercury – usually called quick-silver at the time. The earliest commercial production was primitive, easily taking out the surface outcroppings of ore and utilizing burro-drawn carts to haul the ore to collecting points where it was hand sorted. It was then placed in simple furnaces and heated until the mercury was condensed into its liquid form. These first surface ores were so rich that these primitive methods were enough to produce commercially salable amounts.


In 1884, a local man by the name of Juan Acosta found more cinnabar in the area and worked with an investor named Klein to develop his claim. However, they sold out to a group of California men, who would later start one of the first major mining operations, calling their claim “California Hill.”


Still, there would be no major mining operations until later as the land had not been properly surveyed. After that occurred in the summer of 1898, the Marfa and Mariposa Mining Company erected the first large furnace in the district.


By the turn of the century, word was out that the region was rich in mercury and by the spring of 1900 about 1,000 flasks of the liquid metal had been extracted by four major producers – Marfa and Mariposa, California Hill, Lindheim & Dewees, and the Excelsior Company.


By that time, a new town had sprung up around the Marfa and Mariposa Mine. It too, became known as Terlingua and the first village was then referred to as Terlingua Abaja, or lower Terlingua. It gained a post office in 1899.

In 1902, the mining camp was described by Stuart T. Penick, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey party:

“Terlingua was a sprawling camp of temporary sheds and shelters composed of various kinds of material, such as tin, canvas, old sacks, sticks, and adobe bricks. The only permanent buildings were the commissary and smelter. There were from 200-300 laborers of Mexicans. They seemed to be temporary, for very few of them had families.”




Chisos Mine, Terlingua, Texas

Chisos Mine in its heydays.


In the meantime, Howard E. Perry, a Chicago industrialist, who had purchased 4.5 sections of land in Brewster County, Texas, for $5,760 in 1887, decided to get in on the action as well.


In May, 1903, he incorporated the Chisos Mining Company and the organization reported the first production that same year. It would become the largest producing mine in the area, and for a time the largest mercury producer in the United States. Production at the mine continued for four decades.


By 1905, the population of Terlingua at the Marfa and Mariposa Mine, had increased to about 1,000 people. At the same time, another camp had formed around the Chisos Mine, which was also called Terlingua. In May, 1910, the Marfa and Mariposa Mine played out and closed. Its post office was then moved to the “new” Terlingua at the Chisos Mine some ten miles to the east.




Continued Next Page





Terlingua, Texas today

Terlingua today, Kathy Weiser, February, 2011.

This image available for photographic prints and editorial downloads HERE!


Terlingua, Texas abandoned buildings

Abandoned buildings in Terlingua today, Kathy Weiser, February, 2011.

This image available for photographic prints and editorial downloads HERE!


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