Motor Tour of Copper Country

January 9, 2022

True to its name, Silver City, New Mexico, was founded in the summer of 1870 by silver prospectors who’d found some mineral deposits in the area. Native Americans had been extracting minerals, including silver, copper, and gold, from the area for centuries, to be followed in later years by Spanish and Mexican miners. The silver deposits soon played out for the Anglos, but the town kept the name even as extraction interests turned to the prodigious amounts of copper to be found in the area.

And make no mistake: copper is now king in Silver City. The Chino Mine is 15 miles east of Silver City; it’s the third-oldest active open pit copper mine in the world. The Tyrone Mine, another open-pit operation, is 10 miles south of Silver City. Many residents of Silver City and the area are employed by the industry and references to the resource can be seen everywhere: the roofs of many houses and businesses are made of copper.

Copper has been taken from the ground for 10,000 years, but 95% of the copper extracted by humans has been done so in the last 100 years and more than half of that has been done in the last quarter century. That’s the impact of continually improving mining technologies and processing techniques. Those improvements will need to continue: there are vast stores of copper within a mile of the earth’s surface, but most of it is economically unfeasible to extract using current mining processes.

What’s the value in copper? Why do companies expend great effort and expense to dig it out of the ground? Copper has two qualities that make it extraordinarily useful: it’s malleable, and it’s a great conductor of both electricity and heat. It can be bent or twisted or flattened to whatever shape is desired, and then used to conduct electricity in power lines of all sizes or used to fashion cookware or rooftops. Forty-three percent of the copper produced in the United States is used in construction and 19% is used in electronics. Byproducts recovered from copper mining include molybdenum (which is an element used for hardening steel and other alloys of iron): almost half of the molybdenum produced in the United States is a byproduct of copper mining rather than mining for molybdenum directly. Seven percent of the gold produced in the country comes from copper mining.

Copper is, of course, also used in alloys with other metals to produce coins.

A few days ago, I was sorting through several collections of coins in the Goddard (we go through a lot of quarters to do laundry) and came across this 1942 penny. It’s 80 years old, and, although it looks like it’s seen some pretty heavy usage in the last eight decades, it’s held up pretty well because it’s made of metal. Pennies in general have an interesting history. The first pennies minted by the U.S. government, produced in 1787, were 100% copper and about half again as large as today’s coins. Shortly before the U.S. Civil War, in 1856, the composition changed to 88% copper; in 1864, the alloy changed again to 95% copper and 5% zinc. This is what the penny in the picture is made from. Because of the need for copper in the production of war materiel, pennies minted in 1943 were made of zinc-coated steel (and, because of their size and color, were easily mistakable for dimes). Coins returned to the normal production process in 1944. In 1982, the mint started using 5% copper and 95% zinc, and pennies made today are made with a base of 97.5% zinc and only 2.5% copper plating.

We spent the last month of 2021 and will spend the first few months of this year in the heart of the United States’ copper-producing region. New Mexico is the No. 3 copper-producing state, and Arizona is the No. 1 producer; 60% of the newly extracted copper in the country comes from the Grand Canyon State.

On January 9, we took Gunther on a tour by motor of the sights to be seen of present-day and historic copper mining operations around Silver City. The city has produced a handy printed guide with suggested stops along the highways and byways in the area.

Although it was a source of copper for centuries, the Chino Mine began operations as an open-pit mine in 1910. It was developed by mining engineer John M. Sully and entrepreneur Spencer Penrose. The latter’s name will be familiar to Colorado residents: he’s the same Spencer Penrose who made a fortune in gold mining and processing in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in the late 1890s. Along with tremendous profits from later copper processing operations in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, as well as New Mexico’s Chino Mine, he invested his fortune in Colorado Springs to build the Broadmoor Hotel and many other institutions in and around the city.

This is a Google Earth image of the Chino Mine (top right corner) and Tyrone Mine (bottom left corner) in southwestern New Mexico. Both are open-pit operations. Silver City is the gray area just to the left of top center. For scale, the short horizontal line at the extreme right bottom corner, in the black band, represents a distance of two miles. The campground we stayed at is just south of the Tyrone Mine; we couldn’t see it from our campsite, but we could see parts of it when walking Gunther around the campground.

Both the Chino and Tyrone mines have been owned and operated by a variety of companies since they were developed; the current owner of both concerns is Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. The Chino Mine has about 2,200 acres of reclaimed tailings (the rocks left over from excavation), while Tyrone has more than 4,000 acres of tailings and stockpiles.

This is a view of part of the Chino Mine, looking east – the mine’s many layers on which humongous ore haul trucks drive are in the middle third of the photo. In the upper third, just left of center, is a rock structure called “The Kneeling Nun” – it appears to be a figure kneeling toward the large monolith to the right. The huge monolith and The Kneeling Nun were formed about 35 million years ago from a volcanic eruption that resulted in about 220 cubic miles of tuff, which is volcanic ash that has solidified into rock. City of Rocks State Park, located between Silver City and Deming and which we’ll have to visit the next time we’re in the area, includes part of that tuff formation. The Kneeling Nun structure separated from the rest of the tuff monolith over the years to form the present-day figure.
Here’s a closer view of The Kneeling Nun using my 300mm telephoto lens. Putting aside for a moment the volcanic eruption from 35 million years ago, the legend of The Kneeling Nun, or Santa Rita, is an important one to the residents of this part of New Mexico: briefly, some Spanish soldiers under the command of Coronado were moving through this area and one of the soldiers was badly injured in a battle with Native Americans. He was brought to a monastery near the present-day site of the mine where a nun, Rita, tended to his wounds. They fell in love, which was forbidden for both, and their relationship was reported by another jealous soldier. Rita asked for forgiveness but was condemned to death. She prayed to be turned into stone, and her wish was granted. Shortly thereafter, an earthquake destroyed the monastery and only the rock formation of Santa Rita remained. Santa Rita is the placename of a town adjacent to the Chino Mine, which also goes by the name of the Santa Rita Mine.
This is a view of the Chino Mine from an overlook with informative displays about the mine’s operations. That’s the tire from a haul truck on the left. If you’ve never been next to a modern-day haul truck, just know that they are huge. The top of this tire’s opening – not the top of the tire, but the tire’s opening – is about six feet from the ground, and a quarter of the tire is set into the ground. In most mining operations, the trucks and excavation machinery are kept going around the clock to maximize efficiency. While we were at this overlook, a haul truck drove by on the road on the other side of the fence. We waved, and the driver honked his horn!

The Chino Mine was one of the operations where the processes of open-pit mining (as opposed to shaft mining) were first developed in the early 20th century. The Cresson Mine above Cripple Creek, which is an active gold mine, is also an open-pit mine, as are many coal mines in Wyoming. Since 1910, more than two billion tons of ore have been removed from the Chino Mine. As is the case with open-pit gold mining, the copper ore is taken via haul truck (and sometimes conveyor belts) to a concentrator, which chemically removes the valuable mineral content from the ore. This process takes the concentration of copper in the ore from its naturally occurring .6 percent to 25% percent copper. That material is then taken by rail (because of the mines, Silver City and, to a lesser extent, Deming, got a lot of early railroad development) to a smelter in Arizona to extract the nearly pure copper element. The Chino Mine produces about 100 million pounds of copper each year.

I should note that while mining companies dig tremendous holes in the ground for their open-pit operations, they are also required to reclaim the areas after the mining operations have ceased. This involves returning much of the tailings to the mined area and reseeding it to restore the area to a nearly natural revegetated condition. Reclamation efforts have already started at both the Chino and Tyrone mines. We’ve seen mature reclaimed mine sites in both Colorado and Wyoming, and it is indeed very difficult to tell that anything like a big hole in the ground was ever there.

There are many historical mines in the Silver City area that are no longer active, and haven’t been for a number of years. The mines’ headframes, the structures that support the machinery that raises and lowers mining equipment, ore, and miners from the mine, can still be seen on the hillsides, as can their tailings piles.

Following our visits to the Chino Mine’s overlooks, we attempted to go to an old cemetery north of the mine but took a wrong turn and ended up driving a ways on a rough dirt road through the Gila National Forest. It was a very pretty drive, but since our pickup is our only mode of transportation and we definitely need it to pull the Goddard, we decided to turn around and get back on pavement.

We drove to Hanover, New Mexico, which is a couple miles north of the Chino Mine. This is St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hanover; I couldn’t find much information about it, including when it started, online. The sign on the front door stated that services had been suspended until further notice, probably because of Covid-19.

This is a shrine constructed behind St. Anthony’s. Note the historic ore cart in the foreground; mining has been an integral part of this area’s economy and culture for many, many years, as further evidenced by the mining equipment shown in the background at left center. That’s the Empire Mine, which was a major producer of mainly zinc but also copper, molybdenum, and other metals beginning in 1915. Also note the bench on the left, next to the shrine’s gated entrance …
… which is where we all enjoyed a sunny spot to have a picnic lunch (Gunther got some Milk Bones) and think about our adventures that day. The bench appears to be appropriately made of brass, which is an alloy of zinc and copper.

I used to work at a nonprofit organization in the mining industry, and Nancy has had an interest in mines for many years. It’s interesting, then, to both of us to see mining operations, those currently running and those from yesteryear alike. Mining is critical to our nation’s economy and to our daily lives: as a flyer produced by the nonprofit that I worked at stated, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” Our vehicles, our cellphones, our homes’ electrical wiring: none of those would be possible without mining for copper and other mineral resources.

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