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Texas silver mine gets new life after 1942 closure

SHAFTER, Texas (AP) — A highway sign proclaims "Shafter Ghost Town," and on either side of the two-lane blacktop are ruins of stone and adobe structures amid a handful of houses.

About 70 years ago this patch of West Texas desert was home to a bustling community and one of the nation's most reliable sources of silver. That all began to wither in 1942 when a wartime work force shortage and plummeting silver prices forced the Presidio Mine to close and hastened Shafter's demise.

Today, a Canadian company is reviving the mine to take advantage of silver prices that have tripled since 2009, giving the few dozen residents still living in the area more action than they've seen in decades. The mine will return significant metals production to Texas for the first time in many years.

"No doubt the price of silver makes this a viable project," said Sandy McVey, the project manager for Vancouver-based mining firm Aurcana Corp., referring to prices that have spiked to more than $30 an ounce. "And we need to get this mine up and running fast before the window of opportunity closes."

The Rio Grande Mining Co., acquired by Vancouver-based Aurcana Corp. in 2008, is building roads and installing underground equipment. It expects to begin producing 800-pound silver bars by the middle of next year. Production is estimated at 3.8 million ounces of silver annually — about half the amount the nation's largest single silver operation, the Greens Creek mine in Alaska, produces now. Idaho and Nevada are also major silver mining states.

A groundbreaking last month at the site 190 miles southeast of El Paso may have been the biggest event locally in a couple generations. The last high point came in 1971, when film director Robert Wise, who directed "The Sound of Music," used the mountains and ghost town of Shafter for scenes in the science fiction thriller "The Andromeda Strain." Generally, humans are few and far between.

The original mine opened in 1880, and in 1943 Shafter was home to 1,500 people. It once had a post office, a school, two saloons and a dance hall but now only has about 60 residents.

"There used to be a restaurant here, probably before 1980," said Patt Sims, a retired school teacher who has lived here since 1976. "One cook, one baker, one entertainer, one waitress. They got tired of working 80 hours a week."

The new project could employ as many as 180 people. A feasibility study published last year suggested oil field workers could be hired from nearby Presidio and Marfa. Another source of manpower is Ojinaga, Mexico, a town of about 20,000 across the Rio Grande and famously occupied 100 years ago by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Sims, among other residents, wonders what the mine will mean for the area, where people like the quiet life. "It'll be interesting to see what comes of it," she said.

State history records show the Spanish prospected the area in the 1600s and Franciscan friars operated silver mines near El Paso about 1680.

In 1880, the 4,000-foot-long, 1,500-foot-deep Presidio Mine opened and employed as many as 400 people. It accounted for more than 92 percent of all the silver and 73 percent of all the gold produced in Texas.

Rich Kyle, a geology professor at the University of Texas who has explored the mine, said the Shafter project is a major step for a state that hasn't had significant metal production for decades.

"There are a lot of silver resources on the planet certainly a lot larger and much better, but that's not the point," Kyle said. "I'm excited about it personally as a mineral geologist in Texas, a state obviously dominated by the petroleum industry."

Aurcana notes mining at Shafter wasn't stopped more than a half-century ago because the ore ran out. "We are mining exactly the same vein of silver, the same ore body," McVey said. "We're mining where it's a little bit deeper, where the grade is a little bit lower."

McVey said Rio Grande Mining is taking advantage of the previous work. "We've got tunnels we can get into. Some are fairly small, but it's easier to get into existing tunnels than break into new rock," he said. "You have a 60-year database of operating here, from 1880 to 1940."

One attempt to resurrect the mine was aborted in the early 1980s when silver prices rose, then crashed as brothers Bunker and Herbert Hunt notoriously tried to corner the silver market in a scheme that led them to financial and legal troubles.

Modern mining techniques and sophisticated chemical processes that separate silver from rock make the mine more attractive — including the piles of waste left behind by the old mining operations.

"We can get productivity they just couldn't dream about with the old technology," McVey said.

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