Mexico – The Silver City

FROM the days of the Spanish Conquest, Mexico has taken the lead as a silver-producing country; it is preeminently the land of silver, and it has furnished fully one-third of the world’s supply of this precious metal. Silver is found almost everywhere in the country, but the richest mines are those in the vicinity of the ancient city of Guanajuato. From these wonderful mines came a large part of the treasure which helped to build up the great Spanish empire ; and much of the glittering white metal was coined into those huge pieces of eight which figure so prominently in pirate stories. It is to its great mining industry that Guanajuato owes its existence and its prosperity, and today it is popularly known as “the silver city.”

It was to this interesting place that I set out on leaving Lake Chapala. Jolting back to Atequiza in the old stage-coach one morning, ‘,.I took the train southward 136 miles to the junction of Iripuato, which I reached late in the afternoon. Iripuato, a pretty little town with a population of twenty thousand, is situated in the midst of a rich farming country, wheat, maize, fruit, vegetables and various other products of the temperate zone being grown on the haciendas. To Mexicans the name of Iripuato is synonymous with strawberries, as that delicious fruit is grown there all the year round and sold every day in the year. Swarms of peons with large basketfuls of luscious berries surround the trains when they arrive, offering their wares for sale.

On changing at Iripuato, a train of the Mexican National Railway took me to Silao in about an hour, where there was a change to another train and a ride of about half an hour to Marfil. It was late in the evening when I left the train there. A cargador piloted me to the outside of the station, where there were three little street-cars, one first-class and two second-class, each drawn by two mules. The first-class car was already packed with passengers, and I had to stand on the rear platform, which was also crowded. We started off at a good pace, rattling down an unlighted country road. Occasionally, in the semi-darkness, I could catch a glimpse of rolling hills on each side of the road, quaint stone bridges over a rushing stream, and square, massive stone buildings which a fellow-passenger informed me were silver-reduction works.

Although Guanajuato has a population of over forty thousand, and is an important city, the railway when I arrived there was still three miles distant, and this little street-car was the only means of getting passengers and their baggage into the place. A large force of men were at work, however, extending the line into the city, where a station was being built.

The unlighted, dusty road eventually gave place to the narrow, cobble-paved, electric-lighted streets of the city. Along the way were houses and business buildings of the usual Mexican type, built of stone or stucco, with barred windows, balconies and flat roofs, but looking much more dingy and ancient than any I had yet seen. The streets were thronged with blanketed natives, and there seemed to be an unusually large number of street vendors squatting beside their little stalls, selling fruit, dulces and other articles. At first sight Guanajuato seemed to be a typical city of the past. Unlike Guadalajara, there were no smart modern buildings in the principal streets, no swift-moving electric cars, no asphalt paving ; and the whole place seemed to be enveloped in a drowsy, old-world atmosphere.

I went to an American hotel, which was the usual old Spanish mansion slightly transformed. In its palmy days it must have been quite a palatial residence, this rambling old building, with all sorts of queer corridors and a large central patio where there was a moss-covered fountain and bright flowers. It was quaint and rather crude in its appointments, but comfortable enough, and the meals were well cooked and served.

Guanajuato is two hundred and fifty miles from Mexico City, and is the capital of the State of the same name. It has an altitude of nearly seven thousand feet, so that its climate is not so uniform as that of Guadalajara, the days being usually warmer, while the nights and mornings are much colder. Built in a deep, narrow valley or gulch between the mountains, the situation of the city bears some resemblance to that of the lower town of Carlsbad; but the surrounding mountains, unlike those at Carlsbad, are sun-baked, treeless and overgrown with cactus.

The city derives its name from the word ” Quanashuato,” meaning the Hill of the Frogs, which was given to it by the Tarascan Indians, whose descendants still inhabit this part of Mexico. After the Conquest, the Spaniards altered it to Guanajuato (pronounced Wah-nah-wahto). There is no extant tradition throwing any light on why this place was called the Hill of the Frogs, unless it was so named in honor of some Indian deity. This theory has gained some support from the fact that a huge frog cut in stone was found during some excavations in the city a few years ago. Silver mining, the industry for which Guanajuato is famous, was commenced by the Spaniards in 1548, and the first settlement was started in 1557.

Owing to the peculiar situation of the city, very few of the streets are level. Craggy mountains rise above the housetops, and the side streets run up hill, oftentimes having cobble-stone steps. Perched on the hillsides that rise almost perpendicularly above the city are huts of adobe and low, flat-roofed, stucco houses, tinted pale blue, cream and pink, in such out-of-the-way spots that you wonder how even a goat could ever reach them. The whole place, with its houses of antique mould, has an appearance that strongly reminds one of some city in the East, in Egypt or the Holy Land. Guanajuato is admitted by travellers to be one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and it is unlike any other in Mexico. Many of its streets are irregular, precipitous, rock-paved paths upon which wheeled vehicles are seldom seen, and down whose steep inclines half-dressed, picturesque men, women and children of the peon class contest the right of way with dashing horsemen and droves of patient burros.

A stone’s throw from the hotel and right in the centre of the city is the principal plaza, the Jardin de la Union, a pretty square with shady trees and ever blooming flowers. Here, three or four times a week, good music is played by the local regimental band. Here, too, are some good shops, one or two fine old churches and a magnificent theatre (el Teatro Juarez) which would be a credit to London or Paris. This beautiful structure of pale green stone and marble, with a grand portico surmounted with statues, took twenty years to build and cost over a million dollars. Its internal decorations are magnificent, being unsurpassed by those in any other theatre of its class in North America. Near the plaza is the Mint, the Governor’s Palace, and other fine public buildings. Some of the old churches have elaborately carved fronts, and the cathedral, a beautiful structure in early Spanish style, has a fine chime of bells, a rarity in Mexico.

One of the most interesting old buildings in the city is the Alhondiga or Castilla de Granaditas, erected in 1785 as a chamber of commerce and now used as a prison. When the first War of Independence broke out in 1810, the followers of the Mexican patriot priest, Hidalgo, forced their way into the city, and after a fierce battle captured the Spanish garrison, which had taken refuge in the Alhondiga. While the attack was in progress, Hidalgo called for a volunteer to go under the walls and set fire to the massive doors. A stalwart peon came forward, and with a large flat stone on his back as a shield against the Spaniard’s shots, rushed in, torch in hand, and burned down the doors, giving admittance to Hidalgo and his followers. Breaking into the patio, the patriots met the Spaniards there and drove them up the grand staircase to the roof, where they surrendered. There are stains still shown which are said to be those of blood spilt in this fight. In one of the halls there is a statue of the Indian hero with the stone on his shoulders and the torch uplifted. After the suppression of the revolt, Hidalgo and his lieutenants, Allende, Aldama and Jimenez, were executed at Chihuahua, when their heads were brought to Guanajuato and hung on hooks outside the walls of the Alhondiga. These hooks are still to be seen outside the old building.

From the plaza the narrow streets wind up hill, revealing many artistic “bits” that recall scenes in one of the old cities in southern Italy. As I strolled in this direction early in the morning, there came down the cobble-paved highway a constant procession of barefooted Indians from the country, and clattering burros loaded with all sorts of merchandise a wonderful picture of movement and color.

At the plaza I afterwards took a mule tram-car up the steep, winding street to the extreme end of the city, where there is a beautiful little park called the Presa de la 011a, in the middle of which are some large reservoirs supplying the city with water. In this district there are some charming houses, and here is situated the foreign colony, where a number of well-to-do Americans and some English, French and Germans have established their homes.

I must award Guanajuato the palm for having one of the prettiest parks in Mexico. The Presa de la 011a is surrounded with bare, towering mountains of pinkish hue, along the steep sides of which narrow trails run out into the country. Through the centre of the park, which abounds in green, well-kept lawns, runs a stream which comes down from the upper hills, falling from one reservoir into another and forming little lakelets crossed by bridges. The walls of the reservoirs and the bridges are covered with vines and flowers, while the surrounding houses are completely embowered in them. Altogether it is one of the most beautiful spots in all Mexico. From this end of the town, which is perched on the top of a hill, there is a splendid view of the city, with its quaint churches, narrow streets and the queer houses on the hillsides.

Returning to the other end of the town, I visited another of the sights of Guanajuato, a most grewsome one. This is an underground catacomb, such as is found in some parts of the Old World, which is situated in the Panteon or municipal cemetery on the outskirts of the town. Under a broiling sun I climbed up a steep hill in the afternoon and reached this burial-ground, a small square surrounded with a high stone wall. In the middle were a few humble graves with simple headstones, and some fine monuments. On two sides, built in the walls, were rows of vaults under porticos, the compartments for bodies rising in tiers. According to Mexican burial customs, graves or vaults are leased, a certain stipulated sum being paid for the first five years with the privilege of renewal. If at the end of that time the mourners’ grief has cooled and further payment is not made, the remains are taken from the vault or grave. If only bones remain, they are thrown into a heap at the end of an arch under the pavement. Sometimes, however, a body is preserved and mummified by the peculiar soil and the dry air of the climate. In that case it is wrapped in a shroud and placed standing in a vault with similar mummies.

The gate-keeper of the Panteon acted as my guide and revealed to me the horrors of this underground charnel house. Lifting up a flagstone in the pavement, he disclosed a flight of stone steps by which we descended to a large underground vault, lighted by some windows somewhere above. In one corner of the vault was an enormous pile of skulls and bones, and the stench was almost overpowering. At the end of the vault was a glass door. I looked through this and saw about forty mummies standing on their feet, wrapped in white shrouds. They were, until recently, left naked, but the authorities have now had them draped in this manner. In two or three instances the clothing in which the bodies had been buried was preserved. These awful relics of humanity were standing in all kinds of attitudes, and their distorted features presented various grotesque expressions : the laughing lady, the weeping lady and the toothless old coquette with ghastly leer from under her thin gray hair. A scraggy gentleman with black beard and hair leaned against the wall, meditating on the vanity of flesh, while a young woman with composedly folded hands stood in what Delsarte would have called the attitude of subjective reflection with a half-suppressed yawn. It was a horrible and ghastly sight. It seemed such a terrible desecration to disinter the poor dead and to make them a cheap exhibition for tourists.

One of the ghastly company was dressed as a vaquero in full riding-dress of ancient pattern. I afterwards observed to an American acquaintance that this mummy in life might have been a cavalier of old Spain in pre-republican days. “Pre-republican nothing,” he retorted. “Why, that’s the mummy of old man Smith, the saloon-keeper who got killed in a fight a few years ago. His widow is still doing business at the old stand.” It is thus that our prosaic countrymen destroy romance. I was glad to leave the evil-smelling vault, registering a vow then and there never to enter another catacomb.

There are many grisly stories of adventures in the house of the dead. One is of an American from Texas who was suspected of being in the pay of the French during Maximilian’s ill-fated attempt to found an empire. He was caught and robbed by bandits near Guanajuato. His captors then decided to punish him for being a traitor to Mexico; and in order to bring about his death through horrible torture, they conceived the idea of shutting him up in the mummy vault, where, after some days, he was discovered raving mad.

Like all Mexican cities, Guanajuato is a place of contrasts. On the main street there are some very fair shops and several American agencies for such goods as type-writers and phonographs. While you are contemplating these evidences of progress, you hear a clatter of hoofs, and a train of burros comes along the street driven by swarthy Indians in their picturesque garb, bringing in fruit and vegetables, or perhaps loads of silver ore from the neighboring mines. But these interesting scenes will soon have passed away; for Guanajuato before long will have asphalted streets and electric tram-cars, while electric trains will bring in the market commodities and carry down the ore from the mountains.

The increasing number of Americans, too, cannot fail to have some effect on the manners and customs of the people. I was very much amused at overhearing a conversation between the son of my hotel proprietor, who acted as clerk, and another youthful American. They were just at the age when young men devote a good deal of thought to the fair sex, and were discussing one of their friends who was very sweet on a Mexican girl. “Well,” observed my young friend, the clerk, “Mexican girls will wait a long time before they’ll catch me playing bear out-side a window. If I’m not good enough to go inside the house, I’m not going to play the fool outside.”

“That’s just what I say, and I was telling Bob the same thing,” remarked the other young man. “If he plays the bear for a girl, he ought to be ashamed of himself. That’s a thing no decent American would ever do.” Evidently, if the young ladies of Guanajuato wish to marry Americans, they will have to modify the popular Mexican bear-playing custom.

As in other Mexican towns, the citizens of Guanajuato have abandoned their promenading in the plaza, which formerly gave a touch of life to the old city after dark. When the band played in the evening, I noticed very few women in the plaza, and certainly none of the higher classes. Plenty of Mexican men and a good many Americans were to be seen there. As I strolled round one evening, I passed a group of Americans seated together, talking rather excitedly, and at once recognized them as my old friends, “the men with schemes.” “Yes,” said one of the party, as I passed, “it’s the biggest — proposition in the whole of Mexico. Why, man, there’s millions in it.” I hurried away to the seclusion of a quiet, dimly lighted street — anywhere to escape from those omnipresent Western men of schemes and visionary wealth.

But Guanajuato is par excellence the place for schemes connected with precious metal, and to describe the place without giving a few details of the great silver-mining industry, which is the backbone of its prosperity, would be like the play of Hamlet with the melancholy Dane left out. For without the silver mines there would be no Guanajuato.

The first important silver mining there was commenced by the Spaniards in 1548, when the San Bernabe vein of the famous La Luz mine was discovered. These mines, however, had been worked by the Aztecs long before the Spaniards came. The fame of Guanajuato as a silver-mining region grew apace after the first operations of the Spaniards ; other mines were discovered, and from 1548 to the present time it is said that fully 1,500,000,000 dollars’ worth of silver has been produced there. It is undoubtedly the richest mineralized district in the whole of Mexico.

In the old Spanish times the wealthy mine-owners lived like princes, spending their money lavishly. Fortunes were constantly made and lost. Early in the last century two mines alone, in the La Luz district, yielded about four million ounces of silver every year. The stories of the Mexican silver kings of the past read more like Monte Cristo romances than the hard facts of lives actually lived. Money was made so fast in those days that it was impossible to spend it except in gambling, for the refinements of luxury on which millionaires snow lavish their wealth were then undreamed of.

A shrewd prospector in the early days, named Zambrano, discovered a mine which brought him immense wealth. He spent most of his time at the capitals of Europe, living as extravagantly as possible, squandering vast sums at the gaming table, but he managed to leave a snug little fortune of $60,000,000. One of his whims was to lay a silvery pavement in front of his house, but this the authorities forbade. In those days, too, it must be remembered that silver was on a parity with gold. The Conde de Valenciana, who discovered one of the richest mines in Guanajuato, derived so much wealth from it that he is said to have got rid of $100,000,000 in a few years. Another silver king sent the king of Spain $2,000,000 as a Christmas present, and asked to be allowed to build galleries and portales of silver around his mansion. This request was refused, the Spanish authorities declaring that such magnificence was the privilege of royalty only.

The Guanajuato millionaires eventually became so wildly extravagant that one of the viceroys prohibited their scattering handfuls of silver coins as they rode through the streets, because it increased the number of beggars in the city and constituted a public nuisance ! It is said that at the present day there is a Mexican who owns a mine of such wonderfully rich ore that the entrance to it is guarded by thick stone walls and steel doors. He is an inveterate gambler and when his available funds have disappeared, he simply hires a few miners to take out $50,000 or $100,000 worth of silver, which is very soon lost.

One of the famous Mexican mining kings of the present day is Pedro Alvarado, an Indian, known as the peon millionaire. A few years ago some wonderfully rich ore was struck in the Palmillo mine that he owned, and he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. Although he and his wife still dress in peon clothes, he has built a magnificent house, and being fond of music, has filled it with musical instruments of almost every description, including a number of costly pianos. Alvarado is very charitable and recently distributed $2,000,000 among the poor of Mexico. He has given away several fortunes in this manner, and during the past eight years has built fifty churches and a hundred schools. Not long ago he offered to pay off the Mexican national debt, but altered his mind when he found it was a little too big for even a silver king to settle.

Until recently, when foreign capital began to develop so many of the Mexican mines, the processes of extracting gold and silver were very slow and wasteful. To-day the tailings of many of the old Spanish mines are being worked over, and the precious metal extracted at a good profit. A few years ago, some Americans discovered that the adobe bricks used in constructing some peon’ huts in Guanajuato had been made from tailings containing a large percentage of gold and silver. They bought the huts, tore them down and extracted the precious metals, clearing a large sum by their enterprise.

The patio process of silver extraction, discovered by Bartolome de Medina in 1557, is still in use in Guanajuato, although it is being gradually supplanted by more improved methods. In this process the ore is first crushed into powder by great stone rollers turned by droves of mules. It is then conveyed to a paved court by a stream of water until the mass, which resembles thin mortar, is about two feet deep. Into this patio mud, as it is called, quicksilver salt and blue vitriol are thrown. A number of mules are then driven round it for hours at a time until everything is well mixed, several weeks being usually required to complete this process. The resulting mass is next deposited in troughs of water, where the amalgam of silver and quick-silver sinks to the bottom, the metals being afterwards separated by a method of distillation. By the patio process it is asserted that not more than ten per cent of silver is lost. Terrible suffering, however, is inflicted on the poor mules by the action of the vitriolic liquid, which eats into their legs and soon disables them. All along the road, from Marfil to Guanajuato, there are large silver haciendas or reduction works, to which the ore from the neighboring mines is brought for extraction.

Next to Guanajuato, the richest silver-mining district in Mexico, is in the neighborhood of Pachuca, eighty-four miles from the capital. This town has ‘a population of nearly forty thousand, and its altitude is nearly eight thousand feet, even higher than Mexico City. Pachuca is a very windy place ; at times roasting hot, at others freezing cold, so that it is not exactly a health resort. It is the only town in Mexico where there are houses with stoves and chimneys. In the surrounding districts there are nearly three hundred mines. Silver ore was first discovered there by a poor shepherd nearly four hundred years ago, since which time the mines have been worked constantly and have yielded fabulous sums. One of them, La Trinidad, produced nearly fifty million dollars’ worth of silver in ten years. There is a large American population in Pachuca and a good many Englishmen and Canadians.

The Spaniards, in the early days, worked only the richest mines, thinking little of ore that did not yield at least a hundred ounces to the ton. Their mining operations were conducted in a very primitive manner. In working the mines, they constructed great shafts down which ran ladders, and peons brought up the ore in sacks on their backs. The same method is still followed in most of the mines, the “poor Indian” toiling up the long ladders several times a day without a rest, carrying a leather sack on his back, sometimes containing over two hundred pounds of ore. In the early Spanish times thousands of Indians were enslaved and compelled by their cruel taskmasters to work in the mines early and late, being flogged if they refused. When a mine was flooded, the peons cleared it by carrying up bucketfuls of water. Several rich mines which were abandoned in those days on account of flooding have now been cleared out and are again in operation. Improved extracting processes and transportation are also making many old mines profitable. The trains of burros still bring down ore from the mines, but are being gradually sup-planted by tramways.

The Spaniards, in describing the wealth of the Aztec land, did not mention the silver, but spoke much of the gold, of which all the ornaments of the chiefs were made. It is narrated that Montezuma gave presents of gold ornaments to Cortes to the value of more than seven million dollars. Where these great quantities of gold came from has never been discovered; for while gold in paying amounts is found in many places combined with silver and other minerals, still the quantity mined has ever proved very small in comparison with the value of the silver. It is believed that many of the Indians know where gold exists in enormous quantities in Mexico, the traditions having been handed down from their forefathers; but for some unaccountable reason they keep the whereabouts of these deposits a profound secret.

In the land of the Tlapanecos there is said to be a gold deposit of fabulous richness, tradition relating that the Indians paid tribute to their Spanish conquerors in gold nuggets. All attempts to discover the source of this gold supply have been in vain. It is related that the Indians once agreed to take a Spanish priest to the place on condition that he made the journey blindfolded. The wily old padre consented to this, but before starting tied a small bag of Indian corn to his belt under his cloak, and after every few steps of his horse dropped a grain to the ground, with the object of marking the way. After travelling some distance, the bandage was taken from the priest’s eyes and he was allowed to look around, when he beheld tons of quartz glistening with rich yellow gold. As he stood spellbound, contemplating the vast wealth that was soon to be his, an Indian stepped up and handed him a bag, saying : “Padre, you lost your corn on the way; but here it is, every grain.” Thus he was never able to find his way back to this wonderful region, and the cunning Spaniards were again outwitted by the simple natives.

With the introduction of railways, improved machinery and extracting processes, large quantities of low-grade ores are now being profitably worked in Mexico. Smelters and works for the cyanide process are being started in all the important mining districts, and at the present time the mining industry gives employment to nearly two hundred thousand men. Wages are still very low, the native miners rarely earning more than fifty cents a day, while common labor is paid only half that amount. In the production of silver, Mexico is unsurpassed by any other country, the annual output of the mines ranging from thirty to forty million dollars. As a gold-producing country it now holds the fifth place, the total output for 1908 having been valued at over $18,000,000.

Among the other valuable minerals found in Mexico are copper, iron, lead and graphite. There are a number of rich copper mines in the country, and the total production for 1908 was about 70,000 tons. There are some important iron deposits in northern Mexico, especially in the vicinity of Durango and Monterey. Lead exists in great quantities, and most of the graphite used in the United States comes from Mexico. An abundant supply of petroleum is being obtained in Tehuantepec and Tampico. Coal has been found, but only in small quantities, most of that used in Mexico being brought from England and the United States. In some of the mining districts it costs fifteen dollars per ton, and its high price has been a serious obstacle to the introduction of modern machinery requiring steam power.