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A Brief History of the Old Ore terminal

The Old Ore Terminal was built in 1914 (or 1909) to transport ore from the Puerto Rico Mine in Mexico, across the Rio Grande and four miles into the desert. Mule wagons then transported the ore from the Ore Terminal to the railroad in Marathon.1

Businessmen from San Antonio and Houston raised the $100,000 needed to build the aerial tramway and terminal. They hired Farmer Jennings from San Antonio to build the tramway, the terminal, and the road. The tramway ran until 1919 (or 1916), when it was shut down. Because it was too expensive to salvage, it was left to rot in the desert. When the tramway was shut down, the Boquillas region declined as there was less and less work in the mines.

So that pretty much sums up the history of the Old Ore Terminal, as well as I can glean from a few of the books available in bookstores. It's easy to confuse this aerial tramway with an earlier one that took ore from a smelter in Boquillas over to the American side, where Barker Lodge is now located. According to one source, that aerial tramway was built by KSARCO, the Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company.2 It simply crossed the river and did not go much farther, as much as I can tell.

Another source says this earlier tramway was built by ASARCO (The American Smelting and Refining Company).3 ASARCO was a Guggenheim conglomerate that consolidated a number of mining companies in 1899, one of the companies being KSARCO.

I suspect the guide and history books are getting their information from one or two sources. It's those sources I want to find. Could it be the Alpine Avalanche? Records kept in Big Bend National Park? Documents in the Museum of the Big Bend? Oral history?

So, some of the questions I have are:

“Was there a relationship between ASARCO and the investors of the aerial tramway and the Old Ore Terminal? Did this aerial tramway put ASARCO's out of business? What was the name of this aerial tramway? When they shut it down, did the owners think it was a temporary closure? (Mining operations in Mexico were interrupted from time to time as a result of the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa.) Who were the investors? Who was Farmer Jennings? Is “Farmer” a description, or a name?

Historical information on KSARCO and ASARCO can be found on the net by typing “kansas city smelting and refining company” in Google. Much of it comes from the Kansas City Public Library. ASARCO is still around (www.asarco.com). The great irony is ASARCO had many holdings in Mexico as a result of deals struck between Daniel Guggenheim and Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, but now ASARCO is owned by a Mexican company.

Where is all the hardware? There are a few buckets on the ground, but where are the arms from which the buckets suspended? The rollers that are clearly visible on the towers in the historical photos? All the other buckets? Why does it look like there's only one cable on the ground when this was a two cable system? Where all these pieces salvaged for scrap? If so, when? By whom?

How It Worked

When hiking, you'll typically see only one cable on the ground, but in the historical photos, you clearly see two. So, how did the aerial tramway work?

There are two wire cables that are looped around pulleys at each end of the line. The top line is called the "track cable." It doesn't move. It carries the weight of the bucket, which is connected to the cable via an arm. The arm is suspended from wheels that travel over the track cable. In pictures from my February 2004 hike, you can see a cable guide that supported the track cable. It's on the end of a board that was attached horizontally to the support tower.

The lower cable is called the "traction cable". This cable is moving continuously, most likely from an engine in the Old Ore Terminal itself. A gripping mechanism above the bucket grips the traction cable tighly causing the bucket to move. At either end of the line, a worker can loosen the grip in order to stop the bucket. This way, buckets can be emptied and loaded easily by workers. In older, single rope tramways, the arms were attached permanently to the rope, meaning the loading and unloading had to happen in time with speed of the rope as the bucket went in the terminal and back out. Single rope tramways were pretty much obsolete by the time this aerial tramway was built.

1There seems to be some confusion on the dates of when the Ore Terminal was built and when it was decommissioned. Some sources say it was built in 1909 (eg: “From 1909 to 1916, a 6 mile tramway carried 7.5 tons of silver, lead, and zinc ore per hour from a Mexican mine to this terminal.” Hiking Big Bend National Park , by Laurence Parent, pg. 123, copyright 1996 by Falcon Press Publishing Company, Inc.) while other sources say it was built around 1916. (eg: “When the aerial tramway began operating during 1916, a branch from the Old Ore Road, beginning near the north end of Cuesta Carlota, extended southward to the aerial tramway terminal.” Big Bend Country: A History of the Big Bend National Park , by Ross A. Maxwell, pg. 29, copyright 1985, Big Bend Natural History Association.

2Big Bend Administrative History, Chapter 1 , The National Park Service.

3Big Bend Country , pg 28.

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