At the bottom of the deepest canyon in the vast complex of mountains and canyons known collectively as Copper Canyon is the sleepy little village of Batopilas. Sitting next to the bougainvilleas in the town square you might see a cowboy riding his horse down the sunbaked-earth main street, or a group of brightly clad Indians packing their burros for the long journey back to their remote village. It is hard to believe that this quiet village was once one of the richest silver mining cities in the world.
The Spaniards first mined ore here in 1632. Over the centuries more than
three hundred mines were worked, but it took a most unusual American
to bring real wealth to the area. The man was Alexander Shepherd and
the story starts, not in this remote section of Mexico's Sierra Madre
mountains, but in Washington D.C.
In 1871, Alexander Robey “Boss” Shepherd became territorial
governor of the District of Columbia. At that time Washington was a city
with muddy streets and unpaved sidewalks. During his three years in office
Shepherd constructed 157 miles of roads, 123 miles of sewers, 39 miles
of gas mains and 30 miles of water mains, leading some historians to
refer to him as the “Father of Modern Washington.” Instead
of being heralded as a hero, however, he was ungraciously chased out
of office after Congress discovered that he had overspent the cities
budget by $16 million with a disproportionate share of the benefits going
to neighborhoods in which he had financial interests.
Shepherd declared bankruptcy and, in 1880, moved his family to Batopilas,
where he had purchased a silver mine from another American, John Robinson,
for $600,000. Thirteen years earlier, Robinson bought two old supposedly
worked out mines where he discovered a rich vein of ore, but then ran
into a major obstacle—because of the remoteness of the area his
transportation and processing costs were far too high to make the operation
Shepherd, who always thought on a grand scale, applied the same organizing
skills he had used in Washington to his new mining venture.
He began by filing more than 300 additional mining claims and consolidating
his holdings into the Batopilas Mining Company. Then, instead of shipping
out raw ore to be processed at some distant location, he constructed
a complete processing facility in Batopilas. The processed silver was
cast into bars, loaded two bars per mule, and taken by monthly mule trains
of up to 100 mules to Chihuahua.
Between 1880 and 1906, 20 million ounces of silver were extracted from
the mines—ranking the Batopilas mines among the richest silver
mines in the world. At their peak the mines employed 1500 workers, and
the total length of tunnels exceeded 70 miles.
Shepherd's innovations included the construction of the Porfirio Diaz
tunnel—a tunnel bored through the base of a mountain, where a train
hauled out ore, which was dropped down shafts from the tunnels above.
The train had to be dismantled and hauled in almost 200 miles by burro
and human labor. The tunnel is still there, now deserted except by bats.
Shepherd did much to improve the town of Batopilas, building bridges,
aqueducts, and a hydroelectric plant, which made Batopilas the second
city in Mexico to have electricity—second only to Mexico City itself.
By the time Shepherd died in 1902, the town's population had grown from
400 to around 5000 (it is now around 1000). The hydroelectric facility
he built was restored in 1988 and once again powers the town, and his
original aqueduct still provides the local water supply.
Today there is no large-scale mining in Batopilas, though a few old prospectors
still pan gold and silver from the river or extract small quantities
of ore from the abandoned workings.
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