North to Chihuahua!
Deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains
An Unexpected Trip North

Photos and Text by John Todd, Jr.

All Aboard, Seńores!
A Special Job (Not for Just Anybody)
For many years, I had been fascinated by the gold and silver mines of northern Mexico.

Maybe it was the book "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", or maybe it was the Humphrey Bogart movie that captured my attention.

One day, I got a call from an old friend about a job constructing a gold and silver mine in a remote area of Chihuahua.

"It may not be your cup of tea," he said. "It's a job living in a mining camp working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for 30 days at a time. Then I think they give you 7 days off and a free plane ticket home."

It sounded like my kind of challenge, so I applied for the job.

A week later I was on the CHEPE (Chihuahua-Pacific) train from Chihuahua to Los Mochis through the Copper Canyon heading for my assignment in the Gold and Silver Belt of Chihuahua.

Over the years, I'd heard a lot about this train trip, and now I was living the experience!

The Gold and Silver Belt
The Gold and Silver Belt of Chihuahua
As it turned out, I worked at the mine for almost 4 months, and for me it was an unusual experience where I met a lot of good people.

I might also mention that the work was not easy, and it takes a tough breed of person to do this kind of work, no matter what kind of work you do.

Camp life is confining, and it´s the kind of job where I don´t recommend my friends.

It was a personal challenge and my rewards were personal.

Plus the overtime looked good, too, and would help fund some of my future exploration projects.
The Comfortable Train Car
Leaves Promptly at 6AM
Arriving in Chihuahua by air the night before, and I was told to be at the depot at promptly at 5:30AM when the ticket window opened.

A little before 6AM the gates opened and they allowed us on the train. The seats were comfortable, and it was a pleasure to be aboard the train.

Most of the other passengers were tourists on vacation to see the Copper Canyon and visit the tourist areas around Creel and Urique in the High Tarahumara part of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
The Flat Hills near Chihuahua
Up to the Continental Divide
As the sun came up, we were going through the low hills outside Chihuahua, and began the steady climb up to El Divisadero that would take most of the day.

From the railroad magazine, the train is an engineering triumph connected the US at Ojinaga or Presidio, Tx to the Pacific Ocean at Los Mochis/Topolobampo.
The Comfortable Train Car
The original idea of El CHEPE was to connect the Pacific port of Los Mochis and Topolobampo with the US border at the Ojinaga/Presidio, TX.

If you want to take the whole train ride to the Pacific, you leave Chihuahua at 6AM an arrive in Los Mochis around 10PM.

My ride to Estación Temoris would take me about 10 hours and we would arrive around 4PM.
The Comfortable Train Car
The Comfortable Train Car
A Brief Stop at El Divisadero
High Altitude and Cool Temperatures
Later in the morning, we entered the mountains, and in the early afternoon, the train stopped at El Divisadero, or the Continental Divide.

We would have a 15 minute stop to do some shopping for souvenirs, have a snack, and go take a look at the Copper Canyon.

The weather was cool and the sweet smell of smoke from the wood cooking fires was pleasant.

A lady at one of the booths told me that snow is common in the winter time, and they sometimes have flurries as late as the middle of March.
Some Local Snacks
Over a Wood Fire
After taking some pictures of the Copper Canyon, I stopped and bought some little baskets sold by the Tarahumara Indian ladies.

They had pine like smell, and the lady told me they are made from pine needles.
Pine Needle Baskets
Local Crafts
Local Crafts
A Stroll to See the View
There are a lot of souvenir booths selling all kinds of colorful and attractive crafts.

Next, I took a stroll down to see the famous view of the Copper Canyon.

I´ve made the trip to El Divisadero several times. This photo was taken in July during the middle of the rainy season and the scenery was green.

It´s hard to take just one photo because the view is so huge.

The Spectacular View of the Copper Canyon from El Divisadero

All Aboard, Seńores!
All Aboard!
The train whistle blew several times announcing the end of our 15 minute stop at El Divisadero and the friendly conductor helped people get back on the train.

The train wound its way through the mountains dropping off tourists at places like Creel, and the Posada de las Barrancas.

I would have liked to stop and explore at some of these places, too, but soon I would need to think about the project that was ahead of me.

I had never worked in a gold and silver mine before.

April is a Dry Month in Mexico
April is a very dry month all over Mexico.

The temperatures can be very hot until the rains traditionally start on June 24, the Day of San Juan.

The countryside is parched and bleak, and you can see that the cows are cut loose to find food and water on their own.
The Dry Mountain Streams
In Chihuahua, it is the same way, although in the mountain stream beds, it seems like there is always a trickle of water.

According to my train schedule, soon I would be in Estación Témoris and now I began to think ahead about the job.
The Bridge at Estación Témoris
The Dirt Road Leading to the Mining Town
Pepe, Our Driver
At Estación Témoris
After leaving the tourists behind at El Divisadero, the train proceeded towards the Pacific coastal town of Los Mochis.

We passed a couple of small towns where the stop was just long enough for some of the local people get off.

The next stop was Estación Témoris where the company would have someone waiting to pick me up for the last leg of the trip to the mine.

Getting off the train, I stood around looking at the platform, and a short man came up and said,

"Are you Seńor. John?".

With his cowboy hat, he looked like a small version of Pancho Villa. He extended his hand, and said,

"My name is Pepe. Are you ready to go?"

"Yep, Let´s go," I said as we packed my luggage in the back of a Nissan 4X4 pickup truck.
In the High Sierras
Approaching the Mine
The Busy Mountain Roads
Over the Mountain Roads
And off we went over the narrow mountain roads to the mine, about 2 hours away, at least the way I would drive it.

But, Pepe knew these roads well, and we made it in about an hour and a half.

After crossing over the last mountain range we began to see some large trucks and a lot of dust.

Off in the distance, we could see the mine and the small mining town nearby.
A Large Capacity Mining Truck
View of the Small Mining Town
The Office
First to the Office
The first thing was to report into the office and meet my boss.

Since it was late in the day, it was time to have dinner first, so we went to the dining hall.

They told me that from there I could see my room where I could stow my gear.
Dining Hall Line
The Dining Hall
The dining hall was spacious and clean, and even had satellite TV.

The small cafeteria line served a good variety of food, and I realized I would be eating more nutritious meals than I fixed at home!

Friendly People
My boss knew everybody in the dining hall, and we sat at a table with some of the other workers wearing orange safety suits. Their hard hats were on the floor under their chairs.

He introduced me to the others at the table, and I received a friendly welcome.

Several people even said they were glad I had come to work with them.

When you are new on a project, you don´t usually get this kind of welcome.

It felt good to be here!
Dining Hall Line
Dining Hall with Satellite TV
Safety is Plenty of Good Food!
Our Motto is Safety First
During the meal, my boss, who is from Venezuela, told me a little about the project.

He said that there are many mining specialists from many countries and we work well together.

Tomorrow, you will attend a safety seminar and get certified. Our motto is Safety First. It is our way of life here at the camp.

He told me that Safety is about eating nourishing food and keeping yourself healthy, and working as a team. As I later found out this was very true.
A View from the Dining Hall
My New Home
After dinner, my boss showed me my new home.

From high on the hill where the dining hall was located, we looked down at where they were building some large tanks.Off in one corner were some small trailer houses.

"Space is at a premium here, and we just installed these new living quarters," he said as he motioned down into the valley.

Here we have wireless internet via satellite, and by the end of the month you´ll have satellite TV in your room.
My New Home
Comfy Digs
Ricardo(Mexico), Miguel(Venezuela), Ariana(Mexico), Walter(Mexico), and Me(USA)
Photos of Friends
During the coming days, I met a lot of people from many countries.

These are the special people who work the long hours, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. Each 30 days they give us 5-7 days off to go home.

Here are some photos of the friends I made while I worked at the mine.

Part of the construction project is in the background across a small but steep valley.

First, here´s a bird´s eye view of the vast project.
Operations View from West to East
The Project from West to East

The Project from West to East

Starting out the Day
Our days started out with a general staff meeting promptly at 6:55AM chaired by Herb one of the construction managers.

Usually the meetings were brief. After all, there was a lot of work to do.

My days were busy, starting with chairing progress meetings with my subcontractors, reviewing change requests, and monitoring the progress with the schedule, making sure we were on budget.
The Plant
The Crusher
Lots of Heavy Rebars
Later would come reviewing subcontractor invoices and approvals for payment, and trips out to the field to tie up loose ends with the field engineers who verify the work being done.

Each day, 10 hours a day, 7 days a week were busy like this. It felt like each day was Tuesday.

Many Kinds of Workers
In the project there are something like 450 workers of all kinds.

Iron and cement workers, heavy equipment operators, welders, and a lot of others.
Heavy Earth Moving Equipment
It´s a serious project that needs to be finished by early next year.

Moving the Earth
Construction and Mining is about moving lots of earth.

It takes precision and skill.

At the same time you have to be very careful and watch your step when you are around this big equipment.

Here are some of my friends who make the project happen.
Pedro(Chile), Julio(Chile), and Leo(Chile)
Field Supervisors
These are the field supervisors at the Mill and Tank area in the Plant who kept the crews moving and sent us the daily progress reports.

We also had document control people, and other Field Engineers who verified the work being done.

A Dead Coral Snake
Working in the Sierra Madre Mountains on this complex you always have to be careful, and watch your step.

One day, after a heavy mountain rain shower, safety was underlined when we found a dead coral snake in the riverbed near the house.
Huge Gears
Huge Mills to be Assembled
Entrance to the Mine
The Underground Mine
The underground as well as the open pit mine are still in operation, but they are areas that are off limits unless you get special permission.

The "Miners Syndrome"
One day my buddy, Walter, got a special permission to visit the mine, and later told me it was an interesting experience, especially the safety measures.
He said the miners work the day shift from 7AM to 7PM, and the night shift is from 7PM to 7AM.

In time they get used to working underground in the artificial lights and the special world of the mine.

Yet, he said, that when it was time to leave the mine at the end of the shift many people don´t want to go out into the sunlight because it didn´t feel right.

Not wanting to leave the mine is called the "Miner´s Syndrome."
Kitchen Staff(Mexico) in front of the Dining Hall
The Kitchen Staff
The Kitchen Staff controlled our days.

Breakfast was served from 5:30AM to 7:00AM and they would even cheerfully fry up a couple of eggs for you if you didn´t like the morning selection.

Lunch was from 11:30AM to 12:30PM, and dinner was served at 6PM.

I took this picture one day when they were taking a break before serving the dinner meal.
Walter(Mexico) and Brett(Canada)
Ricardo(Mexico), Dalice(Venezuela), Miguel(Venezuela)
The Daily Blast
Blasting is part of earthworks, and dynamite is used on the big boulders that get in the way.

Most of the blasts were around 6:30PM after dinner, and were the special event of the day before going home and settling in for the evening.

Just after the evening blast, my boss and some other friends asked me to take their picture with blast that had just ocurred in the background.

You can see the dust at the top of the mountain in the open pit mine area.

Life is Better at the Mine
At the end of 30 days straight, you get 7 days off to go home on R&R.
(With his surpise gift from the Kitchen Staff)
For me it was good to get home for a few days and take care of some chores, but I noticed that I had gotten used to camp life which is very different than living in the outside world.

For example, I had gotten used to not spending money! At the mine, everything is taken care of, and there´s no reason to spend money.

At home, I had to make my own bed!

A real time waster at home is going to the store to buy food, then you waste some more time preparing it.

Driving in traffic is a pain, too, especially when you get used to the company van taking you to the dining hall and the office and back home again each day.

When I got back to work, I realized I was lived better at my work place than I did at home!

Maybe I was beginning to suffer from the "Miner´s Syndrome!"
Red Dawn
The Unique Song of the Calandria Bird
In May, the evenings and nights in the mountains were cool, and the daytime high temperatures were often in the low 100´s.

The people in Mexico say the first rains of the season are expected on the Day of San Juan, or June 24.

In June, there were clouds at dawn, and you could hear the unique song of the Calandria birds that nested around the office which sounds almost like water being poured over ice cubes in a glass.

The local people told me the song of the Calandria announces that the refreshing summer rains will be arriving soon.
The Red Mountain
The Red Mountain
Looks Strangely like El Popo and Ixtaccihuatl
The Red Mountain
The Rains of Spring
Shortly after June 24, the rains came in heavy mountain showers, and we all headed for cover.

Torrents came down, and the heavy machinery moved into action, making road repairs daily.

All the plant life in the area drank in the cool waters, and began to grow, transforming the bleak desert into a near jungle.

The change was remarkable and the project began to take on a new look.

The Project in July

My Home in July

View from the Porch
Like Being in a Large University
Working on a large project like this is like being surrounded by experts in many fields.

It's like being inside a huge university with experts with a lot of practical experience on many important projects in different parts of the world.

In the evenings after dinner, sitting on the front stoop in front of my room, looking at the rough rock cut view, I would talk to Pedro, my next door neighbor.

Pedro was a geologist from Peru with about 20 years experience working on mining exploration and projects in many parts of South America. He had seen a lot and done a lot.

His work has taken him to some of the large copper mines in Chile as well as deep in the Amazon jungles doing prove up drilling for future mining projects. He had a lot of stories to tell.

Since I was new at mining, I had a lot of questions. And he had many of the answers.
View of a Vein from the Porch
The Formation of Gold and Silver
One evening we were talking, and I asked Pedro how Gold and Silver are formed.

"It is rather simple," Pedro said. "Gold and Silver were formed a long time ago by a combination extreme heat, pressure, and time."

"For example," pointing to a nearby boulder, "if you apply the right temperature, pressure, and time to that rock, it will be gold."

"If you change the temperature, pressure, and time, it will be silver."
View of Boulders from the Porch
Are Buried Treasures Poison?
In the rural areas around Veracruz, people talk about the dangers of digging up old buried treasures, and say it's because of the "poisonous vapors".

They also talk of seeing the "will o' the wisp", as a light at night when the wind isn't blowing. This phosphorescent light indicates a buried treasure is nearby.

I asked Pedro if these were old wives tales or an urban legends?
Remnants of the English Mine from the 1870's
"Yes," Pedro said. "This may be true. It's because the old methods used by the Spaniards incorporated mercury in the gold and silver refining processes."

"But, in those days long ago, their methods were sometimes careless and the refined metal was not adequately cleaned."

Particles of mercury was sometimes left on the metal, and after centuries of being buried, the mercury reacted with the salts of the soil created a poisonous mercury vapor which is deadly.

It can also be seen as a phosphorescent light.

"Many of these old stories of the dangers of buried treasures are true although the people don't know the reasons why".

Pedro was right. The people had also told me that you before you dig up a buried treasure, the area needs to be "aired out."

I've haven't found any buried treasures, but if I do, I will be extra careful!
Slightly Different Shades of Green
Searching for Gold by Satellite
By now, the summer rains had begun, and in a short week or two, the dry parched mountains became a cool green garden.

One evening, I asked Pedro, if it was true that the mining companies now are using satellites to do their prospecting in remote areas like the Amazon jungles?

"Yes," Pedro said. "I have spent a lot of time with crews in the Amazon jungles of Peru drilling several thousand samples to prove up the results from satellite passes."
Slightly Different Shades of Green
He went on tell me the technique is based on the fact that in places where there are metallic deposits, the roots of the trees absorb molecular particles which are brought up into the leaves.

"The color of the leaves is a slightly different shade of green, barely perceptible to the human eye."

"The satellite passes over, takes a picture, and a special color filter is applied. Then you can see splotches of the special green."

"The next step is to send out drilling crews to take samples at different depths to see if the quantities of the metal are worth mining."

Because the area was now green, I began to look for "veins" of special green on the mountain sides near the office. I imagined one vein that started at mid way down the mountain and went under the town!

That will be a tough one. But mining technology continues to advance, and you never know.

Oil Reproduces Itself!
As time went on with the project, the pressure became less, and there was time to surf a little on the internet. Pedro's comments about the formation of natural resources were always in the back of my mind. High temperature, pressure and time could probably form just about anything.

Then I came across the interesting article about how oil reproduces itself! One of the oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico had unexpectedly come to life again.

It was the story Eugene Island Block 330.

This well had started as a 15,000 barrel/day well, and according to plan had dropped to about 5,000 just as expected. Then it was discovered that it popped back up to 15,000 barrels/day.

Although it was the same API grade, this oil was a little different. It wasn't decaying ferns and dinosaurs. It was called "abionic", which means it was not of a biological origin.

According to what Pedro had told me, this was very probable. The temperature below the earth's surface is very hot, earthquakes produce a lot of pressure, and over time producing oil was possible. It was like having a huge refinery 50 miles below the surface of the earth.

Later discoveries of wells capped in South Texas found that these wells were also full! So, now we are self sufficient in oil!

I could hardly wait until the end of the day to tell Pedro!

However, our project was passing into a new phase, and people were being demobilized and sent off to other projects or home. When I got back to my hooch that night, I found out that Pedro was no longer on the project and had been sent on to a project in Chile. I hope he reads this.

One Last Photo of Our Special Team
Dalice (Venezuela), Miguel(Venezuela),
Walter (Mexico), Me (USA), and Ricardo (Mexico)
Time Marches On, or Demobilization
As the project advanced, new offices were added to accomodate new specialists moving in to do new jobs.

Gradually my own job evolved along with these changes. What started as a project that was to last 4-6 weeks had turned into one that lasted almost 4 months.

When you work on projects like this, we all know that eventually we will be "demobilized" when our skills are no longer needed.

When that day came for me, my boss asked if we could take one last photo of our group.

Working in Chihuahua with these special people was an experience I will always remember!

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