Lluvia de Oro
(Webmaster's note - updated material through Jan. 2008 is added below this original story)
La Lluvia de Oro - The Rain of Gold! It's a wonderful and true story told by Victor Villaseñor in his 1991 book by that title - of a remote place high in the Sierra Madre at the base of large cliffs with a good water. It's a history of gold and the efforts men put forth to get it, of clashes with both Mexican Federales and Mexican revolutionaries, of stifling poverty, hardship, and hope in the time and setting of the Mexican Revolution and widespread economic depression. It's also a history of rapidly changing economic conditions, people, isolation, descendants, and death... and a place we have been wanting to visit for years.
We (Doug Rhodes and Dave Nelson of the Oso and Kristi Bishop of the Villa del Pescador, El Fuerte) finally made it to Lluvia in late October, 2003. Following a hillside contour, we rounded a corner to discover the ruins of the mining operation and a few occupied houses lay before us. As described in the book, it lay high in the mountains at the head of a canyon with tall cliffs towering above. Thick vegetation grew everywhere. Only a few families live there, perhaps fifteen or so individuals. Their homes nestle in and among artifacts left over from the heyday of mining. We soon met a few residents and after a round of introductions and some socializing, explained our interest in the history of the area. We came prepared for camping out but were invited to Montserrat's house where later that day extra bed-frames were dragged out, tortillas heated, and suddenly we were house guests and invited to spend the night. The next day we explored the ruins and spoke with one man, Buenaventura Becerra, whose knowledge of the area was encyclopedic. Sixty-three years old, he was born at Lluvia and learned the stories of its history from his grandparents.
The Sierra Madre has a rich history of mining. The mines at Batopilas were renowned for the quality and quantity of their silver. The area close to La Reforma yielded copper and lead. El Sauzal today is being prepared for extensive mining activity that is expected to result in the fourth largest gold mine in the world. The town of Chinipas has its roots in mining. The plaza displays a curiously small locomotive used for mining operations. Due to the remote location of the mine, the engine had to be disassembled into pieces whose weight could not exceed 100 kilograms (!), hauled in by pack animals, and re-assembled - all due to the lure of gold.
Such was life in the Sierra Madres. And yet Lluvia de Oro has always uniquely beckoned to us. Perhaps it's the name or its remoteness. Whatever it was, we were not disappointed. Buenaventura told how the mine opened in 1896 and was worked for several years. After the mine first closed, various individuals leased the property and worked it for a year or so at a time. An oddly out-of-place palm tree was planted by an American who worked the mine and planted it next to his house, today the tree is tall and healthy. Scattered around the site are numerous foundations and the remains of walls where houses and buildings once stood. This had been a busy place!
Lluvia de Oro had electricity but we don't know when it was installed. A few kilometers south and 3700 feet lower, a dam was constructed on the Rio Fuerte and a generating plant installed. Everything had to be hauled many miles upstream against the current.
The dam and remaining equipment artifacts are visible although anything of potential value has long since been hauled away. The same is true at the mine where iron was hauled off for sale as scrap during the 1960s. Yet evidence remains. Some castings have the names of American suppliers. Bricks bearing the Carnegie name are seen.
A few ore buckets lie about. All of these materials were hauled in by men and animals. The mine was worked until sometime in the 1950s when all operations ceased. Buenaventura rattled off dates and events faster than we could assimilate it all. At a relative's request, we asked about a specific (and unusual) surname in the area (Ceras) and he recognized it. Francisco (Chico) Ceras had indeed lived and worked at Lluvia. While working here in 1946, he was killed when he became entangled in a large pulley and was drawn in to his death. We have corroborated dates and events for which we have knowledge from other sources and find Buenaventura's accountings to be accurate.
A short distance away lies an entrance to the mine. No small affair, it is over 50 feet tall and can be entered. Some of the overhead rigging for the miners' walkway into the mine remains but little else is evident. The original entrance is on the opposite side of a large hill. The entrance closest to the mill was dug through the hill to simplify getting the ore to the mill. Today a hose runs into the mine where a small amount of water is captured and delivered to outside users. Another spring, uphill from the mill, supplies water as well.
After a breakfast of coffee and fried tamales, our time was regrettably short. We gathered what history we could as we wandered about. Oddly enough, where so much had been hauled away, next to the stack for the foundry, the door to the strong room where the gold was stored was intact and still working. Behind it lay a small room containing some artifacts and some contemporary items being stored there.
We haven't compiled all of
our notes yet and this write-up is preliminary. We will be adding more. A
map shows our route in. However
for as much as we saw and were told, we realize far more remains to be learned
and understood. How was the ore body discovered and how much wealth did the mine
produce? What company was first involved? How was the ore processed? How many
people lived in the area? Regrettably, most paper records were destroyed
in the 1960s since they were viewed as worthless trash and burned by the
residents. Now only the
oral histories remain and many of the people at Lluvia are recent arrivals and too young to know
much. Only one or two old-timers know and want to convey their knowledge. All too soon they
will die and take their stories and their families' stories to the grave with
them. We will be poorer for what they do not leave behind. We invite anyone
having knowledge of this unique area to contact us
if you are willing to share your stories. Included on this site are some great
historical photos. And no, we did not find any gold.
We returned to Lluvia in May 2004. Since it was late in the day, we spent the night in Encinitos - a small community above La Reforma. The day had started with a good omen. We had left Choix and were headed north to catch the ferry across Huites Lake. Along the way, we passed a pickup stopped in the shade by the side of the road. As we went by, one of the group by the truck yelled something at me. I didn't make it out but I heard the word Lluvia. We stopped to walk back and there stood Montserrat, our host from last fall, grinning and laughing! And we were wondering how to make contact and whether anyone would be around! We spent the next hour catching up on events and learned they too were headed north. We arranged to meet. Montserrat's family lived in Encinitos, coincidentally by the store where we had stopped last fall for a soda. By the time Montserrat arrived, we had met the family and were making friends with them. That night we cooked some carnitas outside for everyone and made plans for the next day. Over a couple rounds of cervezas, we talked well into the night. We inquired about Buenaventura and learned he too was nearby. The next morning, Buenaventura joined Doug and I to go to Lluvia.
It has not been quite a year since the road had been bulldozed from Encinitos to lluvia. Already I could see noticeable degradation. Light rains had started to erode some spots and the process would only get worse. Our ATVs handled it easily but this is going to be an on-going problem. From up on high, I could easily see the new road that was being completed south of Tubares to Choix. In less than six months, some thirty-five miles of brand new road through the mountains now connects Tubares with Choix and points south. Already this is altering how people travel when needing to shop away from places like Batopilas.
Soon the familiar sight of the leaching tanks at Lluvia popped into view. We took a break in the shade while Buenaventura spent a few minutes at his house. We had agreed to visit the interior of the mine and Buenaventura would guide us. He returned with a six volt lantern battery, a small headlight, and a coil of rope. I had a small LED flashlight with me along with a tiny LED "pinch-light". Well equipped and laughing at the circumstances, we set out. On the way, we passed additional pieces of relic machinery. A Morse-Fairbanks 15 horsepower steam motor lay rusting. Nearby, a pulley associated with the motor lay on its side. I could see how the pulley had been designed to be disassembled into three pieces for shipment and to reduce the weight of individual parts. Once on-site, it was bolted together.
The familiar miner's entrance walkway was not the way in (fortunately). It may have served well in its heyday but today it is a death-trap. Just beyond it lies a low entrance through which we slid and scrambled. A short distance inside, this brought us to a point behind the original entrance. Soft outside light still lit the interior. Behind us, the tunnel went straight into the hillside. In places, the original remains of wooden chutes are visible. Loose ore extracted from above was dropped down to our level where the track for the mine cart lay. Pieces of tiny, rusted rail could be seen. We entered a couple of drifts but evidently most of the mine lay above us. After a while, we could see outside light ahead and well above us - out of reach. We understand this to be the original entrance - the one behind us had been dug to facilitate getting the ore to the mill without having to haul it around or over the intervening hill.
Back outside and looking at the mill again, the processing of Lluvia's ore started to make sense. At the highest point, the wooden remains of what appears to have been a stamp mill still stand. The stamp itself is missing and was probably scavenged for scrap. The gold appears to have been found in conjunction with iron pyrites in quartz, so-called "fool's gold". A sample of ore showed the characteristic rust-colored stain that results from the natural decomposition of pyrites. Ore would have first been crushed in the stamp and then pulverized by a ball mill. Separation of the pyrite materials into a concentrate likely involved a flotation process for which we have not found evidence lying around - again, items may well have been scavenged. The concentrated pyrite/gold mixture would then be roasted to decompose the pyrites and drive off the sulfur. The remaining iron is unable to capture the gold. The resulting product was then soaked in a liquid cyanide solution to dissolve the gold. These are the large tanks seen at the bottom of the operation. The final step was to precipitate the gold by chemically replacing it with a more active metal, possibly zinc, and recover the cyanide solution for re-use. The gold slurry was then melted and cast into ingots. At the lowest spot by the mill, the ground consists of a hardened white powdery material, the discarded remains of the milling and leaching process. In the early days before the mill was constructed, it is possible mercury was used for extraction but no evidence of that, if it ever existed, is seen. The cyanide process originated in the late 1800s and is still in use today.
Later that afternoon, we visited one of the two graveyards. Although most graves were quite dilapidated, most had names stamped into metal tags and were legible. We have photos of all tags. One grave occupied the most prominent location and had the name Schúter on it. It appears to be the grave of a boy. We are trying to learn who this was and his place in the operation. This is the only non-Mexican name we have seen so far. We have yet to visit the other graveyard. It and the original entrance to the mine will have to wait for another trip. As before, our time here was too short.
Since posting the original story above, we have been contacted by at least one person who had relatives living in Lluvia sometime in the past. If you had relatives here or know of someone who did, please contact us and help us add to the history of this fascinating place. In the meantime, I keep hoping I'll trip over an extra barra de oro left behind by some forgetful miner but so far, no such luck.
It's easy to get behind and I have. Putting something on the web is a little like going fishing - you toss something out (i.e. publish a web page) and hope for something in return. I had no idea a story about Lluvia de Oro would generate much of a response! Yet, since the time of my two visits to Lluvia (10/2003 & 5/2004) and writing the subsequent story, a number of people have written to share some little piece of history about a friend or relative who had some connection to the mine and its community. An example is Jesus Felix Montoya of Cd. Obregón in Sonora, who was kind enough to send us the adjacent photos from his family's album.
The first two photos are of the "Rancho House" in Lluvia de Oro belonging to Sr. Montoya's grandfather, Jose Maria Felix Aguirre. The photos were taken in 1930. The bottom picture is of the Balaguer family from Lluvia de Oro in 1916. A descendent is living today in Cd. Obregon. Note the buildings associated with the mine's milling operation in the background behind the kids.
How different everything appears
today! The buildings are all gone - only foundations remain. A few small
remnants of the mill's equipment lie scattered about. At the site of the
hydroelectric power-plant for the mine on the Rio Fuerte, only rusting relics
and an undercut dam can be seen today. The walls of the water pumping station
for the mine also remain along with some rusting machinery that is slowly
Webmaster's Notes - September 2006:
New items continue to trickle in - most importantly is a photo showing the extent of the original construction at Lluvia. Compare this perspective with the view today (near the top of this page) and a vastly different scene appears. The modern view is looking back from the opposite side of the mill and precipitation tanks. All of the old building materials have been hauled off.
Water and electricity were supplied from the Rio Fuerte approximately 1050 meters below this site. Pictures of the remains of the water pumping station and the separate electrical generator can be found in the photo gallery.
Webmaster's Notes - October 2007:
A new page showing some historical photos of the mine site about 1907 has been added in the photo gallery. We've learned that an American engineer, L.L. Nunn - who had a strong presence in Colorado mining near Telluride, was responsible for the construction of the power plant along the Rio Fuerte where electricity was generated and transmitted to Lluvia. It's another small piece of the larger puzzle.
We received an e-mail from a
descendent of an employee at Lluvia. Tracy Grotefend is the great-granddaughter of
Rafael Marquez who worked at the mine. Tracy's grandmother, Margarita Marquez,
had preserved letters of reference for Rafael along with the document showing
her subsequent entry into the United States and petition for naturalization as a
US citizen. With their permission, we have added them to this page.
Finally we are in the process of adding photo links to the various Lluvia de Oro locations that can be seen using Google Earth. Try it out for a different perspective.
Webmaster's Notes - June 2008
Google Earth/Panoramio has posted two of my photographs of the Lluvia de Oro mine site. They can be seen by browsing the area in Google Earth or by using this data file in the software to go there directly. The resolution of the imagery is excellent.
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de C. V. unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.