Terlingua, Texas Ghostown

Terlingua is the closest “town” to the entrance of Big Bend National Park.

Terlingua was established in the late 1880’s to mine cinnabar to produce mercury. Native Americans used cinnabar to create their pictographs. By 1903 3000 people lived in the area.

Terlingua was a “company town” with housing provided to workers (mostly Mexicans), a company store, theater, company doctor and confectionery that only accepted job site script and an ice-plant and hotel for visiting technical consultants. The mining was dangerous enough but the transformation of cinnabar to mercury was even more so. Cinnabar was heated in a furnace and mercury escaped as a vapor which condensed into liquid mercury. There were at least four mines in the area. Mercury was used mainly in detonators for bombs in World War I and II so this work was lucrative and important to national security. Late in WWII a new way to detonate bombs was developed and the dangerous properties of mercury were exposed. The mines’ owner wasted a lot of his earnings buying yachts and investing in gold and silver mines until he was unable to keep the mines open. He went bust and the miners walked away, leaving their homes and all the mine buildings.

Now the area draws tourists as a living ghost town. Terlingua had a population of 58 in 2010 of quirky, artistic residents. It also offers a restaurant/bar (Starlight Theatre), the Terlingua trading company (the original company store), a nearby hotel that offers rooms in the renovated Perry Mansion (home of the mine’s owner) and other renovated mine buildings and several nearby AirBNB’s that focus on showcasing “off-the-grid” living (will be discussed in a future post). There is also a cemetery with graves for the long-ago miners and more recent residents. The problem; however, is that “burials” are not possible. The ground is too hard to dig so in the mining years stones were piled up on the bodies. Now the few residents that die locally and want to be buried here are cremated.

There is a porch running along the front of several buildings where the locals mingle and drink with the tourists and dogs sleep under their “people’s” feet. The view from the porch is spectacular. Everyone visiting Terlingua must go to the jail at least once – it is the restroom now.

Terlingua is most proud of its history as holding the World’s First Chili Championship in 1967 and has held the competition each year since then. The only “rule” of the competition is NO BEANS -it is to be Texas Red (no beans). It is always held the first weekend of November and is attended mostly by RVers and campers since there is very little infrastructure in place for the large number of people the event draws. Due to a disagreement between the founders of the event in 1983 there was a split and now two chili cook-off events are held about four miles from each other. Our guides told us one is family friendly. The other one is definitely NOT.

On Tuesday afternoon we got a tour of the ghostown, shopped at the Terlingua Trading Post (that carries local artists’ works), had drinks of the porch and finally went to the Starlight Theatre restaurant. The bar featured Sotol, a drink, similar to tequila, made from the heart of the sotol plant and cactus pear margaritas. I tried the cactus pear margarita (ONE was all I needed) and I had to try the award-winning Texas chili for dinner – it was very good.