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Gold and the Ortiz Mine Grant by William…

Gold and the Ortiz Mine Grant

by William Baxter

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Picked up on the recent trip to New Mexico. Alas, very little in the way of geology; however, amateur historian author William Baxter put lots of effort into tracking down documents – many from Spanish colonial days – and comes up with a lot of miscellaneous interesting material. There was no “Ortiz Mine” per se; instead the colonial authorities granted a tract where mining was licensed. (One of the interesting miscellaneous things is that the area granted was measured in “leagues” – and at the time a “league” was the distance a man could walk in an hour. Literally – regardless of terrain. That left the grant boundaries rather nebulous; it didn’t make much difference to the colonial authorities but when they were replaced by the Republic of Mexico and eventually the United States of America the legal world expected a little more precision in land boundaries.

Baxter claims that the Ortiz area precipitated the first “gold rush” in what’s now the United States west of the Mississippi; seems plausible. The gold at Ortiz was in placer sands and gravels, which are conducive to casual mining; even when the ownership of the area was settled trespassing miners were a problem. It didn’t help that large scale mining never made a profit until the very end of the active life of the mine in the 1980s; the general pattern was that the area would be “boosted”; some capital would be collected back East; some mine buildings would be built; a stamp mill installed; and not quite enough gold to make a profit would get extracted. Then the mining company would file for bankruptcy. With no guards on site, local amateur miners would descend and dry pan gravel until the process repeated. As a result the area is pockmarked with prospect holes, short shafts, and rusting machinery.

Eventually Gold Fields Mining of South Africa showed up in the early 1980s, brought in heavy equipment, set up a cyanide leach plant, and extracted 231900 troy ounces of gold in eight years (which is estimated to be more than twice the total production of the previous 160 years). In 1983 the operation was the victim of the largest armed robbery in New Mexico history when two gunmen overpowered the night watchmen and made off with $313K worth of gold foil (the leach plant extracted gold from the pregnant solution by electroplating it onto stainless steel sheets and then scraping off the foil manually).

Eventually the price of gold dropped below what was economical to mine and Gold Fields shut down their operation. The claim was sold to a joint venture of small mineral exploration firms; they estimated there were 1M ounces of gold remaining. However, environmental protests blocked any further mining and the site was transferred to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden as the Ortiz Mountain Educational Preserve. Unfortunately the site’s history of legal disputes continued; according to Baxter the Santa Fe Botanical Garden expected to be exempt from property taxes as a nonprofit and was amazed when they got a bill from the Santa Fe County Assessor’s Office for $13K in back taxes and fines; the assessor had appraised the land at residential housing rates. The tax bill was settled by transferring the land to Santa Fe County Open Space and Trails, although it is still managed by the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Having grown up in the Chicago area I had always assumed I knew all there was about shady land deals; it’s still disputable but New Mexico appears to be a contender.

Pleasant enough given the subject matter; Mr. Baxter manages to make pages of records of land transactions moderately interesting. Illustrated with various old photographs of the site, plans of mines, and machinery blueprints. I’d like a little more geology but you can’t have everything; where would you put it? ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 9, 2017 |
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