by John Ahouse
“Every American, with a dollar to spare, at some time in his life takes a shot at a gold mine.” (A Daughter of the Middle Border, p. 295)
If Hamlin Garland’s single shot at striking it rich in the Klondike was marked by self-defeating choices (set out too early for the route he chose, but much too late to stake a meaningful claim at the other end), gold fever was still in the air in 1903 when his younger brother journeyed into central Mexico to look into rubber plantations only to become involved in a mining operation instead. In due course, a nugget of gold from the area north of Zacatecas was passed around the Garland’s dinner table, and Hamlin experienced an instant vision of independent wealth that could liberate him from his more onerous writing chores.
Franklin Garland (1864-1945) was a jack-of-all-trades, an actor initially, with a touch of the ne’er-do-well, who would dearly have loved to pull off a success in the business world to compare with Hamlin’s achievements as an author. This adventure gives a glimpse of “Junior” at his best, corresponding assiduously and in a spirit of full and enthusiastic disclosure from his outpost on the mining property in Mexico, hoping to interest Hamlin in seriously backing their investment.
Draw a line on an ordinary map from San Luis Potosí to Torreón: roughly halfway between lies Camacho, where Franklin posted his progress reports and where he took his ore for assay. Head twenty miles due east from Camacho, and a better map will show Pico de Teyra, at 10,000 feet by far the highest elevation in that part of Mexico. Bleak, parched, and sparsely populated, the area around the Pico is one of the most remote in Mexico, reportedly a hundred miles even today from the nearest paved road. The depot at Camacho, however, perches on the central rail line from Mexico City to El Paso. Whatever credibility the Mexican venture possessed must have come from this connection to the outside world.
Franklin’s mine with the optimistic name “El Porvenir” (“The Future”) was located more than half way up the north flank of Pico de Teyra and had been worked and reworked before. Indeed, the whole region had been exploited by the Spanish as early as the 17th century, bringing fame to Zacatecas as the center for silver trinketry. The property in question was already riddled with shallow mines abandoned at the depth of a few feet for lack of machinery. Engineers call these “dog holes,” Garland called it “gophering,”and they represent the most primitive sort of prospecting by “chasing the vein” in hopes of striking richer deposits of ore. The immediate area yielded a mixture of silver and lead, with some gold present. Where Franklin was concerned, it was the presence of Au in the mixture of Ag and Pb that snagged his interest. An intermediary named Ossolinsky, the local superintendent, played a part – possibly the major part – in interpreting conditions to Franklin in the best possible light. To make the project work, Ossolinsky seems to have been saying, the norteamericanos needed to acquire the adjacent claims as well; the larger investment would then justify importing machinery to do the job right.
The bulletins to Hamlin Garland, rather lengthy letters in fact, begin with the new year of 1904. Franklin writes about the need to set up his own mill on-site, as well as buying out the adjoining claims of Messrs. Heim and Miller. On Jan. 31st he mentions sending Ossolinski to register their deed and pay taxes at Concepción del Oro. Getting the ore to the assay office is going to add to their costs, and on Feb. 14th he exclaims, “If only we had our own outfit!” He goes on, “We will need a good wagon and about 5 mules. This outfit could haul from two to three tons per trip and make a trip every two days, taking out ore and bringing in supplies.”
With increasing confidence, Franklin writes to his brother on Feb. 26th, “Why not interest some man like Dr, [Frank] Seaman to the extent of a few thousand dollars to buy out Miller and Heim? They are getting more hard up every day and can be bought out now pretty cheap. I am keeping our operation here as dark as possible so that they won’t know when we do make a strike …” Franklin then puts it directly to his brother, “Why not hop on the train and take a run down here and see “our gold brick”? You could so much better understand what you are getting for your money and you would enjoy the trip.” Pressing another button: “We are on the edge of the range here, about 7000 ft. elevation, and standing almost in our patio is a peak of some 11 or 12 thousand feet in height and as picturesque as Shasta but on a smaller scale. And to take a horse and ride 15 or 20 minutes you get up on the range where you have magnificent views and the air is like Colorado. It’s simply great. We took a ride today with Mr. Fernandez to look at one of his copper prospects over behind “Little Shasta” and the ride was just about rough enough to suit you.”
A week later, amid reports of assays that didn’t quite stack up (“It’s a disappointment. What we called our high grade only runs about $92.00 per ton, gross, instead of $400.00 as Ossolinsky confidently asserted it would.”), Franklin renews his urging, “If you can possibly get away, I think you should come down and look the thing over. And bring [Irving] Bacheller or some other moneyed man with you.”
The news on March 14th remains muted: ”The vein has not improved of late but averages just about the same. It has good spots and bad spots. We are about due for a good spot now, and may strike the vein in [a] lower level any day.” Meanwhile, though, “Senior” had clearly been won over to the idea of a visit since Franklin goes on to give specific travel details: “From the time you leave the Pullman until you get back to it, it’s roughing it. We can take care of you, at least a party of 3 out here and feed you reasonably well, but advise bringing some blankets, which can be borrowed or bought at Camacho. It’s a prospector’s camp, and there are no luxuries here. […] Telegraph me at least 3 days in advance of your coming so I can be prepared and be at Camacho to meet you. I am at the mine all the time, except when absolutely necessary for me to go out on business. Will try to have some venison for the party.”
No further letters of Franklin’s from Mexico survive in USC’s collection – perhaps no more were written -- but what happened next is told briefly in Daughter of the Middle Border and in slightly greater detail in Companions on the Trail. Garland had rounded up two prosperous friends, a Chicago investor named Archer Brown and Irving Bacheller, the well-to-do novelist and publisher, whose friendship with Garland would endure long after the foray into Mexico. The three arrive in Camacho on April 9th for what can only have been an arduous forty-eight hours, beginning with an eighteen-mile ride in the back of a donkey-cart, followed by two nights bedding down in Franklin’s cave. In the impressionistic and unpunctuated way he assembled ideas, Garland writes in his notebook:
The cluster of dusky, gaily-attired figures – the wattled huts – the mocking bird singing in the hot desolation, the desert blooms – yellow and red on snake cactus – deep crimson on the pear –
The dust – the blazing sky – the streamless hills – the brown and naked peaks. –
-the starved and tragic goats, sheep – horses feeding on this stern forage –
-the mockingbird singing a slender, sweet melody amidst the desolate, streamless desert –
The men who carried the ore on their backs, up small notched ladders – their enormous strength – carry six hundred pounds – boys carry nearly one hundred pounds –
Brown and bare and desolate – no wood no water –
Beautiful, but sinister in its beauty – thorny, spiny, bitter plants –
- the poor crawling sheep – the mournful song the herder sang –
Everything save the birds and deer – the things natural to this desert – are lean and lank and sorrowful – the mozo keeps his cheer on tortillas and frijoles.
In his diary he writes: “We found my brother’s camp to be in a cave or tunnel and his kitchen outside. All over the hills his peons were encamped like animals, without shelter of a roof or tent in many cases. We went to bed in the cave – a novel situation for us all.”
Arising sore and exhausted the next morning, the three visitors get down to the business of inspecting the mine. Garland reports laconically: “[T]he cool judgment of Archer Brown held me in check: In a few words he disclosed our folly. ‘There is no water to work the ore, no roads to transport it to the smelter, and the cost of production is more than the ore will bring.’ My expectations fell to zero. I told my brother to close the mine.”
Not one to squander an opportunity, however, Garland dusted off his suit and reboarded the train going south to Mexico City the next day in order to shake the hand of President Porfirio Díaz. The mine appears to have remained in his or Franklin’s name for additional years perhaps until the end of the porfiriato when most such claims would have been swept away by the Revolution.
The assistance of Jaime Fushille of El Paso, Texas, is gratefully acknowledged.
Photos from the Hamlin Garland Collection, University of Southern California