Terlingua, located in southwest Texas between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, is Texas’ most visited ghost town.
Ghost Towns are unique echoes of history. As a child, I thought they were old towns with ghosts and never had an interest in them. In reality, they are more about history lost than the paranormal. As I researched ghost towns in Texas, I quickly realized that we have a plethora of abandoned towns with a rich history just waiting to be discovered.
Once bustling communities, various circumstances cause them to slip away into obscurity. Terlingua ghost town in southwestern Texas is one of these echoes. It’s always fascinating to ponder what happened in these towns, who lived there, and why they were abandoned to decay.
I almost didn’t visit Terlingua ghost town. Tired from exploring Big Bend National Park, I decided at the last moment that I should just go. I made the right choice. Across the arid landscape, I found a loosely assembled group of old and new buildings, hotels, restaurant and a cemetery.
Terlingua (Three Tongues) was founded as a quicksilver mining town in the 1880’s. The original site was a Mexican village on the Terlingua Creek. The Chisos Mining Company began extracting the metal Mercury from the quicksilver they mined. The town’s population quickly grew to 2,000. Eventually, four mining companies mined for quicksilver in Terlingua. Production began to decline in the 1930’s and stopped in the 1940’s. As the mines dried up, the miners left to find work. Terlingua became a ghost town.
Tourism revitalized the village in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to its proximity to Big Bend National Park. However, it grew slowly. It had a population of about 25 people by the mid-1990s. The area now has a population of over 250 people and is a popular tourist destination. Tourists enjoy outdoor activities such as rafting on the Rio Grande, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and motorcycling.
Spread over the rocky terrain, the cemetery caught my attention first. Speaking to its poor and rummaged past, many graves displayed hand-made wooden crosses and covered with smatterings of personal remembrances. Weathered from the harsh Chihuahua Desert temperatures, the cemetery is a mixture of old and new graves.
The graves were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Mounds of rocks piled high, with wooden crosses atop. Some of the rocks had been shaped into body-like or oven-like shapes. The names were impossible to read. Some of the graves were also relatively new. It is still in use as a cemetery.
Walking between the graves, there is a feeling of uneasiness and curiosity. A large majority of the graves have no names on them, just a cross and trinkets. Amazed, I wondered, how do you find a loved one? My curiosity drew me from grave to grave to see its adornment.
The one grave that stood out from all the rest wasn’t because of its historic nature, but rather its celebration of the person’s life. The flags, Buddhas and beer bottles echoed how much this person enjoyed life. I couldn’t do anything but smile. Rest in Peace or Party On? What do you think?
On November 2nd, the locals come and celebrate the Day of the Dead and pay respects to the departed. Participants decorate these white bleachers with multi-colored cloths and decorations. The graves decorated with candles, a bonfire and costumes highlight this celebration.
Leaving the cemetery, I headed up the hill to the church. Once a weathered tan brick building, the exterior is under restoration. The interior is rustic and simple. I didn’t see any modern electrical fixtures. Only natural light from the windows filled the sanctuary. Still available for various religious services like weddings, funerals or christenings. The photos of the early congregation give a peek into the pre-ghost town Terlingua.
While I was in the church, it seemed like I saw someone walk passed the open door out of the corner of my eye. I shrugged it off, thinking it was a worker restoring the building. I went outside and looked around the building a minute or so later, there was no one around. Hmmm, did I see something or not? I’m not sure.
Chisos Mining Company
The Chisos Mining Company was founded and began operations in 1903 near Terlingua, Texas. The company specialized in the extraction of quicksilver and mercury. In 1799, Charles Harvard discovered that compounding the element produced fulminate mercury crystals, establishing its marketability. These crystals are useful in the production of gunpowder cartridges and shells because they can cause small explosions.
Howard E. Perry was the founder of the Chisos Mining Company and ‘the owner’ of the town. The mining company established a commissary, hotel, doctor and other services for the town residents. Construction of the Perry School replaced the tent classroom structures the children used. Mr. Perry built the “Perry Mansion” for his wife. It overlooked the town, so he could keep watch. When the mine went bankrupt in 1942, Perry sold it and moved way. In 1944, Howard Perry passed away in Boston.
Today, you can stay in the nicely remodeled rooms in Perry Mansion structure, as it looks below. I have to admit, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how the outside looked compared to the interior photos on their website. If you want to stay in a real ghost town, this might be a fun adventure choice!
Easily the most evocative site in the ghost town, the Perry Mansion has long been the source of legend, rumor, and gossip. And for good reason.
Perched high above the Chisos Mine in what is considered the “Beverly Hills of Terlingua,” this was originally the mansion of the owner — Howard E. Perry — built especially for his bride. Local lore boasts that if Romeo and Juliet had come to the Ghost Town, they would’ve stayed here.
Obviously, as often happened with frontier dynasties, the abandoned mansion has fallen into disarray. The desert sun, wind, and thunderstorms took their toll on the structure.
For years, only the hardiest locals inhabited the sturdy ruins, but recently a few insightful archeologists/visionaries began a spare-no-expense renovation that is repairing history.
Step into the new/old Presidential Suite. Be the boss. Choose your bedroom on either floor. Downstairs there’s a magnificent king size bed. Upstairs, you’ll find two queen size beds.
Rest in the cool shade of the magnificent veranda, or gaze down from your room onto the timeless landscape as the sun rises and sets.
During the evening — following our patented spectacular sunsets — we provide a vast array of stars, surrounded by vivid darkness like you’ve rarely seen before.
Each room has its own magnificent bathroom.
El Penthouse offers stunning aerial views of the Terlingua skyline. You’ll be glad you won’t be distracted by television or that annoying internet. Books are allowed — and singing, too.
Each room offers a modern coffemaker and a sampling of our proprietary gourmet coffee. For the hungry adventurer, there is also a “rustic” (meaning “RUSTIC”) kitchen next door. Just ignore the bullet holes — long story.
The Perry Mansion — your home-away-from-home when you’re in Terlingua — offers the finest in Ghost Town atmospherics, redolent of historically-correct decay.
A 60 minute or less stop, stretched a little longer if you want to wander, have a drink or meal. My visit to Terlingua left a haunting impression. The feeling of a lost time permeates the air in every direction. And still, with its remnant of buildings and people.
Speaking of ghost towns, I’ve been told that many of the people who live here leave during the months of June, July, and August. The few tour companies leave, and the place becomes deserted. Why? Without water, constant sun, and no trees or shade of any kind, 115 degrees will make you a ghost, too.
Historic Terlingua Ghost Town
PO Box 362
Terlingua, Texas 79852