AND SIDELINE STORIES
In the year 1886, some seven
years after the discovery of the
ores in Sierra Mojada, a
geologist named Richard E
Chism who at the time was
living in Saltillo, about two
hundred miles south east of
Sierra Mojada, made a trip to
the area to make an
assessment of the new mining
district. This report was
presented to the American
Institute of Mining Engineers
which met in St. Louis in
October of this same year.
Because of the seriousness of
the situation, Mr. Chism
commented at length about
the shortage of water in Sierra
Mojada. There was (and still
is) a very small variable spring
just above the town, and
another like spring about half a
mile away. By the time of his
writing already several dozen
wells between sixty and eighty
feet deep had been hand dug
in the arroyo that borders the
town. This supply of water
diminishes considerably during
the dry season, roughly
between August and April. The
following is a quote from
Mr. .Chism’s report.
“At ordinary times a bucket of drinking-water, holding about five gallons, is 6¼ cents, but
during the drought it steadily advances to 18, 25 and 37½ cents. Numerous families leave town
when the price of water commences to rise, and return after the rain.”
The daily wage for the common miner was one dollar and fifty cents. And although this
was about one third more than the national average of the time, still, using about forty percent of
a day’s wages for five gallons of water bites in deep. Mr. Chism went on to say that because of
the shortage of water, many of the mines were not being worked.
Mr. Chism notes that already there were dams in La Esmeralda, mainly for supplying the
steam engines, and the ordinary miners were allotted water for domestic use from these dams.
Along with their wages they were given brass tokens, each worth one bucket of water. (In La
Esmeralda I had a tiny museum which included several of these old tokens.)
Later on more large dams were built, cisterns were made to store rain water, and not a
few homes in the haphazard layout of Sierra Mojada and La Esmeralda had their own private little
dams. An exploratory mine shaft was dug between Sierra Mojada and La Esmeralda, and it
resulted in a fair amount of water. There was one bore well in La Esmeralda with a steam-
powered jack pump, but because the bore was crooked, too much time and money was spent
replacing the pipe and the rods, even though wooden rods were used. And so it was abandoned.
There was another bore well between La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada which yielded a fair
amount of water. Somehow through it all the people scrimped by with making every drop of water
It must have been somewhere in the 1940s when the miner’s Cooperative had another
well drilled not too far from the well resulting from the above mentioned exploratory mine shaft.
This resulted in a fairly good well. A jack pump powered by a diesel motor operated a three inch
cylinder. The water flowed by gravity to a large open sheet-metal holding tank in La Esmeralda to
which the people would have to come to haul the water to their homes in fifty-five gallon metal
drums (barrels). Again, the water was first of all doled out to the miners of the Cooperative. If
there was any left over, others could obtain permission to buy the water.
In 1965 the state government had a well drilled in the upper part of La Esmeralda. Again,
it was equipped with a jack pump and diesel motor. Also a system of pipes was laid to strategic
points in town where there was an ordinary water faucet for people to draw water in buckets.
Apparently the well had a good amount of water, but the pumping equipment was inadequate,
and so the public distribution system was never fully functional. The ones in charge of the
maintenance of the well lacked expertise. On one occasion when they were pulling the cylinder to
replace the gaskets it was noticed that there was a crack in the threads. Instead of taking the
trouble to secure the pipe immediately, they trusted that it would hold until the next coupling
would be in position for locking. The pipe broke and plummeted. They were unable to retrieve the
pipe, and it had fallen in such a way that a new cylinder could be submerged only a short
distance into the water, and as a result production was diminished.
It should be noted that in all the wells the water bearing stratum is the Red Conglomerate
Formation, the alluvial of the ancient volcano.
When I arrived in La Esmeralda in 1967 the principal source of water was the well of the
Cooperative. The other well in town produced only a small amount of water, and irregularly. In all
instances each household had the responsibility to go to the holding tank to obtain water and
transport it to the house. This was universally done using fifty-five gallon used oil drums, many of
them patched over and over again. At this time there were few people who could afford the luxury
of having a pickup. (There was not a single passenger car because it could not negotiate the
roads.) Those who did have a pickup used it to haul water. About half of the water was hauled in
burro carts mounted with one or two drums. Some carts were pulled by a single burro, others by
two and three burro teams. It all depended how far and how high the haul was going to be. The
holding tank was at about the lowest point in town, and the climb across the railroad tracks was
rather steep. There were one and the other teams of horses and wagons that would carry six
drums. There were many who made their living hauling water for others who did not have a burro
and cart, or did not have the time.
At the homes it was universal to keep the water in the steel drums. Only in the later years
the more practical plastic barrel became available.
In some very few homes water was bucketed to an elevated drum for taking a shower,
and these homes usually had a water heater. I do not think there was a single bathtub in town;
everyone used the large round galvanized tub for both washing clothes and bathing.
By chance the pipe that carried the water from the Cooperative well to the holding tank
passed within a hundred feet of the parish rectory. The parish had been without a resident pastor
from 1920 until 1964 when a fellow American priest, Rev Charles Zeyen of our Congregation, the
Missionaries of the Holy Family, took up the position of pastor there. The Cooperative gave him
permission to run a pipe to the rectory for filling an elevated asbestos/cement tank with a capacity
of a hundred and fifty gallons. Every other day down at the holding tank they would close the
valve and the water would back up to fill the tank at the parish. The priest also put in a shower,
water heater, and a flush toilet with its own cesspool. There were only two other houses in the
entire town that had a flush toilet. They use a lot of water! Most of the houses had an outdoor
privy, but there were many homes where the people simply went off somewhere in the bush.
When I left there in 2000 there were still a very few living on the outskirts of town that did not
have even a privy.
Because there were many times when the pump at the Cooperative well was down for
maintenance the water supply of only a hundred and fifty gallons at the parish was precarious.
After being there three years I built in the patio an elevated reinforced concrete tank to replace
the one hundred and fifty gallon asbestos/cement tank. The new tank had a capacity of about a
thousand gallons. I knew that the level of the patio floor was just about three feet lower than the
entrance to the Cooperative holding tank. So after several more years I dug a hole in the patio
and poured a five hundred gallon concrete tank. Now water would enter this tank whenever the
Cooperative well was operating. A float valve closed the flow into the tank when it was full. By this
time we had electricity 7/27, and so I installed a pump to the elevated tank. Starting with an
ordinary light switch, I made a control that automatically kept the elevated tank full. In the
subsurface tank below I built as limit switch to cut power to the pump when the water level in this
lower tank fell to only half full. Another switch could override this limit switch. The thing is that
there were several faucets available to anyone, like to those who cleaned the church, or in the
toilet of the parish hall. Many times I would be out in the villages and ranches for several days on
end, and if anyone, say a kid wanting to get a drink of water, left a faucet open, every drop of
water could go down the drain. So if worse came to worse, there would always be a reserve of
two hundred and fifty gallons in the lower tank.
In Sierra Mojada some of the people, especially those who belonged to the Cooperative,
hauled water in barrels from the Cooperative well. All the rest of the populace relied on the
numerous hand dug wells around town, most of which were between sixty and eighty feet deep.
Everyone had to draw this water with a bucket and a windlass. Even when electricity became
available, no one installed any sort of a pump. The electricity was not free and was not cheap.
There was zero tolerance for late payment of the bill, and the reinstalling the meter.
It was in the ‘80s that the state government made a serious effort to alleviate the problem
of water. In Sierra Mojada two deep wells were drilled into the Red Conglomerate which there in
Sierra Mojada is generally covered by only a few meters of alluvial. These wells were quite
abundant, and were equipped with submersible pumps, each powered by its own diesel driven
generator. Both in Sierra Mojada and also half way to La Esmeralda a large cement storage tank
Water lines were installed in the principal streets of both Sierra Mojada and La
Esmeralda. In La Esmeralda this did not include the area above the railroad tracks. About a third
of the people live above the tracks. In all cases the connection from the water line to the house
was at the option and the expense of the consumer. There were no meters; the water was free.
Every few days, alternating between Sierra Mojada and La Esmeralda, the valve at the holding
tank was opened and the water flooded into the water lines until the holding tank was empty. The
people would have to store their water in tanks or barrels, or whatever. The distribution was quite
uneven because those who lived at the lowest level of the town had more pressure in the lines,
and continued to have water longer than those who lived higher up. Some wasted while other
received hardly anything.
. The Cooperative well continued functioning for those who did not have a connection to
the municipal system, for instance those in La Esmeralda who lived above the tracks. As a
precaution, I made a connection to the municipal water, but through a system of check valves I
remained on the Cooperative water when their well was working.
So for several years, with a few interruptions, there was a fairly good supply of water. But
then the system slowly started to deteriorate. First, the water level in Sierra Mojada fell, and so
the pumps worked intermittently. Next, because the pumping equipment was not properly
maintained, one pump failed completely. There was no money to replace it. When the water level
fell in these bore wells, so also did the level in the hand dug wells in town. Many of these dried up
completely. It was now only once in a while that any water came from Sierra Mojada to La
Esmeralda. Eventually there was not enough water for even the people in Sierra Mojada.
The Cooperative well, now at least forty years old, had silted up, and had begun to draw
sand. This scored the brass cylinder, and so water was lost on the stroke, and the gaskets wore
out rapidly. To pull the cylinder and replace the gaskets was a full day’s work. The price of ore
had fallen, and the Cooperative came on hard times. There was no money to de-silt and replace
the cylinder. In 1990 the smelters suddenly refused to accept the marginal ore from the
Cooperative mines, and the mines closed. There was now no money to operate the well, and so
the well shut down. Sometimes a private party bought the diesel for the motor and paid the well
master to pump some water for private use.
The railroad station master had a right to be supplied by the railroad (Still national
property at that time.) His water supply was brought in by tank car and unloaded into a large
cistern at the station. The station master was very considerate and permitted some people to
pump water from the cistern. Many times I hauled off a load of six barrels for the parish. The
pump was slow, and so it took about an hour and a half to fill them. At times I would go to Sierra
Mojada and fill my barrels from the old hand dug well in the Metalúrgica. By this time this well had
been equipped with a cylinder and a jack pump powered by an electric motor. Slow, but sure.
Many others too came to the Metalúrgica for water.
Bad went to worse and in the end almost the only source of water was that brought in by
the train in tank cars. At the most, one tank per day arriving on the late evening train. People
would start to line up with their pickup and burro carts at four in the morning in hopes of getting
water. It was sold at five pesos a barrel. The railroad charged to bring the water, and the
conductors charged a ‘gratification’ for the ‘favor’ of arranging for the tank car to get included on
About 1988 the Cooperative had made attempts to find water nearer the mines on the
upper outskirts of La Esmeralda. After two dry bores the third bore did strike water, and the well
was cased. Then they bought a bowl pump along with the motor, but it was never installed
because it had a maximum depth of a hundred and fifty meters, and it was a hundred and eighty-
five meters to the water level in the well. No one seemed to have an explanation of why the pump
was purchased in the first place, or why it was never returned. They must not have asked about
specifications before buying. Years later a rancher bought it. Also, it was the general opinion that
the well had very little water in it, that is, the recovery rate was very slow. So a steel plate was
welded over the wellhead, and weeds started to grow around it. Around La Esmeralda there had
been other attempts too to find water, and all had failed.
I too tried right at the parish in 1990. The contract was for a bore of one hundred meters.
The first seventy-five meters were drilled in a little over two days because it was all alluvial. From
then on it was bed rock (limestone) and the progress was much slower. At ninety-five meters an
opening… a hollow spot, was broken into, and the ejection system for returning the drilling
products to the surface lost pressure. There was a serious danger that the bit would become
lodged tight. The rig was government owned and operated, and it was for the benefit of the
people; they worked at a no-profit rate. So rather than lose the bit, they pulled the drill and
refused to go any farther. Because of the detergent used in the ejection of the drilling products,
the walls of the bore through the alluvial collapsed in a matter of weeks.
The reason for the failures in the attempts to find water was with the geology below.
Hidden by hundreds of feet of alluvial, the geology is very complex. It was sometime in the early
nineties when Kennecott spent more than a year and several millions making explorations in the
valley there. They were working with the theory that the mineralization of the area had occurred
before the mountain had been thrust upward, almost a shear three thousand feet. The mountain
as it rose had lifted with it the ore found along its sides. In the valley the same ore body would be
found at a corresponding depth.
First came a team from Arizona to make an electromagnetic survey by sending an
underground current between two points. By means of detectors between the two points the
subsurface lithology can be inferred. This survey began at point eight miles to the east of La
Esmeralda, and continued on to an almost equal distance to the west. The two extreme points
were well outside the Sierra Mojada valley where all the mines are located. It should be noted
that this survey was in the valley below the area of the mines, and this area is covered by
hundreds of feet of alluvial.
Then came the core drilling crews to drill at strategic points indicated by the
electromagnetic survey. The cores were about an inch and a half in diameter. They never drilled
deeper than three hundred meters because unless something exceptionally rich were found, the
cost of mining at that depth becomes prohibitive. The afore mentioned ‘openings’ or ‘hollow
places’ caused many problems, and in places the drills could not advance to three hundred
meters. All in all, the geologist in charge of the operation simply shook his head in confusion. The
underground structure of the geology was nothing like he had ever seen. He showed me one
instance where they had drilled into the limestone, and then another hundred meters deeper they
found the exact same stratum as on the very top. This geologist was using a certain fossil as a
guide post. This fossil is called a miliolid, which is a minuscule marine protist with a calcareous
test. This protist evolves rapidly, and so it is useful in determining the age of a stratum. What
happened in this instance was that the drill cut through a fault where one block of limestone either
dropped below the other block, or one block was lifted in relation to the other.
Always a company that makes a study like this is very secretive about what is found.
After all, this knowledge is their property, and they do not want to share it with a competitor. The
geologist in charge did tell me a few general facts which would not compromise the total. He
showed me one core sample that had a narrow vein of rich silver. But he did not tell me from
where it was taken. The net result of the core drillings demonstrated that the Kennecott geologists
had erred, and that there were no worthwhile bodies of ore accessible in the valley.
The fact that this geologist showed me some of these things is because he was staying in
quarters belonging to the parish. The following is the story of these rooms.
When I first went to La Esmeralda there were several cases where there was an old
invalid who did not have any relatives in town. They were destitute, lived alone, and spent their
last days in miserable conditions. Of course those who had relatives were always taken care of
by family members even though they were no more than cousins or aunts and uncles. There was
no such thing as a place for assisted living.
In these extreme cases when the person was no longer able to take care of himself /
herself, there was a group of ladies from the church who took care of them. The ladies would
arrange among themselves for who would bring them their meals, do the cleaning, do their
laundry and arrange for their bathing. And moderately provide for their medicine. One such man
was Don Abundio who did not even have a house of his own; rather he lived in an abandoned
house that did not even have a door. We arranged a few boards at the doorway to keep out the
burros and the goats. His toilet was a bucket which was emptied for him. I loaned him a cot with
bedding, and visited him at least once a week.
Then there was Don Silverio. He too was living in a single abandoned room. The door
had been taken off, but Don Silverio had filled the opening with adobes, and used a small window
with a wooden shutter to enter and leave. But when he became invalid we removed the adobes
and made him a door of the usual boards and cleats. This was also a convenience for those
taking care of him. His toilet too was a bucket.
It was now 1975, and by this time I was getting a better handle on things there in La
Esmeralda. I decided that there had to be a more comfortable place for these invalids, and so I
designed and built modest place there at the parish. The floor plan called for two mirror rooms,
each about twelve feet square with a common vestibule between them which included a laundry
sink and washboard. Each had an independent complete bath with tiled tub/shower, and sink with
hot and cold water, and toilet. Each room had a single burner propane grill, a cabinet for dishes
etc., a free standing wardrobe, table, chairs and a bed. Later a swamp cooler was added in each
room. The cement floors were covered with vinyl/asbestos tile, and the ceilings were polystyrene
insulation sheets. In one of the rooms the bed was a used hospital bed with hand cranks to lift
the foot and head sections.
There are always problems building with adobe bricks, and so I decided to use cement
blocks. This was going to be the first cement block house in all La Esmeralda. The closest
source for cement blocks was in Cuatro Ciénegas which is about a hundred miles down the
railroad tracks. In Mexico the station master enjoys many privileges, among them very low freight
rates. The station master fudged a little bit and brought the blocks in for very little freight. The
gabled roof was covered with galvanized sheet metal. There was a little planted patio with high
walls and a gate in front of the house. We called the place The Refuge.
It turned out that the place was never used for the purpose for which it was built until
1998. There were cases of invalids without families, but they had a house that was more or less
comfortable, and most old people would rather put up with their accustomed inconveniences than
to go and live in strange surroundings. We did offer the use of The Refuge to various persons, but
they said they were more comfortable in their homes.
That only case, mentioned above, was with Don Eugenio. He lived in a single room with a
cement floor; the roof was in fair condition. Off to one side was a small kitchen blackened from
the smoke of his little wood stove made from an oil drum. His place was on the outskirts of town,
and Don Eugenio used the surrounding brush as a toilet. Don Eugenio fell sick and, being old,
was forgetting to take the medication given free by the public clinic in La Esmeralda. His
condition deteriorated until finally he was bedridden.
As usual the ladies of the parish were taking care of his needs, but it would be much
more practical if he were in The Refuge. Don Eugenio was quite willing, and when he saw what
he was getting into, he was really happy about it. It was summer, and here he was in a nice cool
room with the swamp cooler! And an indoor toilet! And electric lights! And a comfortable bed that
could be raised up so that he could sit in it.! But he did make it clear that if he got back on his
feet, he wanted to go back to his home.
So in the meantime we spruced up his house. We whitewashed the walls and put in
electric lights, even a light outside the door. We whitewashed the kitchen, and I bought a single
burner butane stove, and gave him a cylinder of butane. We also made a privy for him close to
the house. The bed of his cot was a tangle of patches made of baling wire, and most of the
tension springs were missing. On top of this were pieces of cardboard. I redid the whole cot with
heavier materials and added extra springs, and then a two inch thick mattress of plastic foam. I
also gave him a covered barrel for water.
Don Eugenio did recover enough to go back to his house. He was thrilled with what he
saw, and made it a point to show it off to everyone. But again he took a turn for the worse. This
time the ladies preferred to locate him in another place in town which was more central to those
taking care of him. It did not have all the conveniences of The Refuge, but it was adequate. Don
Eugenio was there only a few months before he passed away. Toward the end he was
completely delusionary and someone stayed with him day and night.
Now let us take one step back. Since for the most part The Refuge had no occupant for
which it was intended, it served very well as a guest house. Also, as occasion presented itself, it
was rented out to temporary occupants, such as the geologists. The fact is that there was no
hotel in town. There were two places where one could rent rooms. Neither of these places had
anything more than an outdoor privy and only one place had facilities for bathing. But since water
was always so scarce, most of the time the party that wanted to use the shower had to see about
getting the overhead tank filled, and then start a fire in the hot water heater.
The Kennecott teams used The Refuge, and so I learned something of how things were
going with them. Also some of the geologists from Oshkosh used the place. One couple even
wanted it for their ‘honeymoon’.
Now let us return to and finish the subject of the title of this writing: THE WELL.
In the last days of the Cooperative, when they were hurting because of the drop in the
price of the ore, I gave them economic help to some fair amount. And when the end came, they
had of course no way to repay me.
Because of the water crisis, I was desperate for finding a solution for the parish needs for
water. We now had a convent with four Sisters. The unproven well the Cooperative had drilled
might have enough water for the needs of the parish. So I suggested that I would accept the well
as an even deal for what was owed. Actually the debt and the cost of the well were about the
same. There was a little disagreement among the members of the Cooperative, but it was finally
The data on the well on file with the Cooperative read that the depth of the well was 250
meters = 937 feet, and that there were 65 meters = 214 feet of water. The top 50 meters of
casing was of twelve inch heavy casing; the rest of the casing was of ten inch heavy casing.
Immediately plans were made and put into action. I was very fortunate in the fact that
Nacho (Ignacio) Rosales lived only about hundred and fifty feet from the well. Nacho, now about
forty years of age, had grown up with wells because his father was the well master of the
Cooperative well, and the young family had lived right on the premises next to the well. Nacho
was also an excellent mechanic and an expert welder. And he, like all the rest of the members of
the Cooperative, was out of work. Nacho and I were close friends from many years back.
Besides, Nacho had the specific interest of having a close and plentiful source of water. So
Nacho now became my right hand man, and the one in charge of this project.
First of all, I bummed enough six inch steel used pipe to build a permanent derrick above
the well: a derrick tall enough to comfortably handle a standard twenty-one foot length of pipe.
Nacho did the work. Several heavy duty pulleys were needed, and we could find no place in
Mexico where this type of pulley was available. In Química, the sodium sulfate / magnesium oxide
plant, there are several shops that have metal lathes. We managed to scrounge some three-
quarter-inch steel plate, and from that the shop made the six inch sheaves. From the same plate
Nacho made the sides and welded the pulleys together. Power for lowering and raising the tackle
assembly with its pipe was a loaded dump truck with a hundred feet of half inch steel cable
connected between the tackle assembly and the truck. The truck moving forward or backward
lowered or raised the assembly.
Once the derrick was in place a concrete platform was poured, and it was made large
enough to build on the back end an open ended room for equipment and control panel. The two
side walls of the room were extended to the front of the platform, and the end was closed off by
Next order of business was a holding tank. I had access to an old open top iron tank that
was used as a holding tank for a steam boiler in one of the old mines. It was ten feet in diameter
and ten feet high. It must have been around a hundred years old. It was battered and slightly
miss-shapen, and there were many places in the bottom eight inches where it was rusted
through. Nacho did an excellent job of straightening the tank, and reinforcing the top with a two
inch angle iron. Next to the well we built two wide concrete walls six feet high and set the tank on
top of them. In the bottom of the tank we poured an eight inch thick reinforced floor to take care of
the rusted bottom with its leaks. Some leaks still persisted, and it took us a long time to finally
plug them. The reason for an elevated holding tank was that In case the well proved productive
enough, it would facilitate filling by gravity the barrels of those who came for water. The top of the
tank was completely covered with heavy sheet metal.
We were now ready to begin work on the pump, and so we uncapped the well to take
more exact measurements. The results showed that the well was actually two hundred and eighty
meters (918 feet) deep and that it was two hundred and sixteen meters (708 feet) down to the
level of the water. So the column of water was 64 meters (210 feet) deep.
At first I had planned on using a cylinder with pump jack. In Sierra Mojada the
government sponsored wells had been equipped with submersible pumps, and there had been
many problems with them. It was difficult to get parts, and they were expensive. Besides, Nacho
grew up with the cylinder pump. He knew all about them. Nacho though was quite opposed to the
idea. He explained that the problems in Sierra Mojada had resulted from poor management and
maintenance. Moreover, the bore of this well was crooked, and there would be serious problems
with wear on rod and pipe. The submersible, though more expensive, was the much better way to
go. So an order was placed for a submersible pump with a 10hp motor. This would deliver
Our plans were drop the pump to over seven hundred feet. We were warned by those
who knew that it was risky to hang so much weight, which would include the weight of the water
inside the pipe, on just the threads of the couplings. There was a very serious danger that after a
time the threads, especially those at the top, would crack off. (Like the threads at the other pump
in town had failed.) The usual practice in this case was to hang (support) the pump on a
galvanized steel cable. So I ordered the cable. The reply was that there was none on hand, and it
would take up to three months to manufacture the galvanized cable. This can be understood as a
euphemism for saying we do not commit ourselves to any time table. After some days of thinking
about it, Nacho and I came up with the idea of making brackets with a ninety degree flange on
one end, and drill a half inch hole in the flange. A bracket would be welded on either side of the
pipe with the flange close the threads. After two pipes were connected by the coupling, a half inch
bolt would be installed through each of the mirror brackets. In this way the weight of the pipe
would be supported by the bolts, and not by the threads. It did take some time to fabricate and
weld the brackets. There were forty lengths of pipe (two as standby), and there are four brackets
on each pipe… two on each end. Even though it entailed much more work, both Nacho and I
liked this solution better than the steel cable.
Several years before this, the mayor of the town, for the purpose of alleviating the water
crisis, wanted to work a deal with the Cooperative about their unused well. At this same time the
power company was upgrading the electric service in La Esmeralda, and in anticipation, the
mayor convinced them to bring the power, 240 triphase, and right up to the well. The mayor
wanted exclusive control over the well, and so the Cooperative backed out. But by that time the
poles and lines were in place for our use.
Finally on April 5, 1994 we were ready to lower the pump. When the last length of pipe,
№ 38, was being lowered it was noticed that the pipe wanted to hang up. We were confident that
already we had a comfortable margin of water above the pump, and so there was no need to take
a risk by forcing it. Pipe № 38 already had the detaining collar welded onto it. So we pulled №
37 and replaced it with № 38, and ended up with thirty -seven lengths of pipe, so the pump is
close to 787 feet deep in the well. (Thirty-seven lengths of pipe plus the pump and motor.) When
the pump was switched on everything worked perfectly. The pump was left to operate thirty-six
continuous hours, and the flow of water did not diminish. We knew we had a good well.
The specifications on the well are as follows.
280 = 918 Depth of the well.
216 = 708 Depth to water level
64 = 210 Depth of water column
239 = 787 Level of the pump
24 = 79 Column of water above the pump
40 = 131 Column of water below the pump
5,500 gallons Practical capacity of holding tank
Everyone was welcome to have as much water as they wanted. At first we were selling it
at fifty centavos a barrel, but after the first electricity bill came, we raised it to one peso. From this
time on there was no more water brought in by tank cars. There were no long lines waiting. No
getting into line in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone could get as much water as they
wanted. The water was cheaper and cleaner. Even people from Sierra Mojada came for water.
Even nearby ranchers came for water when their cattle dams went dry. Everyone was so happy
to be relieved of the water crisis.
Nacho ran a plastic pipe to his house and pumped all the water he wanted. Even to
watering his several peach trees and planting a couple of short rows of corn for fresh corn. In
Mexico corn has been an integral part of the fare from the days of the Mayas. To this day Nacho,
a very responsible person, is in charge of the well.
Jorge, who lived only a couple of hundred yards from the well, was put in charge of
selling. The story of Jorge is a special one. Where shall we begin? Maybe it would be better to
finish THE WELL story first, and then add that of Jorge as an appendix.
Already by the time the well came into operation we had run a water line to the rectory.
The pressure would be quite low, so we used a one-inch flexible black plastic water pipe that
comes in rolls of a hundred meters.
Fortunately the well was above the railroad tracks, and the vertical difference between
the level of the well and that of the rectory was about fifty feet, so the water would transport itself
by gravity. At one point we did have to install a purge valve.
The straight-line distance between well and rectory is about four hundred meters, but
having had to follow public access areas it turned out to be just five hundred meters. In some
parts it was through terrain with a thick layer of caliche. It would have taken weeks to chisel
through this. At the dolomite mine they have one of the biggest of the Cats with a massive claw
behind it, made just for this type of work. They were gracious enough to come down and rip a
way through the caliche. The most serious problem would be getting the line across the railroad.
It is the law that no water pipes are allowed on the railroad right-of-way without permission, and
the permission would have to come from Mexico City. That could be very formidable, and almost
for certain a substantial ‘gratification’ would be a requirement. But both luck and the good Lord
were with us by way of the following.
Back in the days when the mines were worked using steam engines there was a large
dam just a few hundred feet from the parish. Right next to the dam there was a steam driven
cylinder pump to force the water through a four inch pipe up to the mines. Of course this pipe had
passed under the railroad. It was a few years before this time that some members of the
Cooperative had obtained permission to dig up this pipe, and cut it into sections for their own
private use. But of course not where it passed under the railroad. At this point the tracks are on
an embankment about eight feet high. There was also the problem for getting across the road
running between La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. But again there was this old four inch pipe
under the road. This pipe was in the exact line were we wanted to run our pipe. The station
master suggested we just go ahead and quietly run our pipe through this old iron pipe. Once the
trench was covered over again, no one would ever see it. Too, the station master had a property
below the tracks just a short distance away, and he too needed water.
All in all, there was no serious problem bringing the water all the way down to the rectory,
and from then on we had water 24/7. No longer were the subterranean tank and the pump
In a very short time a number of people who lived close to where the water line passed
asked to be connected to it, the first being the aged widowed grandmother of Nacho.
The old boiler and the foundation for the pump along with its pistons were still there when
I arrived In La Esmeralda. But when the Cooperative stopped mining the people were so destitute
that they scrounged every scrap of used metal to sell. And sometimes they scrounged what was
not scrap. There is now no vestige of the old boiler and the pump.
About three years after the parish well was put into operation the state government again
made serious efforts to bring water to the homes in La Esmeralda. First two deep wells within a
few hundred yards of the parish well were drilled. It was now proven that there was a large
aquifer in that area. On the first well they made a serious mistake of not properly placing the
correct coarseness of gravel around the perforated intake casing (the sieve), and setting the
pump at the proper depth. After about eight hours of pumping a four inch flow, the silt had risen to
cover and clog and lock the pump in place. There was no way of extricating the pump, and the
entire well and the pump were lost. The second (spare) well was then properly equipped.
Also new water lines were laid so that water would be reasonably accessible to all part of
the town, including above the railroad tracks. Large concrete holding tanks were built at strategic
points. The water is pumped into the holding tanks, and on intermittent days the valve is opened
to deliver water to that specific sector until the tank is empty. It is still the responsibility of the
individual user to make the connection to his home, and have tanks or containers to store the
water. There is no charge for the water. Still, many come to the parish well for water for drinking
and cooking. The town holding tanks are not well enough closed off and so many types of
arthropods and mosquito larvae, and other junk, come along with the water. The parish holding
tank is better protected against contamination.
The result of this new effort is that now there is an ample supply of water in La
Esmeralda, and the parish well serves only the parish and those connected to the line. Our
advantage is that the quality is better, and it was available 24/7. This well also serves for those
who prefer better quality water. I have been told that in the last few years water has been sold to
a company which is operating a few core drills exploring the ore body around the mines.
The bottom line is that the sale of water never covered the expense of operating the well,
but the assurance of a steady supply of quality water at the parish is an ample compensation for
What the government did in La Esmeralda to provide the people with better water service
was done also in Sierra Mojada. Sierra Mojada is about fire hundred meters higher than La
Esmeralda, and the well that was drilled there is a little over five hundred meters deep.
THE PARISH WELL IN SIERRA MOJADA
A picture of Roberto González being lowered by hand into the well. My sister, Marcella,
and I are standing in the shade. At this stage we were digging the tunnels
In the late ‘70s the rectory in Sierra Mojada was upgraded. The floors there were still dirt
floors, and the plaster was the sand/clay plaster. Cement floors were poured and the walls were
plastered with lime/cement plaster. A full bath was installed. At the back and immediately
adjacent to the rectory a ground level four-hundred gallon cement tank was built, and immediately
adjacent to the tank a four foot square cement block tower twelve feet high was constructed. The
top five feet of the tower was an elevated water tank. The room below this tank housed a pump to
fill the upper tank, and also a butane water hearer.
As in La Esmeralda, and really more so, there was always the problem with water in
Sierra Mojada. When the town water system was functioning, that was source was used. And
since the town holding tank was higher up the hill, the elevated tank filled automatically without
the use of the pump. At other times when the town water system was not operating, we brought
the water from the well in the Metalúrgica in barrels to fill the ground level tank, and then pump it
to the elevated tank. It was during the water crisis In Sierra Mojada in the early ’90s that I
decided we needed our own hand-dug well at the rectory there. Within two hundred feet of the
rectory there were three productive old hand-dug wells.
And so on February 22 1996 I drew an X on the ground about eight feet from the water
tower at the back of the rectory, and we started digging. When I use the word ‘we’ let it be
understood that I never for an instant wielded pick and shovel, or hammer and chisel. I was there
only to provide what was necessary for the job. Because the first few meters were easy digging in
the top alluvial, the pay was according to distance excavated. Later on when the going became
much more difficult, the pay was by daily wage.
The shaft we dug was four feet wide and six feet long. Over the shaft we installed a
windlass with a crank on either end. The excavated material was removed using the windlass and
a five gallon bucket, and from there by wheel borrow to dump it in the arroyo next to which the
church was built. When the shaft became too deep for a ladder, the workers were lowered and
raised by replacing the bucket with a sling made by using only the bead from a truck tire. The
worker would sit in the sling and hold onto the rope. Most often two men were employed to lower
a man, and always two men for raising him.
It was up to me to replace handles in the hammers and sledges, and take the chisels to
be sharpened. There was a man in La Esmeralda who had a home forge as a sideline, and he
was a master at hammering out a new point on the red hot chisel and, most important, giving it
the proper temper. Most of the chisels were made from old jack hammer drilling bar. When the
shaft became deep enough to retain the stale air, an extractor system was created by lowering
lengths of four-inch plastic pipe down to the bottom, and on the upper end we mounted a used
high speed sewing machine motor with a fan blade. It needed to be used only intermittently.
Ordinarily there was a crew of three; because the shaft was four by six feet, only two
could work below, and one on top worked the windlass. Later on when we started tunneling in two
directions, a fourth worker was added. All had worked in the mines, and so they were adept at the
The first twelve meters (forty feet) was a bed of alluvial. There were some problems with
strata of non-consolidated material, and these had to be walled off with cement blocks. At about
eight meters we ran into a curious three-foot stratum of loose boulders. There was hardly any
sand or gravel between them. Some boulders were more than three feet in diameter, and so were
far beyond our ability to lift them. We borrowed an air compressor and a jack hammer to drill
holes in them, and then split them with wedges. We could not blast because there was a small
contingent of soldiers in town, and the army is extremely delicate about the use of explosives
outside of the mining sector. I had gone to army headquarters in Monclova to apply for
permission to use explosives in the well, but permission was denied.
On an earlier occasion when we came upon a stratum of hard caliche with rock, we did
use, in the dead of night when everyone was supposed to be sleeping, a couple of sticks of
explosives. There are dozens of ex -miners in town who had brought home explosives when they
were still working. So it was not difficult to obtain explosives. But the blast did not escape
detection. For some reason the soldiers did not come down on us, but rather went to the dolomite
mine, owned by Peñoles, and the superintendent of the mine was sternly warned to make sure
that none of the workers snuck off explosives. The superintendent of the mine came to me to ask
us not to do it again because it could get all of us in trouble. True.
At first it struck me as very strange to find loose boulders below the ground. Then I
remembered the 1979 storm that had, in another place several miles away, created a wide arroyo
filled with just this type of boulders. I noticed that with the passing of time weeds, brush, and
small trees started to grow among the boulders, and the spaces between the boulders were being
filled with vegetal matter. Another minor flood could cover this with sand, gravel and dirt. In time
the vegetal material between the boulders would rot and leave the boulders free.
At twelve meters we struck bedrock, but not the water-bearing Red Conglomerate
Formation we had expected. And by pure chance we had come upon a point where three faults
converged. On one side, toward the street, was tan limestone. On the other side toward the
arroyo the rock was mostly an igneous conglomerate with rock of various sizes and dark hues.
The igneous rock conglomerate section was in turn cut by a fault. On one side of this fault the
conglomerate was more consolidated; on the other side the rocks were in places separated by
spaces filled with a sort of clay. We kept digging, and after a little more than another several
meters a tiny trickle of water emerged from the fault on the side toward the street. In a day’s time
the trickle would yield several quarts. We continued digging until we reached seventy-nine feet.
The tan limestone had been sloping toward the igneous, and now the floor of the shaft was
entirely of this formation. Now we gave up hope of finding the red conglomerate.
So we started a low side tunnel following that little trickle of water about nine meters
above the floor. The water was following the slickenside of a fault which was about twenty
degrees off vertical, and, fortunately, leaning outward from the tunnel we were making. The water
was following a variable layer of blue clay lying next to the slickenside. The farther we dug, the
more abundant the trickle became, but all in all, after about five meters it amounted to only a few
buckets a day.
On the igneous rock side of the shaft (toward the arroyo) there was a slight oozing of
water several meters below the first trickle of water. So another man was set to tunneling in that
direction. The various types and colors of igneous rock and clay that come out of that area were
Since the mines were closed and most everyone was out of work, there were always
some onlookers around to see how things were going. One of them was Trini Puerta, He was in
his fifties, and partially crippled. One day he caught me aside and said that he knew that he could
not do as much work as the others did, and that he was willing to work for less, just so long as he
had some work. A good job for Trini was transporting the excavated material to the shaft and
loading the buckets for hauling it to the top. Trini did not do as much work as the others, but he
worked as hard. And got the same pay. The fact is that the cost of digging would have been
prohibitive if the workers had been paid what normally ‘the private sector’ paid for rough labor
when the mines were in operation. But all were paid the legal minimal wage for rough labor, plus
some bonuses. All were more than willing to work for the legal wage just so long as they had
We extended the first tunnel about fifty-five feet, and by this time we had reached the
property line of the man across the street. We were now getting maybe fifty gallons of water per
day. So about ten feet from the end of the tunnel we started a side tunnel up toward the
mountain. Here the rock was more fractured and easier to dig. At about ten feet we found a sister
fault which too had a nice trickle of water. We followed along side of this fault for another six feet.
By this time the combined yield from all tunnels was about a hundred and fifty gallons a day. We
would have liked more, but this was really sufficient for the needs of the rectory. For this we had
hand dug a shaft 4’ X 6’ X 79’, and 91 feet of hard rock tunnel about 2.5’ X 4’. We calculated that
the well with its tunnels had a capacity of 18,000 gallons.
On March 26, 1997, thirteen months after starting, the ring of sledge on chisel fell silent,
and we removed the windlass.
A cement plaque was poured over the shaft. A permanent short-derrick was erected, and
a 3hp / 50gpm submersible pump was installed on April 10. This pump lifted the water directly
into the elevated tank which was only about eight feet away.
Now for the STORY OF JORGE. Because the family lived sort of a reclusive life, I never
knew of the situation of the people who lived at that place until one day when someone
mentioned to me that she had taken a pot of beans over to Juanita, and Juanita remarked that
they were so grateful because they had nothing else in the house to eat. It turned out that actually
this was a ploy that Juanita occasionally used to call attention to their poverty. No matter, I went
to see for myself what the situation was. Another reason why I was unaware of the family and
their situation was that none of them ever came to church-----well, maybe so on big feast days
when they would be lost in the crowd.
First there was Juanita, a widowed grandmother, and the head of the household. Then
there was her daughter. I do not remember her name, but for convenience, let us call her Lupe.
Next were Lupe’s two children: Jorge, about eighteen years of age, and Angelina thirteen. Finally
there was Roque, a man in has late fifties. I guess you would call him a live-along. There are
reasons to believe that sometimes he and Juanita slept together.
Juanita had one other daughter living in Sierra Mojada, but because this daughter
followed the religion of her husband, and so was a member of the Apostolic Church of Faith in
Jesus Christ, the relationship between mother and daughter was lukewarm.
Lupe had married and lived in Chihuahua. When her husband was killed in an accident,
Lupe was traumatized and became deranged. So Juanita took her and the grandchildren under
her care. Lupe lost all interest in taking care of herself and her children. She was irritable,
unpredictable and difficult to live with.
Jorge had polio as a small boy. His right leg was almost completely paralyzed, and his
right arm partially so. Because of his physical handicap, poor clothes and very humble
circumstances, he was extremely shy. He never looked one in the face.
Angelina was a normal girl. But she too hung back because of her very humble
Roque was an unmarried man and mentally deficient. Only a mentally deficient girl could
have wanted him. Basically he was a mild natured man, but constant taunts had made him
acerbic and irascible for the sake of self defense. He had a fixed gaze, always looked straight
forward, and walked with a little shuffle. Up to a point he was adept at the art tinkering, and
fashioned from junk some useful articles. He was quite good at lead soldering.
For a time he was the local constable. It was to the advantage of the local officials to
have around someone who did not know what was going on. Roque at any occasion would
overplay his authority and get himself and others into trouble. For this reason he was openly
disliked. There were several occasions when he went to break up a fight, and ended up getting
pistol whipped with his own pistol.
A very close friend of mine told me about the occasion when he was in a cantina having a
drink or two. In comes Roque to see if everyone was behaving themselves. Two other men who
were also having a drink started calling Roque the worst of names. Roque left, and, wisely, so did
the two men. It so happened that there were in town two federal police, and Roque reported to
them that the two men had called him names. The police came to the cantina and finding only
Rodolfo took him to be one of the culprits. They beat Rodolfo, and while he was on the floor they
kicked him and cracked one of his ribs. After the police left Rodolfo picked himself up, went to his
pickup and laid his hand on his .45 automatic. But then he thought of his family.
Roque was for some years the official gravedigger. Only he had the right to dig a grave…
for a set price. He would arrive to perform his privileged task with pick and shovel, and a huge
fifty-meter steel tape hanging conspicuously from his belt. The gravedigger was obliged to be
present at the burial, just in case. Of course I was present for every burial, and it was only one or
two occasions when the grave was large enough. Roque would unhook his tape, again take
measurements of the coffin and then of the grave, and then start enlarging the hole by a few
centimeters. When he worked, Roque always had the tip of his tongue outside the corner of his
mouth, and bit on it at every swing of the pick and toss of the shovel. Quite often some of the men
would help so as to speed up the process. When ready, three pairs of men, each pair with a rope
between them, carried the coffin over the grave and lowered it to the bottom.
So Roque living at Juanita’s place was a convenient arrangement. Roque could add
some degree of security, bring in the water and collect firewood from the surrounding brush,
make little repairs, and contribute to the groceries. Roque earned a little bit from the odd jobs he
did, and also had a small pension from working for the town. In turn, Roque had a place to live,
and someone to cook for him and wash his clothes. There were several government programs to
help the very poor, and Juanita used these for some of the groceries.
Roque’s mother, who had passed her mental condition on to her son, lived alone. When
she was no longer able to take care of herself, she came to live and share the bed with Juanita.
When she became bedridden another son, half brother to Roque, and his wife cared for her
during her remaining short time. I went to see her several times, and felt so sorry for her. Her life
had been a hard one.
Juanita’s house consisted of four rooms and a porch. Two rooms were each about ten
feet square. One of these was Juanita’s bedroom; the other was the bedroom of Lupe and
Angelina. There was another room about six feet wide and fourteen feet long. This was sort of the
living room. In the winter time when the weather was bad, the cooking and dining was done here.
There was a cot in it, and at night it was Jorge’s bedroom. Off to one side of the house there was
sort of closed in lean-to made of scraps of boards and pieces of tin. It was just large enough for a
bed and a little closet for Roque. All the floors were dirt floors. When the weather was favorable,
the cooking and dining was done in a little wattle (ocotillo) and mud hut just a few feet from the
The reason why Juanita never went to mass was because she had partial facial
paralysis. The right corner of her lips was contorted, and especially her right eye, so much so that
she always wore dark glasses to hide it. Her clothes and sandals were very poor, and this
embarrassed her. Besides, because Lupe was unpredictable; it was necessary to stay close and
keep an eye on her. Jorge, because he could only hobble on a crutch, and the terrain around the
house was rocky and uneven, hardly ever ventured away from the house. Angelina did come
occasionally with some friends. Once Roque was quite ill for some months, and when he
recovered he made several very clever and attractive ‘wreathes” from sotol and brought them to
the church as a thanksgiving offering.
When I saw the plight of these people I came to their aid. First of all seeing to it that they
were supplied with groceries. Next was electricity. It was several hundred yards to the nearest
power line. There the consumer is responsible for providing the line if it is more than a specified
number of meters. . I got some heavy pipe to use as poles, and the wire. And then wired the
house for light and a few outlets. Plus a couple of outdoor lights because the privy was a little
distance from the house. Also a radio and a small used b/w TV. I paid the light bill, along with the
bills of four or five other meters.
Also it was arranged for someone to accompany Jorge to Monclova and lodge him there
while measurements were taken to make a brace for his leg. The government paid most of the
cost of the brace. Then once the brace was fabricated, another trip had to be made to have it
fitted. Jorge was so happy that now he could get around so much better. And he started to smile.
I noticed that Jorge puttered around making little things, and so I set him up with tools
and materials to make bird cages. There is hardly a home in Mexico that does not have several
birds, even though they are not song birds. So there is always a market for bird cages. Jorge sold
a few around town, and I took the rest to Química where a friend who had a small restaurant sold
them for Jorge. Maybe Jorge agreed to the project only not to offend me, or else he lost interest.
Too, because of his handicap it was harder and more tiresome for Jorge to work. But gradually
the quality of his work deteriorated to the point that the product would not sell. So.
A cement floor was poured in the ‘living room’ and in the little porch where they spent a
lot of their time. In the ‘living room’ I put a two-burner butane stove, and provided the butane
cylinders, for cooking when the weather was inclement.
The roofs leaked badly, and I provided wide sheets of heavy gauge plastic to cover the
roofs and then cover the plastic with an inch of lime plaster to protect the plastic from the sun or
from ripping. Such a roof is waterproof for many years. Roque and Don Eugenio were close
friends, and between the both of them they did the work.
Jorge slowly overcame part of his shyness, regularly went to mass and the plaza. When
we equipped the well, he was put in charge of selling the water, and was given a share of the
take. He used part of it to help with the expenses of the house, but for good reasons was rather
secretive about how much he had.
Angelina graduated from grade school (six years). Because grade school is obligatory,
the government provides all the school materials. But the students have to bear some of the costs
for materials and extra curricular expenses in the three yeas of junior high. I paid these costs for
Angelina, including her uniform. Angelina too was at first quite self conscious because of
conditions at home, but in junior high she overcame much of her shyness. Afterwards she
moved to Química where some relatives lived. She found work there, and sent part of her
earnings home. She married at an early age, and Juanita became a doting great grandmother.
When the town water system came into operation only a limited number of people came
to the parish well for water for drinking and cooking. It was no longer practical for Jorge to spend
all his time at the well waiting for a chance customer. When one does come, the customer first
goes to see Nacho who dispatches the water.
This article is entitled THE WELL AND SIDELINE STORIES. However, according to the
proportion of its content, it would appear that the titles should have been in the reverse order.
SIDELINE STORIES - AND THE WELLS. My intention when starting this story was to make the
well in La Esmeralda the sole protagonist, but as other characters came on stage, they begged to
play a fuller part. And now that all is said and done, they were right in wanting it known that the
WELL is not the only, and much less the most important, thing in La Esmeralda. ¡Viva la raza!