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Mining Buff Restoring 140-Year-Old Silver Mine on New Mexico Tech Campus, July 17, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich

Phil Kozushko

SOCORRO, N.M., July 17, 2008 – Phil Kozushko of the mineral engineering department at New Mexico Tech is on a mission. The Tech alumnus and adjunct professor is rehabilitating the Merritt Mine at the base of ‘M’ Mountain, giving the 1,250-foot long mine a new lease on life.

Right: Phil Kozushko explains his efforts to rehabilitate the Merritt Mine to New Mexico Tech student Roger Renteria. Kozushko uncovered the push cart track and, in places, put the track back together.

“This is a historical preservation activity,” Kozushko said. “I’ve been in a hundred mines and I love them all, but this one is special. We have an archive of all the students who used that mine for their research and studies in the early days of our college.”

From about 1909 to 1965, students in the geology, metallurgy and mining engineering departments used the Merritt Mine for field work. Many – if not all – of the students wrote their names and the year in soot from their carbide lamps.

Most of the writing is basic – first initial, last name and year. Some students included their hometown. Other writing is obscene or humorous.

The timbers in the Merritt Mine truly represent a 56 year archive of New Mexico Tech students. Nearly every support beam and truss has the name of a former student from 1909 to 1965. Burgess Crenshaw signed his name on October 15, 1920. Sally E. and Betty B. – certainly two of the first women to study at the School of Mines – left no date by their names.

Zack

B. Zack of Ontario left his mark in 1912. D. Zack of Calgary left his mark in 1921. Nearly 40 years later in 1960, Dave Zack of Atikokan, Ontario, left his mark in pencil.

The parade of names continues for the entirety of the 1,250 foot-long shaft. Nearly every state is represented, as well as several European and South American countries.

Kozushko hopes that the mine could be opened for periodic tours for alumni, perhaps on 49’ers and other special occasions. He’s certain the mine will be a featured attraction for alumni from the 1960s and earlier.

Kozushko is one year into a project to rehabilitate the mine and restore it to its original condition. He is bracing and replacing broken boards, cleaning out the shaft tunnels, re-installing the tracks for the push cart and making the shafts as safe for viewing as possible.

Last year, three students helped Kozushko work at the mine. During the fall semester, he hopes to have five students working with him.

Sitting outside the mine are more than a dozen rusting machines from several eras. Kozushko is not only putting the mine back together; he’s also putting together the jigsaw puzzle that is the Merritt Mine’s history.

Phil Kozushko

Phil "Kozy" Kozushko holds a piece of 'slag,' which he said is evidence of the student's mining activities in the first half of the 20th century.

In addition to artifacts and mining clues, he has found information about the Socorro Peak Mining District in several books published by New Mexico Tech and the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

The Merritt Mine first opened in 1867 as one of three producing silver mines in the Socorro Peak Mining District. None of the three mines were ever as productive as the Magdalena district mines, such as the Kelly and Waldo mines. The Waldo Mine complex included 22 miles of tunnels on 16 levels, while the Merritt was one main level with several winzes – or shafts.

“The early prospectors sought out silver deposits in several little mines,” Senior Mining Engineer Bob Eveleth said. “All those mines were driven into Socorro Peak looking for silver deposits that never really materialized.”

When the federal government deregulated the silver standard in 1893, the price of silver plummeted. By 1895, the silver mines west of Socorro were shuttered.

Sometime in the early portion of the 20th century – Kozushko thinks 1909 – the New Mexico School of Mines began using the mine as a de facto classroom and field study site.

Kozushko learned from alums that by the 1930s, the mine was used for the senior survey course. Students learned the entire mining cycle – drill, blast, muck, tram, crush, separate and refine. An old clapboard building near the mine adit has collapsed. Surrounding the building’s carcass is a graveyard of old mining equipment.

Eveleth, who works at the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, said the Merritt Mine was used for a senior project to survey and map the mine.

“Another interesting project involved mine engineering and metallurgy students,” Eveleth said. “The mine engineering students would find the silver ore, then the metallurgy students would grind it, concentrate it and recover the silver bullion.”

Kozushko believes the mine was abandoned as a field work location around 1965 when TERA, the precursor to EMRTC, began using the area for explosives testing. Sometime in the 1970s, EMRTC began using a room 500 feet into the mine as a photography darkroom.

An Elliott S. Bailey periodically chronicled his service work in the mine from 1968 to 1992. Near his pencil writing is a statement in marker that says “Dec. 20, 1994, Merritt Mine Station shut down at 12:00.” Presumably, the darkroom was shuttered at that time.

Until about 2002, New Mexico Tech used the Waldo Mine near Magdalena for mining field work. The mine owner, Asarco Inc., fell upon hard times and filed bankruptcy. A federal judge ordered the mine locked and shuttered until ownership can be resolved. The bankruptcy proceedings continue to this day.

“When we lost the Waldo Mine as a field location, I told Navid Mojtabai that we need to find a new mine,” Kozushko said. “I remembered this one from my old days of working at EMRTC. When I got in to see it, I realized that it’s in pristine shape for being almost 150 years old.”

Mojtabai, the chairman of the mineral engineering department, said he needs a workable site for the underground surveying lab, and maybe occasional tours. New Mexico Tech could use the Merritt Mine to replace the Waldo Mine for lab work; however, the Merritt would need to be completely safe and secured before it could be used for official class work.

Kozushko and his student workers spent weeks clearing brush and vegetation from around the mine entrance. After several punctured tires, he enlisted EMRTC help to blade the old mine road, so he could haul out dozens of pick-up loads of weeds and modern-day trash – making sure to leave behind all the historic mining detritus.

The support timbers in the first 250 feet of the mine were hand hewn. For the remaining 1,000 feet, the timbers are mill-hewn. Kozushko sees historical clues in various arcane and esoteric details of the Merritt Mine.

He’s found N.M. School of Mines letterhead from the 1930s, sardine cans, chisels from the 1880s and many other artifacts.

“I call my self a mining archaeologist,” Kozushko said. “That big pile of rusty stuff includes machines that are 100 years old. I’ll go through all that and figure out if it’s modern or old or ancient. That’s a piece of mining history out there.”

-- NMT --