There is debate over the meaning of the name Terlingua. Some insist it’s a permutation of tres linguas, meaning three languages, perhaps in reference to English, Spanish and Native languages spoken in the area.
Terlingua first referred to a small Mexican village on Terlingua Creek, three miles north of where it meets the Rio Grande. When quicksilver was discovered in the area in the 1880s, the Marfa and Mariposa Mining Company was quickly established and the name applied to its mining camps. By 1902 there were around 300 laborers living in the camps, mostly Mexican men. Over the next few years, the population swelled to 1,000 as miners brought their families and replaced their tents with stone houses. When the Marfa and Mariposa mine closed in 1910 and the Chisos Mining Company rose to prominence, the post office was moved 10 miles to the east, keeping the name Terlingua.
The first school in Terlingua was opened by Brewster County in 1907, replaced in 1930 by the Perry School. Mine owner Howard Perry built his mansion on the west side of the town, where the Anglo population lived. Hispanic laborers lived on the east side of the company store. Unlike most West Texas cemeteries, the Terlingua cemetery is not segregated.
By the 1920s, 40 percent of the mercury produced in the United States came from Terlingua. Production peaked during World War I but began to decline steadily throughout the 1930s. The Chisos Mining Company declared bankruptcy in 1942, and by the end of World War II the mining settlement had become a ghost town.
After the establishment of Big Bend National Park, visitors from all over the nation began trickling into the remote, rugged region of the Trans-Pecos. In the early 1960s those seeking the harsh, quiet life of the desert began moving to the ghost town, rebuilding the native stone cottages left behind by the vanished miners. The trickle of tourists provided enough livelihood to support a small community on the edge of nowhere, and the hardy new locals livened up the desert with chili cookoffs, chihuahua races and a mandatory live-and-let-live attitude.
Off-the-grid building with solar power and rain catchment is the norm in the area. Terlingua has become a center for the adventure industry, with outfitters offering river trips, mountain biking and guided tours of Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. In recent years Terlingua has seen a surge in population as those seeking affordable land are followed by entrepreneurs looking to establish a business in a booming tourist town. The western entrance to Big Bend National Park is still graced with people seeking the solitude of desert living, as well as some modern amenities for visitors.
Will Study (pronounced ‘Stoody’) was the manager of the Big Bend mercury mine. In the early 1900s, and had a mountain and the mining settlement named in his honor. The town boasted a post office from 1917 to 1920, and some records indicate there was an earlier post office operational there as well.
The mercury mining boom that began at the turn of the 20th century was over by the end of the 1940s. The little settlement that boasted 60 souls at that time, while the Rainbow Mercury Mine was the major employer, shrank down to a mere 10 or 15 residents. A brief reopening of the mine in the 1970s brought over a hundred residents back; and though the mine closed again just a few years later, tourism to Big Bend National Park had grown sufficiently to support the village.
Study Butte is often considered to be a part of Terlingua, but in actuality it has a separate history and identity. The closest settlement to Big Bend National Park, echoes of the Mexican Revolution can be heard in the bullet holes still visible in some old buildings, and the town has its own pantheon of colorful locals and small traditions.
Lajitas sits on the San Carlos ford of the old Comanche Trail, known to be the best crossing of the Rio Grande between El Paso and Del Rio because of its shallow water and the smooth stone bottom that stretches all the way across the river. Inhabited by Mexican Indians for many years, the Apaches and Comanches displaced them in the 18th and 19th centuries. White settlers trickled in during the mid-1800s, and the mercury boom and an influx of small farmers brought more settlers to the area.
Because of the quality of the crossing and the increase in international commerce in the area, Lajitas was designated as a substation port of entry around 1900. By 1912 there were 50 children in the school, a saloon, a store and a customhouse. In 1916 the violence along the border by Pancho Villa’s troops caused the U.S. government to establish a cavalry post at Lajitas, headed by General John J. Pershing’s men.
By 1950 the population of Lajitas had shrunk to four, due to the closing of the mines at Terlingua. Around this time, Lajitas saw its first (generator-powered) electricity. In the following three decades, various individuals owned the site, and it was slowly restored as a resort town. By 2010 there were 75 residents in the area, many employees of the resort and golf course.