The Chino Mine (“Chino” is Spanish for the “Chinaman”), also known as the Santa Rita mine, is an open-pit copper mine located in the town of Santa Rita, New Mexico15 miles (24 km) east of Silver City. The mine was started as the Chino Copper Company in 1909 by mining engineer John M. Sully and Spencer Penrose, and is currently owned and operated by Freeport-McMoRan Inc. subsidiaries. The area where the mine is located is at an average elevation of 5,699 feet
The huge open-pit mine was once the largest in the world, but has been surpassed by Chuquicamata, and is perhaps the oldest mining site still being used in the American southwest. Apaches, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans have all obtained native copper and copper ore from this site, once known as the Santa Rita mine, and in the 19th century, a tunnel mine. The present-day open-pit mining operation was begun in 1910. It is the third oldest open pit copper mine in the world after theBingham Canyon Mine and Chuquicamata.
An Apache Indian showed Spanish officer Lt. Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco the site of the Chino mine in 1800. Carrasco recognized the rich copper deposits and began mining, but lacked the expertise to exploit the copper. He sold the Santa Rita del Cobre mine, as he had named it, to Francisco Manuel de EIguea in 1804 who imported convict labor to work the mine and build a fort (presidio) to house the convicts and protect them from the Apache. The miners sent pack trains of mules loaded with copper to Chihuahua. Americans Sylvester Pattie, James Kirker, and Robert McKnight managed the mine in the 1820s and 1830s.
Santa Rita was located in the heart of Apache country and was plagued by Apache raids. Historians often state that an infamous massacre of Apache by John Johnson took place at Santa Rita, although it is more likely that the incident took place further south, near the Animas Mountains. (See Apache-Mexico Wars) Johnson’s attack incited rather than intimidated the Apache. Mangas Coloradas and his followers were especially menacing. Twenty-two fur trappers were killed nearby and the mine was cut off from supplies. The 300 to 400 inhabitants of Santa Rita fled south toward the presidio at Janos, Chihuahua, 150 miles away, but the Apache killed nearly all of them en route. After that, Santa Rita was only occasionally operational until 1873 when Apache chief Cochise signed a peace agreement with the US and the mine was reopened. Apache raids in the area continued until 1886 when Geronimo surrendered.
A mill to process the low-grade copper ore was established in 1911 in nearby Hurley but was replaced by a new (current) Ivanhoe concentrator facility in 1982. Milling operations recently (January 2004) restarted at the Chino Concentrator after a three-year hiatus caused by low copper prices. Solvent extraction and electrowinning (SX/EW) operations started in 1988 and have run continuously since. Reserves of copper ore at Chino are expected to last until 2015.
December 3, 2008, Chino’s parent company, Freeport-McMoRan, announced it planned to suspend mining and milling activities at Chino, but would continue reclamation activities and copper production from its SX/EW plant. About 600 people from the work force of 830 would be laid off beginning about Feb. 13, 2009.
However, Freeport-McMoRan announced in October 2010 that they would be restarting operations at the mine ramping production up to a planned mining and milling rate by 2013. They are also planning $150 million in refurbishments and new equipment.