The small cemetery located along the downhill slope of the Terlingua Ghost Town, a formerly abandoned quicksilver mining camp turned tourist destination and residential community for desert dwellers, may be one of the most photographed cemeteries in Texas. No larger-than-life marble angels grace the gravesites here. Instead, modest filigree crosses, simple stonework, and small grottoes with hand-made embellishments highlight this historic burial spot, final resting place for miners who succumbed while digging for the highly toxic rare earth element known as mercury. This tiny site, just over one acre, contains marked graves beginning in 1903, the year mercury mining production in this region began. Unsurprisingly, fatal mining accidents occurred with some regularity, particularly in light of the inadequate ventilation and lack of modern mining equipment.
Other miners suffered “salivation”, a form of mercury poisoning in which inhaled fumes from the smelting process stimulated the secretion of saliva, causing the teeth to loosen and fall out. Beyond mining fatalities, the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 helped fill the cemetery as well. Despite its grim roots, the Terlingua cemetery offers a compelling glance into the region’s past where makeshift graves and folk art dominate the memorials. Each year, during the traditional Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, the Terlingua cemetery transforms into a colorful array of florals, candles, and paper streamers, all set against the stunning one hundred-mile view of the Chisos Mountains and the Sierra del Carmens beyond.