Sunday, July 24, 2011

La Rusa's Gold Mine

There's gold in those Ajijic hills. My friend R. (he prefers to remain anonymous) is a retired mining engineer from South Africa. Above, he carefully inspects the roof of the mine tunnel for signs of instability. The rusty old ladder behind him leads to an upper chamber of the mine. I invited him to help me explore this abandoned gold mine in the mountains that overlook Ajijic's North Shore. The same day, we also visited the lakeshore ruins of the old gold mill that processed the ore. Long before our excursions to the mine and mill, hints of an old gold rush had intrigued me. At first, place names and an occasional story were my only indications of the gold frenzy that gripped Ajijic during the 1930s. Then, in a short period of time, I found one of the mills that processed the ore, then the mine itself, and finally the story behind La Rusa's gold mine. As I put the puzzle together, I realized I had found genuine treasure. It was not the gold itself, but a story so colorful and astonishing that I had to tell it here.

Ajijic's gold rush

Scene of Ajijic's gold rush. Above, you see the topography of the North Shore. A ridge crosses the center of the map from left to right. The high point on the ridge reaches 2400m or 8000 feet. Ajijic and the other villages line the narrow strip of shore at 1524m or 5000 feet. Running down from the high ridge to the shore (the tan area of the map) are long "finger ridges", separated by deep arroyos. On these ridges and in the arroyos, prospectors found gold in the mid-1930s. The location of the mine we explored is about 1/3 of the way up one of the ridges in the middle of the map. However, before I ever visited the mine, I found the old mill where the mine's ore was processed. My friend Jesus Lopez Vega volunteered to show me the old mill.


Jesus Lopez Vega with a work-in-progress. Jesus is a very talented local artist. He grew up in Ajijic and attended the Neill James art school. James was an American woman who first came to Ajijic in the 1940s and never left. Among her many good works, she set up the art school for local children. Today, Jesus not only creates beautiful paintings and stunning murals, but is himself a teacher at the art school where he began. Chatting with him one day, I mentioned my curiosity about old gold mines in the area. "Oh, yes," he said, "there were gold mines here. Have you ever visited the old gold mill down by the lake?" Ruins of a gold mill? Jesus had my immediate attention. From his description of the location, I realized I must have unknowingly walked by the ruins many times. A few days later, Jesus took me for a short visit to the mill. I was hooked! I had to find out more. Near the mill sat an old man, dreamily resting by the lake. I asked him if he remembered a gold mine in the area. "Si, señor," came the quick reply. "Where?", I asked, holding my breath in anticipation. In response, he gestured rather vaguely at the mountains looming above us. My thought at the moment was "this was going to be more difficult than I anticipated." Only later did I realize he had pointed almost exactly to La Rusa's mine. 


A visit to an old gold mill

90-year adobe walls need a little help to keep standing. Someone had braced the walls with old rafters from the fallen roof so that (hopefully) the whole thing wouldn't tumble down on his head. This was apparently part of the administrative offices of the mill. A Mexican family currently lives in the ruins. Whether they were owners or squatters I couldn't determine, but they allowed us to wander around and take photos. As Jesus showed me around the mill, it came to me that I had no idea what I was looking at, nor anything about gold mining for that matter. I needed expert help. My hiking friend R. has worked all over the world in the mining business and I decided to recruit him into the project. I suspected that his adventurous spirit would be piqued by the challenge. R. was amenable, and not long after he accompanied me on my second visit to the mill. His help turned out to be invaluable.


The mine manager's office. We decided this must be the boss' office because of its size and the graceful entrance arch, but also because of the artfully decorated fireplace against the far wall. The floor was thick with fallen bamboo leaves, and the ceiling was open to the blue sky above. 


Closeup of the fireplace. Notice the graceful scrollwork on the face of the fireplace. Little touches like this gave us the impression that somebody important to the operation worked here. Although the climate at Lake Chapala is generally very mild, there are times when a crackling fire is welcome to ward off the chilly mid-winter dampness from the nearby Lake. All was silent in the old mill, except for the muffled crunching of the tinder-dry bamboo leaves under our feet. 


Faint echos from a bygone era. The weathered wood and chipped green paint formed a perfect backdrop for these rather odd items I found in the offices. One appears to be a 19th Century bust imitating an old Roman style. The two large egg-shaped objects are plaster renderings of some sort of squash. To whom did they belong? What is their origin? It was all part of the mystery of the place.


In the end, nature always wins. Above, a roofless wall of adobe is still partially covered by old plaster. Bamboo now grows out of the wall. Adobe, after all, is only dried mud. Sometime in the future, the mud will crumble back into the earth and only a few traces of the old mill will remain.


A hint of elegance. This window in the old mill is protected by iron bars, artfully wrought.  The artistry lends the window a touch of elegance. The green wooden shutters behind the bars swing with the same smooth silence as on the day they were installed so many decades ago.  


A ramp leads up to the milling area. Burros pulling ore carts would have trudged up this ramp, carrying their loads to the crusher. 


At the top of the ramp, traces of a ghost. The concrete footings in the foreground stand like the footprints of a ghost--the huge, long-gone ore crusher. The footings would have secured the base of the crusher as it pounded the ore and reduced it to fine pebbles and dust so the gold could be washed out.


A water tank hides among the flowers. Now overrun by flowering vines, the water tank was once fed by a still-functioning well behind the mine manager's office. Running water was a critical part of this process, just as it was when the "49ers" squatted in mountain streams, panning for gold in California's High Sierras. Water was pumped from the well to the tank, and then ran down through pipes to the crusher operation below.


A rusting iron valve plugs the end of a pipe below the water tank. Once again, the artistic sensibility of the time shows in the handle of the valve. Such a valve today would be much more utilitarian. The name "Powell" on the valve indicates an origin probably in the US or Britain.


A 21st Century satellite dish adorns an early 20th Century pillar. Apparently the family living in the ruins not only has electricity but enjoys satellite TV. I love the juxtapositions of old and new I encounter all over Mexico. 


A window on the past. Through this adobe window you can see Ajijic's mountains in the background. Somewhere up there is the gold mine that fed this mill.


Looking for a gold mine

View from Rancho del Oro in West Ajijic toward Mt. Garcia across the lake. In the the foothills of the mountains overlooking the western part of Ajijic is a wealthy development named Rancho del Oro (Ranch of Gold). One of our favorite hiking trails begins in this development at the end of a street named De las Minas (From the Mines). These were my first hints about the presence of a gold mine in the area. Of course, I also knew that developers often invent names like "Ocean View" for projects that aren't within 100 miles of saltwater, so I wasn't overly impressed at first. However, there were additional hints. A friend living in an adjacent development had built his house on property that had contained another old gold mill. He told me a very funny story about construction workers prospecting for gold among the old tailings when they should have been building his tennis court. After asking around, I found another hiker who mentioned that he had seen the entrance of an old mine high up in Rancho del Oro. At the next opportunity, we visited briefly, took a few photos, but didn't enter the mine. I knew that I would need expert help before any more exploration.


The mine entrance. The mine can only be found if you know where to look. Since it is a dangerous place, I have decided not to describe its location further. The entrance and first few feet inside the mine are made of brick. Beyond that is a tunnel carved through solid rock. 


Welcome to the mine. The sign says: "DANGER. Do not enter this mine. Do not expose yourself to rock falls and noxious gases. Do not become another of the statistics." The skull and crossed bones need no translation. Being sensible and cautious people, we plunged right ahead.


R. in the mine shaft. My mining engineer friend had suggested that I bring a length of rope. Seeing my raised eyebrows, he said that the person in front should be tied to the rope with the far end held by someone walking a distance behind him. That way, if the front person fell unconscious from "noxious gases" the people in back could pull him to safety. As the mine expert, he chose to take the lead. He got no argument from me. At the top of the old iron ladder, you can see the opening to an upper shaft. 


R. pried loose a small handful of ore. He showed me various formations that might hold more gold. At $1600 per ounce, I asked him whether there might be enough gold here to work the mine again. He didn't seem overly impressed by any of the ore he found, but allowed that a profit might be possible, at the cost of a lot of work and considerable expense. 


End of the line. Continuing into the bowels of the mountain, we arrived at this rather rickety-looking wooden bridge spanning an abyss of unknown depth. At least, I couldn't find the bottom with the beam of my flashlight. I suddenly recalled a second sign outside the mine entrance. This one mentioned 2 deaths in the mine. Apparently a couple of young guys ventured into the shaft unprepared and fell down just such an abyss as this. Discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to turn back. 

So, now I had explored both the mine and its mill. But who had owned and worked the mine? What was their story? There had to be a story! At that point another piece of the puzzle fell into place. When I mentioned my interest in the mine and mill, a friend named John said he owned a book that might help. It was called "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars." According to John, a good part of the book was set in Ajijic and he recalled some mention of a gold mine. As soon as I could, I borrowed the book. Not only did it provide many answers to my questions, but it contained one hell of a story.


Who was La Rusa?

La Rusa, dressed as "Russia" for one of her famous dance performances. La Rusa (The Russian Woman) was Ayonara Zara Khyra Alexeyeweh St. Albans. She was the daughter of Angela Welles, who was a descendent of Gideon Welles, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Angela married the noble son of Princess Sophia of the Czar's Court, and moved to Russia with him. La Rusa called herself Zara or Khyra according to the occasion, but she is consistently called Khyra in the book, so that is the name I will use. She spent the first part of her childhood in the rarified atmosphere of the Czarist aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th Century. Or so goes the story in the book. I have been cautioned that some facts in the book may have, shall we say, a shaky foundation. "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars" was written by Frances de Brundige, almost certainly a pen name for Khyra herself. While the book may not be entirely factual, important parts of it are supported by the testimony of people who knew her in her later years, and there are artifacts of her life on display at the Nueva Posada's restaurant in Ajijic. In fact, one of those who knew her personally is Michael Eager, owner and manager of the Nueva Posada Hotel. He very kindly described his memories of this extraordinary woman and showed me some of the artifacts. 


Holger Mehner, Khyra's long-time dance partner, dressed as a Russian Czar. Holger was the son of one of Princess Sophia's ladies-in-waiting. His mother was from the Danish aristocracy. He and Khyra met as children at Court and both had an attraction to dance. At one point, as children, they even performed a duet for the Court. Khyra and Holger parted ways when Khyra's father was arrested by the Czar's secret police for some injudicious remarks at a party. He died on the way to prison in Siberia. Khyra and her mother returned to the US where they lived in New York and Khyra continued her dance studies. Holger and his family returned to Denmark where he also continued to dance. The two had parallel careers until they finally met again in 1922 in Vienna where Khyra, now a beautiful young woman, was performing. They teamed up and continued to work together until Holger's untimely death by accident in the 1930s.   


Playbill from a performance at Guadalajara's Teatro Degollado. Khyra and Holger performed to wild acclaim all over Europe and South America for a number of years. Theirs was a relationship like that of brother and sister. In fact, Holger may have been gay and was certainly a cross-dresser. There is a full-length portrait of him in the Nueva Posada restaurant, dressed in a beautiful ball gown. On one of their tours, they visited Guadalajara, dancing at the famous Teatro Degollado. It was apparently during this visit that they somehow acquired an interest in a gold mine. The mine was called La Miseriecordia (The Mercy). It was located in a ravine to the west of Ajijic called La Guadalupe on a ranch that became known as Rancho del Oro. Unfortunately, the dancing stars seemed to be a magnet for swindlers. Both were artistic, unworldly and prone to make impulsive decisions. After they returned to Europe, they attempted to start a new tour in Italy, but it fell through. They turned to the idea of working their gold mine to raise funds for future tours. Gold rushes attract crooks like bees to honey and Ajijic's was no different. Khyra and Holger's Mexican partners in the venture tried in every way possible to cheat them. They even claimed at one point that Khyra was dead so that they could appropriate her share of the mine's profits. Although Holger was only mildly interested in the mine, Khyra was a fiery and determined young woman. When the swindle became obvious to her, she began to fight back legally. The swindlers decided to replace the mine manager with someone Khyra might trust but whom they could control. So they hired Quilocho Retolaza, a maneuver they everlastingly regretted.


Quilocho as a dashing young officer under Pancho Villa. He was the son of Amador Retolaza, a professional hacienda administrator. At the end of the 19th Century, few haciendas were operated by their  owners. They preferred to live comfortably in city mansions and only occasionally visit their country properties. A hacienda administrator was therefore an important figure in the society of that time. Quilocho's childhood was idyllic and he enjoyed his life in the beautiful rural area around Guadalajara.  Unfortunately, Amador died relatively young and left the family's finances in disarray. About this time the Mexican Revolution exploded across the country. At age 16, Quilocho ran off to join Pancho Villa's forces. Because of his education, training, and innate leadership ability, he rose rapidly in rank and soon was the youngest officer in Villa's army. An excellent horseman, he is pictured above on his rearing steed, carrying a Mexican flag with a bandolier draped across his chest. His adventures during the war were countless, and he narrowly escaped death many times. Once, after he was captured, he was almost executed but managed to slip away. However, he finally grew disillusioned with Villa's cause and left the army to return to Guadalajara.


Quilocho as an older man. The young ex-soldier cast about for employment and decided to take up his father's career. He was quite successful, at least in managing the properties, but he was often at odds with the owners. Quilocho was a scrupulously honest man and objected to the casual way the hacienda owners cheated and otherwise mistreated the campesinos and indigenous people they employed. He did not hesitate to express his opinions to the owners, and that assertiveness often resulted in dismissal. After a while he tried his hand as a miner and mine manager, and learned every aspect of the business. When La Miseriecorida's swindlers approached him about managing the mine, he accepted, but quickly figured out their game. He felt great sympathy and admiration for the beautiful young dancer who co-owned the mine. Soon, Quilocho joined forces with Khyra.


Khyra, as remembered by many in Ajijic when she was an older woman. Above, dressed in a black cape and wearing her famous black sombrero, she rides her huge black horse, . Her home was behind the white wall just beyond the 2-story tan house in the background. The house, which has a plaque proclaiming it "Casa La Rusa," still stands on Calle Independencia, a couple of blocks west of Calle Colon. Quilocho and Khyra waged a titanic and ultimately successful struggle to gain control of the mine from the swindlers. Several times the crooks attempted to assassinate Quilocho, but through luck and good sense he always foiled them. Even after they won that battle, they faced other dangers. Bandits infested the mountains around Lake Chapala. The leader of one gang made a secret arrangement with a maid in Khyra's house.With the maid's help, they laid a trap. The bandits captured Khyra as she was returning from the mine and demanded a large ransom. However, Quilocho was suspicious of the maid and laid his own trap. When two of the bandits tried to meet with her, Quilocho and the local federales captured them. By threatening an immediate hanging, Quilocho and his allies persuaded the bandits to reveal the location of the gang. Khyra was rescued in a hail of bullets. The gang leader was promptly dispatched to his final reward, but the maid, reputed to be a witch, escaped and was never seen again.

Were Quilocho and Khyra lovers? Perhaps, but most likely the relationship was platonic and he was simply her protector. After their victories over the swindlers and bandits, the mine operated for a few more years but then closed, possibly because the ore played out. In any case, it would probably have been nationalized when other mines and oil fields owned by foreigners were taken over in 1938. About this time, Holger was killed in an accident, and Quilocho drifted away. Khyra, however, lived on in Ajijic for many years. Michael Eager remembers that "she used to ride around Ajijic on her beautiful horse dressed all in black...she would pull up outside the main door of the Old Posada Hotel, never dismounting, and demand that someone come out to talk. La Rusa, would point out, in her thick New York Bronx accent, that the grass was growing up around the cobblestones, or some other small problem, and urge that something be done about it." La Rusa lived into her 80s but, sadly, she died penniless, fooled again by another swindler.

This completes my posting on La Rusa. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

8 comments:

  1. Ah, mi vecina, la Rusa! The current owner of Casa de la Rusa says that she was born and raised in NY. Susan (current owner) has spent much time researching her and even has copies of bothe her birth certificate and her AMERICAN parents marriage license. nonetheless, a wonderful story about an very interesting woman
    Eleanor

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  2. There's something irresistably appealing about an old gold mine. When it connects to such a romantic group of characters you have a real find. Thanks for sharing, Jim. It sounds like a good adventure for you, too.

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  3. THANK YOU for this awesome article. I recently read the Quiloches book. Also La Rusa is mentoned in the book "Burros and Paintbrushes" by Everett Gee Jackson

    Sandy Kramer
    Miami & El Parque/SAT

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  4. Hola Jim, great post, loved the story. I will keep my eyes open for the house next time we are on that street. Always nice to hear stories about this area. Right now I am reading a book called Magic Made in Mexico. The story of a woman who falls in love with a Mexican man and moves here to start her new life. It takes place in the 70's, and they live in Merida. Thanks again for your great stories!

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  5. Jim - what street is near the mill - down by the lake? This looks a lot like a walled area (including the bamboo & window) we saw on Privada Independencia.

    Pat Y.

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  6. Dear Pat Y.- The street is Flores Magon where it hits the lake. There is a soccer field on the left, and just before it are the ruins of the old mill. If you go on the property, please be polite and ask permission to look around from the people who live there.

    Saludos, Jim

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  7. Jim, I just signed up to follow your excellent blog. I have a funny story to share with you too. If you get this comment, please email me at mexicomoose@gmail.com. My wife and I will be in Ajijic for our 2nd visit the week before Christmas 2011. We'd love to have lunch or dinner with you and Carole if you're available. We plan to retire to Ajijic from Seattle in the next year or two. John

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  8. Wow I was raised in Ajijic until the age of 7 very beautiful place all my memories are so great the lake the people and I remember seeing her on her horse as a kid I always wonder who she was I'm 34 yrs old now and I'm very happy to know some of her story

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim