Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.
A few yards from Sun Bowl Stadium, just north of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, is an often forgotten reminder of The University of Texas at El Paso’s mining heritage.
“The Practice Mine,” a tunnel burrowed 40 feet into the side of the Franklin Mountains, allowed students enrolled in “Metal Mining and Mining Machinery” at the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, now UTEP, to practice their mining skills in a laboratory underneath the Earth’s surface.
The school had the distinction of being the only engineering school in the United States with its own practice mine on campus.
Almost a century later, the abandoned practice mine is an object of curiosity for passersby who are unaware of its fascinating origins.
“I didn’t know what it was until today,” said Kenneth Natera, a junior electrical engineering major at UTEP. “I noticed it about a month ago when I had to walk this way to class because of the construction (on campus).”
One recent afternoon, Natera walked up the stony path to peek inside the shaft with fellow electrical engineering student Salvador Velez and Krystal Pimental, an orientation leader at UTEP.
Pimental explained how the mine, which once served as a teaching laboratory, became known later as the “Kissing Cave.”
“When we take students to the Sun Bowl during new student orientation, we pass by here and they always ask what it is,” said Pimental, a junior in the College of Business Administration. “It blows their mind that it used to be a mine on campus.”
During the early 1900s, El Paso was quickly becoming a boom town for mining activity. The city’s proximity to the mining areas of Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona and its convenient access to four transcontinental railroads and a major railroad to the Mexican capital made El Paso a prime location for a mining school.
The school’s first 27 students came from across the Southwest, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Mexico to earn their bachelor’s degrees in mining engineering.
Nearly five years after the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy opened, construction of the practice mine began in fall 1919 under the direction of Professor W.H. Seamon, instructor of geology and mining. Equipment consisted of an air compressor with pipeline and storage tank, a jack hammer, steel picks, shovels and blacksmith tools.
Students learned how to sink a mineshaft, drive and timber a tunnel, and build a dumping trestle to clear the debris from the cave.
In an interview with UTEP’s Institute of Oral History in 1979, John Paul Savage, a student at the School of Mines from 1917-21, reminisced about the day he and his classmates used 50 pounds of dynamite to blast through the mine.
“It was some blast,” Savage recalled. “We didn’t have to do any mucking after that because it cleaned out the whole face. Rocks were flying all over the place … It shattered a bunch of windows in the Chemistry Building and the Administration Building.”
Savage said the explosion led many El Pasoans to believe that the city’s smelting plant had blown up.
“We had the police out there, the sheriff out there, and of course we had big headlines in the paper about ‘those crazy muckers,’” Savage said.
According to the March 11, 1966 edition of student newspaper The Prospector, the practice mine ceased operations on April 18, 1925.
However, students still were able to get their hands dirty during the summer at practice mining camps in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern Mexico.
The 1924 Flowsheet yearbook described a monthlong trip to Georgetown, New Mexico, a deserted village that once thrived as a silver camp, where students mapped the valley and visited the nearby mines in Santa Rica, New Mexico, and the Chino Copper Company’s mill at Hurley, New Mexico.
The yearbook reported that “the sight of the crumbling town, the piles of rock taken from the prospect holes and the timbered slopes of the hills mounted with their stiff cliffs, all conveyed to the student an air of mystery and adventure,” which made the six students at the camp glad they were studying mining.
In 1966, UTEP conferred its final mining degree, sealing an era of mining at the University that now, in its 100th year, is a comprehensive doctoral research university.
Laura L. Acosta is a writer for UTEP’s University Communications office.