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The Lost City of Batopilas

Copper Canyon’s Lost City…. Batopilas

They were open mouthed and silent as the first car came down the street of Batopilas. Long ago this same street was paved with silver bars the day that Clarita Barron walked from her house to the church to be married. Once the richest silver mine in the world, mule trains of silver ingots left biweekly over the rugged trail until the mine closed in Pancho Villa’s Revolution. Batopilas and its people fell off the map.

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Since then, the town survived in the roadless canyon depths until that day in 1983, when the first bulldozer found Batopilas … in time…waiting.

When Skip McWilliams arrived in 1987 to restore the Bigler House, people insisted he was el Jefe Grande’s grandson, come to reopen the mines.

Skip tells of his first meeting in Batopilas……

“Manuel Manjarrez sat behind the desk facing the door at the Federal Bureau of Mines Office.

I asked, How long have you been in charge of the office here in Batopilas?

I have opened the office here without fail, five days a week for 63 years.

When was the last time someone came to your office?

No one ever has come to my office.

Miguel’s big corner store was, and still is the largest business. Since the revolution closed the big mines, Batopilas has survived those 100 years as the supply center for cattlemen, the subsistence ranchos in the hills, and the Tarahumara Indians who come to town to barter herbs and hand hewn beams. Miguel used the balance on the counter to weigh the chunks of silver brought by prospectors, and rings up dynamite from the same cash register still there from the boom days. In 1989 when Skip arrived there were still men’s celluloid collars on the high shelves, and Dr. Bell’s Liniment, dusty and unsold these many decades.

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The regional penitentiary here was forgotten by the outside world. The few remaining prisoners were taken to Dona Mica’s little restaurant every evening for dinner. In December, families took turns taking the men out to join them for Christmas.

Boys and girls played marbles in the dusty street and Padre Gallego’s white horse rummaged at night in the trash drums in front of the nunnery.

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French accountants, Welsh miners and German carpenters had left their surnames, blue eyes and blond hair in Batopilas. In isolation the mix of languages became a contracted version of Spanish, Batopelese, unique in all the world.

The adobe gothic mansion across the river was respected, awaiting the return of the el jefe grande. The watchman was still there living in the ruins in 1983. People still held the banknotes printed by the mining company.

The book was still open to the same page from the last of the days of the Great Batopilas Mining Company. And so it is still today….Mexico of 100 years ago, with with the horses, mules and burros mixed in with a good number of ragged pickups.

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Last year, the President of Mexico came and declared Batopilas a PUEBLO MAGIGO, a national treasure, and so it is. The Copper Canyon Riverside Lodge is not a renovation, but a restoration. Miguel’s store is still on the main corner, the Tarahumara come to trade, and your guides are former mule skinners, miners and cattlemen.

These are a proud people with a history. They are open and well worth knowing.

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Nowadays you descend 5200 feet on the spectacular and hair raising road to the subtropical floor of the Copper Canyon to Batopilas stuck somewhere i n time. Here Alexander Shepherd’s half mile long Adobe Gothic Mansion is visible in ruins along the river. Here once were casinos and elegant parties. Society was complete with 3 separate levels. In festivals there were always three separate dances, “So that there would be no hurt feelings.”

But the revolution changed all that. The mine closed and the town lay forgotten until the first bulldozer busted a road through the still unexplored Copper Canyon Complex in 1983 astonishing the residents of the forgotten town.

Don Manuel Alcaraz, the Richest man in Batopilas.
Don Manuel Alcaraz

“Don Manuel, you are the richest man in Batopilas?”

“Well at one time, yes I had a lot. Before there was a road, I had the contract to carry the mail and freight. My mule trains supplied the town. They came and went continuously.”

“Had a lot?”

“Well, different people needed money to do different things and there were people in need and the town had projects, and well one did what one could and in this way, well one has run out entirely. But, one continues to have the satisfaction to have helped people, so perhaps in that manner I can consider myself the richest man in Batopilas.”

The real magic of Batopilas is not it’s colonial architecture. The magic of Batopilas is it’s people.