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Turquoise Hills, the Saga


I was invited to speak at the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, on the subject of Turquoise Hill.

McNaulty and Kunz

McNaulty and Kunz

In preparation for this, I was forced to organize my archive of historical references and photographs which I have been accumulating for about 40 years! This then needed to be put into a logical sequence chronologically, since I had determined that I would try to present the whole thousand year story in my allotted hour.

This was an exciting challenge!

With the help of my nephew Harrison and his wife Katrina, we assembled the the ‘Saga’ in visual form, which would be projected whilst I spoke about the story behind the pictures. But, I had determined that the material was so vast that this history could not be properly told during the slide show and talking portion of the presentation due to the time restriction. Thus I prepared a brief written ‘Saga of Turquoise Hill’, to familiarize the audience before the presentation began.

For me this was a golden opportunity to begin what will eventually become a much more thorough account of this history as I know it. I make no claims here to be in any way scholarly or academic. It’s just that somebody has got to do it, and with the help of others, for now that somebody is me. I trust that the brief account as presented here is roughly accurate. Others such as Homer Milford and Bill Baxter have written brilliantly on this subject, but their accounts cover a much broader area, taking in the entire Cerrillos mining District and beyond. My focus is solely Turquoise Hill, and there is much more to come. As for my presentation at the Wheelwright, it lasted 90 miniutes, and was I think well received.



 As recounted by Douglas Magnus • Wheelwright Museum 11.07.2015

Douglas at the Wheelwright Museum

Douglas at the Wheelwright Museum

Turquoise Gemstones act as Hormones to the Soul, Their Color, Beauty and Characteristics Produce a soothing, calming effect, Increasing self-confidence and sense of well-being. It is in some cases also regarded as a connection to the spiritual. Turquoise is a Gemstone like no other, And it has risen in status, Becoming the most popular (semi)precious Gemstone today…

As such, in the Cerrillos Mining District near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the pursuit of these gemstones has left much evidence in the form of pits, shafts, tunnels, walls, stopes, dumps, scars and tailings on the otherwise serene landscape of the Turquoise Hill and surrounding area, attesting to the massive amount of human energy expended here over time. Historic photographs and written records add to the modern mining story and weave together with artifacts from possibly one thousand years or more, covering at least that many miles— north to Canada and south to Mesoamerica, creating a unique and fascinating mosaic of human endeavor.

A tangled history exists in these traces, with more recent research and science adding intriguing insights, questions, and possibilities as to what exactly has occurred here over the centuries! However, because the Ancients who mined in this area left no written accounts, it is unlikely that there will ever be a clear understanding of the political, sociological, and technical dramas that must have unfolded in the creation of such major orifices in the solid rock Matrix, which contains the precious Gems to depths of 50 to 100ft, or more. The engineering, logistics, and support of these Stone Age enterprises is mind-boggling to consider! Add to that the complex turquoise processing and trade networks involved… and maybe even defense? The ancient mining of turquoise was a major and ingenious undertaking— quite possibly the first large scale business in North America.

Sometime during the Spanish centuries (1540-1821) or possibly before, the mines at Turquoise Hill were closed, ceremonially refilled and sealed by the Native Miners, most likely by 1692 when the Spanish returned after their expulsion during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. This is puzzling due to the fact that the Spanish showed little interest in Turquoise and thus were seemingly not a threat to these sacred sites. Possibly some event or concern of great magnitude caused the Native People to close these openings in Mother Earth which had yielded such vital riches. Thus, it appears obvious that Native mining ceased on Turquoise Hill during this period, never again resuming in earnest.

There is a record of a Spanish Turquoise claim filed in 1763 under the name “Nuestra Senora de los Delores” or ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ (Milford 1995). This claim is thought to  exist at a Castilian Lode site on the west end of Turquoise Hill. Though insignificant, it is mentioned because it is the sole Spanish Turquoise legitimate claim of record.  Thus, a relative quiet fell upon the the Hills for centuries.

Rediscovery occurred in the 1870’s following the U.S. Mining Act of 1872. First to reopen was the Muniz claim which would later become the famous ‘Tiffany’ Mine.

McNaulty and Kunz

McNaulty and Kunz

New York investors acquired these claims, and the odyssey of their 25+ years of operations at Turquoise Hill in search of ‘perfect blue’ for Tiffany and Co., begins the modern period of interest and demand for Turquoise gems and jewelry which persists to this day. The Mining supervisor J.P. McNulty’s records and correspondence came to light in 2006, with faithful transcribing by local historian Bill Baxter, resulting in the publication of Tiffany Blue, written by McNulty’s great-granddaughter, Patricia MacCraw. Previous to these revelations, mining events were reported primarily as a matter of conjecture and rumor due to the secrecy of the mining activities. The truth as told is a great Wild West adventure, and in the end it appears that the amount of quality stone gained was heartbreakingly less than the backbreaking efforts expended in the quest.

By the 1930s the mines at Turquoise Hill were largely exhausted. Prospectors and Noodlers reworked the waste piles. The properties were purchased in the 1940s by a man named Girard, who presented them to his new bride, who was raised in an Arizona mining town—-a wedding gift so romantic that it was covered as such by The New Mexico Magazine. The couple lived nearby on the surrounding Bonanza Creek Ranch of nearly 80,000 acres.

Viola Smith

Viola Smith

In the late 1970s, Girard’s heirs sold the mines to Skip Stahl and Frank Rapstine of Amarillo, Texas, intending real estate speculation and development. Not long after (1980) ensued a fiasco involving the New Mexico State Highway Department, which erroneously removed the giant Turquoise and Artifact-laden tailings piles for use as Road Base for the paving of the adjacent dirt highway. This action ceased in the nick of time and the materials were returned to the property; but the disturbance would forever alter the historic timeline hidden within these piles of history. That damage done, it was less painful when in 1997, the Abandon Mine Reclamation unit of N.M. Department of Minerals and Energy,(under the careful direction of Homer Milfford)  undertook to fill some of The old prospect shafts and to fence the remaining mines in the interest of public safety.

Rex Arrowsmith

The current owners purchased the properties in 1988.  Since then the mines are preserved and managed by The Millennium Turquoise Mines, Inc., primarily for film productions, tourism, and educational purposes. Santa Fe Jewelry designer/producer Douglas Magnus, president of Millennium Turquoise Mines and owner of the Castilian  and Elisia Lode mines, has produced jewelry with turquoise from these mines since 1973. It is his opinion that no significant mining will ever occur on Turquoise Hill again, and that the Hill should be preserved as an important American heritage site.


To see Cerrillos turquoise jewelry, visit