Hundreds of freight wagons, each drawn by six to eight mules, and brightly colored Mexican carretas, each pulled by four to six oxen, formed dusty weaving trains on the Chihuahua Road from the silver mines of northern Mexico to the port town of Indianola on the central Texas coast. The trail across Texas opened in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War when the U.S. laid claim to Texas and the entire southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the California Gold Rush set the get-rich-quickers into a frenzy looking for a shorter route across the country than the old Santa Fe Trail that ran from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The port at Indianola on Matagorda Bay offered dockage for U.S. military personnel and equipment bound for the western settlements of Texas as far as El Paso (future Fort Bliss), and it provided the perfect jumping-off place for settlers and gold-hungry Americans heading west. The ships, anchored at piers stretching out into the shallow bay, took on the Mexican silver and transported it to the mint in New Orleans. The vessels returned with trade goods destined for the interior of Texas and the towns developing in the west and the villages of Mexico.
The Chihuahuan Road headed northwest from Indianola, made quick stops in San Antonio and Del Rio, twisted north along the Devils River, forded the steep ledges along the Pecos River, and then plunged southwest through the
Chihuahuan Desert to cross the Rio Grande at Presidio, entering the mineral-rich state of Chihuahua, Mexico.
The Spanish, as early as 1567, had discovered northern Mexico’s mineral wealth—gold, copper, zinc, and lead—but silver proved the richest lode. By the time Mexico opened its commerce with the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, there were six mines in the area near Ciudad Chihuahua, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
General Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) wrote The Silver Mines of Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua, Mexico, in which he claims that the raw outcroppings of Santa Eulalia, the richest of the mines, had been discovered in 1652, but persistent Indian troubles chased away the Spanish explorer who had found the site. Fifty years later, Wallace says that three men who were fugitives from the law, hide in a deep ravine tucked into Santa Eulalia’s steep hills. They stacked some boulders to create a fireplace, and as the flames grew hotter, the boulders began leaking a shiny white metal, which they recognized as silver. Knowing their fortune awaited, they sent word via a friendly Indian to the padre in the nearby mission community of Chihuahua, offering to pay for the grandest cathedral in New Spain if the padre would absolve their sins and pardon their crimes. It worked. The fugitives received absolution and pardon; they became fabulously wealthy; and the Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, became the finest example of colonial architecture in northern Mexico. Miners flocked to the Santa Eulalia and Ciudad Chihuahua grew into a large and wealthy city.
Millions of dollars in silver and trade goods were hauled over the road between Chihuahua and Indianola, except for the years of the Civil War. The road served as the corridor for western settlement until 1883 when the Texas and Pacific Railroad from the east met the Southern Pacific from California. The new southern transcontinental railroad opened a direct route between New Orleans and California. The final blow to the Chihuahua Road arrived with the devastating hurricane of 1886 that turned the thriving seaport of Indianola into a ghost town.