In 1598, the first white men crossed the Rio Grande and made their way through the pass in the mountains on their journey of conquest north into the heartland of North America. Don Juan de Onate and his army of Spanish Conquistadors laid claim to the land for their King of Spain, Philip II.
From behind the jagged rocks, hidden from the Spaniards’ view, in the rugged mountains overlooking the pass, Apaches watched the procession below as it followed the river north. The strange looking invaders, sitting astride the large four legged beasts, aroused the Apaches curiosity and apprehension. The Apaches chose to avoid any contact with these new arrivals to their land.
A year later, when the Acoma people resisted the Spaniards’ demand for supplies, supplies the Acoma needed themselves to survive the winter months ahead, a skirmish broke out. Thirteen Spaniards were killed. Onate and his soldiers quickly retaliated, killing 800 of the Acoma. The Spaniards enslaved hundreds of women and children, and to make sure that the conquered native people in their newly claimed land got the message that their conquerors were not to be questioned or resisted, every male survivor over the age of 25 had their left foot chopped off.
Word spread to the other tribes of the Southwest, including the various tribes of Apaches. The Spanish slave traders hunted and sent captives to work in the silver mines of Chihuahua, and northern Mexico. Over the next 300 years, the Apaches became great horsemen, and the fierce warriors resisted and attacked the Spanish, Mexican and American settlers. The Chiricahua and the Mescalero who lived on either side of the Rio Grande in the southern part of present day New Mexico, and the Texas panhandle produced great warrior chiefs who’s names are legendary, like Cochise, Geronimo, Victorio, and many more.
At the beginning of the 19Th century, Cornish miners began to arrive in the United States to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. They brought with them their gnome like companions, and fellow mine dwellers, the Tommyknockers. It was originally believed that these impish creatures, green in color, and dressed in their mining garb, were the souls of Jews who were enslaved by the Romans and sent to work in tin mines. Sometimes these Tommyknockers (pronounced “knackers”) were helpful to the miners but sometimes they were capable of causing serious mischief for the miners as they tried to do their work. At times they might signal an impending cave in, while others sometimes felt that the Tommyknockers were busy knocking down the support beams and causing cave ins. If a miners tools disappeared, or if his candle was blown out, it was surely the work of the Tommyknockers.
The new lands acquired at the end of the Mexican-American War were rich in gold, silver, and copper, and mine owners needed experienced miners, and so many more of the Cornish miners found their way to the western parts of the United States, and of course, along with them came the Tommyknockers.
In 1909 the El Paso Tin Mining and Smelting Company began mining tin in the Franklin Mountains, and you can be sure that the Tommyknockers felt right at home in the mine, along side of the tin miners as they burrowed their way into the mountains of El Paso.
In 1914, The Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy opened its doors. A fire burned down the original buildings in 1916 and in 1917 the school was rebuilt on its present location in the Franklin Mountains, above that spot where the river cuts through the pass in the mountains. Now called The University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, the athletic teams are known as the Miners, and the football team plays in the Sun Bowl. From the Sun Bowl, the pass to the north is just a stone’s throw away.
The El Paso Tin Mining and Smelting Company stopped operations in 1915, and although the tin Miners that worked the mine found work in the surrounding area, the Tommyknockers found their new home, naturally, with the UTEP Miners, and the Sun Bowl, with its covered concourse and locker rooms beneath the south end zone, which reminded them of the underground mine shafts they were so familiar with. But, when they made the move to their new home, to their surprise they found the Sun Bowl already occupied by the spirits of Apache miners who had been enslaved by the Spaniards. The Apache spirits found that the Sun Bowl reminded them of the subterranean mines and the open pit mines of Mexico, but it also gave them a perfect place from which to keep lookout for any return of invading Conquistadors. The two groups, with their enslavement to work the mines binding them, but but their adversarial history and skin color to divide them, began their afterlives together. Over the years, they had their differences, but they also found many things to agree on. That same clash of respect and animosity, feelings of kinship and hatred, spilled over onto the living Miners who inhabited the Sun Bowl Mine as the spirits had come to call it. Each of the two groups would sometimes torment the living Miners, and at other times would unite to come to the aid of “their” living Miners. For the most part, this had the effect of keeping the living Miners from being able to find any stability. Instead, they had trouble coming together, just as did the spirits with whom they shared the Sun Bowl Mine. There were horrible defeats, and once in a while the unexpected victories.
To this day, they continue to cause the living Miners trouble. But, I believe that I have devised a plan to bring peace to the spirits and success to the living inhabitants of the Sun Bowl.
We have the 18-ton, 34-foot-tall, bronze monstrosity that is so offensive that it has to be hidden, statue of Onate. It is so controversial that the city had to change its name. The city of El Paso paid $2 million for it. Maybe we could sell it to Spain for $1 million, or failing that, melt it down and use either the money or the bronze, given to the UTEP Art Department to create a statue for the south end of the Sun Bowl depicting a Native American miner and a statue of another miner to reflect the Miners of the surrounding area for the north end of the Sun Bowl, and finally, a larger than life statue of The Bear, who did so much in the fight for the rights and respect for the dignity of oppressed minorities for the entrance to the Don Haskins Center.
I realize that there is little chance of that happening, so I have an alternate plan. I would like for UTEP to place a dozen or so large lock boxes around the Sun Bowl concourse and start a campaign to collect pennies. The pennies could buy the copper needed to cast the statues in copper. The copper would also tie in with the copper mines of the Southwest, and probably be more fitting than the bronze. Maybe, just maybe, we could get the spirits back on our side.