pixel

Baja Fever
By Greg Niemann

When Baja Cornered the Onyx Market

By Greg Niemann

El Marmol Onyx Baja

While El Marmol means “marble” in Spanish, the product from the central Baja quarry of El Marmol is actually the more valuable onyx. At one time this quarry was the world’s largest producer of onyx.

El Marmol is off Highway 1 some 70 miles past El Rosario on a nine-mile dirt road. It’s now a deserted mine where you can marvel at the immense slabs of onyx and the old schoolhouse which was made entirely out of blocks of the creamy stone. Most of the schoolhouse is still standing but inconsiderate people have taken chunks off the building, which is not only unfortunate but unnecessary. All around the area there are many slabs and pieces of the luscious stone there for the picking.

"Lush and creamy" describes the onyx as much of it is milky white; some stones contain streaks of Venetian red or burnt umber, looking like caramel topping mixed with French vanilla ice cream. When cut and polished for ash trays, bookends, paperweights, penholders, knick knacks or figurines, it shines like smooth marble and is an object of beauty.

Making the difficult commonplace

The mining operation at El Marmol was a lesson in determination and making the difficult commonplace, so typical of Baja development.

For millennia the onyx has bubbled out of the ground in this remote section of central Baja, some 300 miles south of Tijuana and about halfway between El Rosario and Punta Prieta. At nearby El Volcan the bubbling carbonated springs still produce the onyx that similarly formed long before at the El Marmol quarry.

El Marmol Onyx Baja

Because of the unusual conditions required for its production it is an uncommon stone and for years North Africa was the world’s chief source.

In Baja, the surface around the arid country near El Marmol is mostly mica schists and silicified limestones. After the springs flowed, erosion exposed travertine on the lowest layer and above that, alternating bands of limestone and onyx.

The deposit was discovered in the early 1890s by gold prospectors and the find was announced in scientific journals. That attracted George P. Merrill, head of the Geology Department of the Smithsonian Institute, to visit the site. A piece was polished for display at the then-current Colombian Exposition and that prompted development by an American company.

The company changed hands several times but the American company, Southwest Onyx and Marble Company, had the most success. Early on, large slabs of El Marmol onyx were shipped to grace the lobby of San Diego’s new Spreckels Theater.

The resident managers for the San Diego-based company were first George P. Brown and then his son, Kenneth Brown, both legends of the El Marmol onyx operation. George P. Brown, an engineer, took charge of the operation in 1919 and trained his son to assist. The younger Brown took over in 1934 and was the mine’s driving force for 25 years until it went out of business in 1958.

Even though the nearest drinking water was at Rancho San Augustin eight miles away, a small mining village consisting of crude wooden buildings was constructed. There were some 300 people living there by the late 1920s, and with the exception of the manager all were Mexican workers and their families Water was brought in regularly in a 3,000 gallon truck. Even under these conditions Mrs. Brown, a former society debutante from Kansas City, was able to tend a small flower garden.

The world’s only onyx school

El Marmol Onyx Baja

The one-room school was built for the employees’ children and could boast of being the world’s only school to be constructed out of blocks of onyx. In the late 1950’s when visited by the writer O.W. Timberman (Mexico’s Diamond in the Rough), 16 students were being taught by one 18-year-old teacher. I counted 24 students in an earlier photo (1953). When I last visited, the wooden roof was long gone but 3½ of the walls were still standing.

The mined onyx lies in thick layers near the surface. Large slabs were pried loose by six or eight men with pry bars and then lifted to the surface by a huge derrick run by two other men. These huge blocks, some weighing as much as several tons, were then numbered for shipment.

Getting the onyx to port

But getting the onyx out of the mine was not the most onerous task. Getting it to market was another story – Tijuana was a difficult 300 miles away. The Pacific Ocean itself was 48 miles distant and the mining operation established a port at Santa Catarina. I have driven the road to Puerto Santa Catarina some 40 to 50 years later and can only conclude it is very bad and wasn’t any better in the days old Reo and Commando trucks carried the heavy onyx to port. The old trucks even used hard rubber tires that even then had not been in production for years. Visitors to El Marmol during the 1950s noted many hard-tired wheels stockpiled for the arduous rocky journey.

At Santa Catarina the onyx awaited the cargo ships. When one came in, 50 or 60 miners went to load. Flat bottom lighters (like long canoes), just 14 or 15 feet with 8 foot beams were specially designed to carry the onyx to the ship without tipping over. A lighter could carry 10 tons on each trip to the ship anchored approximately a quarter mile offshore. Optimum tides and calm seas were required to get the job done. Because of big waves and rough seas, some days only six to 12 tons could be loaded while other days they could load from 50 to 100 tons. It usually took about 12 days to load a ship with the ship’s booms lowering the cargo into the holds.

El Marmol Onyx Baja

Previous to El Marmol it had been onyx from Algerian quarries that had added many luxurious touches to Europe’s cathedrals, churches and public buildings, including the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House.

During the heyday of El Marmol, Baja onyx found its way around the world, to markets in England, Belgium, the Orient, and the U.S., most of it used for mantel pieces, table tops, and smaller ornamental objects. Mr. Brown even supervised the cutting, loading and hauling of a statue for the St. Paul, Minnesota Courthouse that weighed over 120,000 pounds. It was 85 feet tall and 21 feet wide.

There was one moment of glory for El Marmol onyx as legend has it that that “Vamp Girl” Theda Bara ordered one huge block to have her bathtub carved out of it. According to an old press release, the smooth-stoned onyx bathtub would be accompanied by gold faucets, naturally.

The quality of onyx taken out of Baja’s remote outback was considered the finest anywhere. However, due to the post-World War II advent of plastics and other inexpensive materials, demand for the pricey onyx dropped. The mine closed down in 1959 and Mr. Brown went to live in San Diego.

Behind where Highway 1 passes the Rancho San Augustin there is a dirt road to El Marmol. I often take the time to drive the 18 mile round-trip dirt road and look around or add a few new pieces to my gardens. Mostly, I just like to be there to feel another part of the remarkable part of Baja’s history coursing through my veins.

El Marmol Onyx Baja

About Greg

Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.

4.7 93 Reviews
  • user logo
    Benjamin Driebe
    From logo

    Absolutely fantastic, I already forgot her name because I have a terrible memory but the woman that helped me on the phone was wonderful,...

  • user logo
    richard carr
    From logo

    fast replies and great price!

  • user logo
    Juan Zuniga
    From logo

    I just would like to know if you guys are going to update the fastpass direction any soon, during the month of January the lane changed to...

  • user logo
    Richard Schweiger
    From logo

    Very professional, very helpful, great policy, I couldn't be happier with Baja Mexican Insurance, the friendly smiles and ease of it all in...

  • user logo
    Ryan Frisby
    From logo

    We use them every time we travel to Mexico. Luckily we have not needed their services yet but getting insurance through them is quick and...

  • user logo
    Jan Muhammad
    From logo

    I need a tourist visa for maxico I'm from pakistan help me sir

  • user logo
    Tracy Moore
    From logo

    Very easy, quick, and professional

  • user logo
    robert kepper
    From logo

    They are very good . There website doesn't show you need a title to bring a vehicle across the border.I was stopped and told I had to...

  • user logo
    Edilver Martinez
    From logo

    Our go to Baja car insurance, everytime we take a visit down south . Usually it's for a day trip either for a quick getaway with the family...

  • user logo
    Daniel Markofsky
    From logo

    Third time working with Baja Bound and they made it easy! Thanks!

  • user logo
    Steve Bender
    From logo

    Have never needed to use the insurance fortunately but the website always works great. Can buy a policy in about a minute.

  • user logo
    Jose Paez
    From logo

    Had a great experience getting insurance at Baja Bound, before I always stoped at the border to purchase my insurance, not anymore. By the...

  • user logo
    JUSTINE SERRANO
    From logo

    I purchased insurance through them & CHUBB for our trip to San Felipe. Unfortunately, we had to cancel due to our vehicle having an oil...

  • user logo
    Christian Minor
    From logo

    Team were on point, provided inside information, prices were great and they had my proposal already in the system when I called back....

  • user logo
    Joey Digiovanni
    From logo

    Easy to work with 😉. Always courteous and helpful

  • user logo
    George
    From logo

    Excellent customer service

  • user logo
    Kellye Pummill
    From logo

    Fast and easy!

  • user logo
    Jennifer Toups
    From logo

    Baja Bound is and has been my go to Mexico insurance company. The website is extremely easy to use, keeps all your info for a quick...

  • user logo
    Cesar Lopez
    From logo

    Very convenient, great price !!

  • user logo
    Louis Schneidman
    From logo

    I had an awesome experience with Baja Bound. Family owned and highly personal, top notch customer service. I have total peace of mind...

  • user logo
    Phil Noble
    From logo

    If you’re looking for Mexican Insurance that you can trust and feel good about while traveling in Mexico, you’ve found the right place....

  • user logo
    Jeff Bunker
    From logo

    Great coverage options . Price buy and print policy , very quick and easy , highly recommend them when driving in Mexico

  • user logo
    Burrell DeVine
    From logo

    Easy to navigate and very competitively priced! I had to call in and add an additional day, they couldn't have been any more pleasant to...

  • user logo
    Nereyda Torres
    From logo

    Me gusta la asuguranza porque la puedes comprar por un dia y te asegura en Mexico por el tiempo que vas ya sea hasta por mes (Translated...

  • user logo
    james whitmer
    From logo

    Best insurance I've had so far

  • user logo
    Rail1riders
    From logo

    Quick, easy, well designed website and not just for Baja. Good rates for temporal residente gringos. We’re not living in Jalisco. Printed...

  • user logo
    Matt B
    From logo

    I always use Baja Bound to source my insurance while traveling to Mexico. Fortunately, I have not had to file any claims. I do appreciate...

  • user logo
    Refugio I. Rochin
    From logo

    Excellent online and by direct phone. Spanish and English with proven response to questions. Website is very informative about driving in...

  • user logo
    Kelly Carney
    From logo

    Yara is very helpful and explains everything. Love working with companies like this.

  • user logo
    Slumdog Gump
    From logo

    Changed some money. Good rate and friendly people.

  • user logo
    Jeff G
    From logo

    Went down to TJ June 11 2020 No problems going into TJ but the way back was a ordeal 6 hours in line to get back into the USA but no...

  • user logo
    don letson
    From logo

    Great renewal process, if only south Dakota would do the same for car registration.

  • user logo
    len buckholtz
    From logo

    SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD. OLD GUYS LIKE THAT. WILL DEFINITELY USE IN 6 MONTHS IF STILL RUNNING AROUND THE WILDS OF BAJA.

  • user logo
    Susana Judd
    From logo

    Easy, quick and fair prices. Easy to deal with if needed.

  • user logo
    Seismic Waterfinder
    From logo

    Very excellent service, needed insurance for Mexico, price was fair. The custumer service rep was Yara

  • user logo
    Nicolas Dervé
    From logo

    Very good ans very fast. We hope all will ben good if we need it.

  • user logo
    Blake Glassco
    From logo

    I will never drive south of the border without Baja Bound in my center console. I was in an accident a couple hours south of Ensenada and...

  • user logo
    JohnPaul Gemelli
    From logo

    Baja Bound could not have made it an easier ... also, I made a mistake and called them having to leave a message ... but, they called back...

  • user logo
    Jeff Brandt
    From logo

    so far so good, however I have read good things about them

  • user logo
    Sengoz N
    From logo

    SERIOUS.

  • user logo
    Kenneth Trass
    From logo

    Getting a policy was simple, Provided more than provider for price comparison.

  • user logo
    Esther Valencia
    From logo

    Super easy to purchase just the coverage you need when crossing the border in your own car. I especially appreciate the fact that I was...

  • user logo
    Larry Cottingham
    From logo

    Great service, very helpful people there.

  • user logo
    Luis Cortes
    From logo

    Easiest way to purchase insurance when traveling to Mexico. I have used their service for the last 7 years and it only gets easier and...

  • user logo
    j dougher ty
    From logo

    EZ Peasy insurance purchase. Great service every time I've used them. Had to cancel one time when my travel plans went away - no problem....

  • user logo
    Paul Niehouse
    From logo

    Extremely easy to acquire a policy. Many options available. Reasonable rates.

  • user logo
    Colin
    From logo

    Super-easy and instant. Very happy with initial purchase.

  • user logo
    Howard M Elster
    From logo

    2nd year with Chubb. No problems

  • user logo
    Cyndee Congrove
    From logo

    Great customer service, quick, friendly staff helpfully answered all questions, very patient with my learning curve on a new product. Would...

  • user logo
    Art Eugenio
    From logo

    I've had Baja Bound insurance for more that ten years now with thousands of miles logged in Baja. Fortunately, I've only had one fender...

  • user logo
    Gabe Matthews
    From logo

    Where do i start..... you dont know you have good insurance until you have to actually use it. I have had Baja Bound INS for over 5 years...

  • user logo
    keith berkley
    From logo

    Been going to baja for 45 years. This is best insurance company i have come accross.

  • user logo
    Ryan Perkio
    From logo

    I have been using BajaBound Insurance for 15 years - multiple trips per year. Their website is easy, their coverage is great, and the...

  • user logo
    RaMon McBride
    From logo

    I have not had any claims thus far so rating is based on ease of purchase.

  • user logo
    Larry French
    From logo

    By far the best service for Mex insurance in Baja. They are personally there for you if you have problems south of the border.

  • user logo
    Tudor Thomas
    From logo

    Baja Bound makes buying insurance for going south of the border as easy as it gets. The website is the easiest I have used and the staff...