Travelers don’t have to dig far to uncover fascinating reminders of the days when miners found fortunes in gold, silver, and copper in the high desert.
By Frederick Charlton
Gold was hidden in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains; silver, too. And copper, in huge, profitable amounts. The discovery of these metals brought people to the central part of the region, back when it was an untamed territory of mountains, streams, and ponderosa pine forests along the fringes of an unforgiving desert.
In the 1860s, the California ’49ers hustled east to these latest mining bonanzas in droves. Joseph Walker, a mountain man who had once trapped beaver in the Bradshaws, found gold at a place called Lynx Creek — so named when a prospector picked up a lynx he thought was dead, but, unfortunately for him, was not.
In 1803 Pauline Weaver (“Paulino” in some accounts), another mountain man and early Arizona pioneer, led the Abraham Peeples party into the Hassayampa River valley from Yuma. One of the group wandered into a basin beside a small mountain and found gold nuggets scattered over the ground. That mountain was soon christened “Rich Hill,” and the mining towns of Stanton, Weaver, and Octave prospered from that strike well into the 20th century.
As far back as 1583 a Spanish explorer named Antonio de Espejo stumbled upon an Indian mine rich with copper in the Mingus Mountains near present-day Prescott. But de Espejo returned to Mexico empty-handed, for all he wanted was gold. A few centuries later, the United Verde Copper Company of Jerome, Arizona, made millions of dollars from that primitive mine.
Exploring old mines and ranches in central Arizona is an exciting prospect. It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of Arizona’s mining and ranching heritage, especially when one can visit the sites where it all began. Towns such as Wickenburg, Prescott, and Jerome were founded during these early mining days, and were essential to Arizona obtaining statehood and becoming one of the world’s leading producers of copper, gold, and silver.
The tour described here uncovers memories of mines, men, and machines; of vast expanses of rangeland; and of the scent and sound of wind in high mountain pines. Our journey to relive these “bonanza days” is in a central part of the state and easily can be explored by motorhome and car. The best times to visit these towns are spring and autumn, for summer’s heat can be intense, and winter can bring snow to the mountains. Then again, some towns are more temperate than others; so, check the weather before you begin your journey.
The first leg of the trip is a 60-mile drive northwest of Phoenix on U.S. 60 to Wickenburg. One of the most famous prospectors in Arizona was Henry Wickenburg, a German immigrant who discovered gold on a hill 13 miles from the town that bears his name. He called the spot the Vulture Mine, because he saw buzzards circling his claim. The mine produced gold from 1863 to 1942.
Wickenburg didn’t work the mine himself; he charged other miners $15 per ton for the ore they extracted. In 1865 he sold out for $25,000 — a fortune in those days — and went into ranching. He deeded some of his ranch land along the Hassayampa River to local settlers so they could establish their own community. In gratitude, they gave the town his name.
The Vulture Mine is located south of town and is accessible by car or motorhome. The mine area includes a blacksmith shop, an assay office, a ball mill (for breaking up ore rock), some houses once occupied by mining officials, and the walls of Henry Wickenburg’s small adobe home. The mine is closed on certain days of the week in summer (because of the heat); phone (602) 859-2743 for more information.
Cattle ranching began in the area as a sideline business, developed mainly to furnish beef to the men in the mining camps that sprang up in the Bradshaw Mountains. West and east of the mountains, vast plateaus provided grass to support cattle. Some of the ranches were quite large, reaching 40,000 to 50,000 acres in size.
By the 1920s, many of the ranchers in the area discovered that they could make money by attracting Eastern vacationers as paying guests. Thus, the dude ranch was born, and Wickenburg became the capital of dude ranch country, as the town retained its Western image. The dude ranches now are called guest ranches, and in some cases, resemble resorts more than ranches. However, a few are still working ranches where weekend cowboys can try their hand at roping and herding cows, and trail rides and cookouts are still part of the scene.
The town of Wickenburg, population 6,000, also boasts the Desert Caballeros Western Museum — a collection of exhibits focusing on fine art, crafts, natural history, and local history. Visitors also may take a self-guided tour of the town’s historic sites. Maps and information are available at the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce office, situated in an old railroad depot.
The town stages many events throughout the year, too. On weekends in December, January, and most of February, the Way Out West Rodeo attracts crowds from Phoenix and Tucson. The 14th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering will take place December 6 and 7 in Wickenburg, and a Christmas light parade will brighten the evening of December 13. Other events throughout the year include Gold Rush Days (February 14, 15, and 16, 2003), the Desert Caballeros Ride in April, and the Hispanic Fiesta in September.
While in Wickenburg, consider heading out to Robson’s Mining World, an easy 25-mile drive from town. (Travel west on U.S. 60, then north on State Route 71.) Said to offer the world’s largest collection of old mining equipment, this attraction is on the site of the Gold Leaf Mine, which operated from World War I until the early 1930s. Some of the original mine buildings remain, and lessons in gold panning are offered. Robson’s has a restaurant and a bed-and-breakfast inn on the premises, too. Admission is charged. For more information, phone (928) 685-2609. The facility is closed in summer.
From Wickenburg, proceed north toward Prescott, via U.S. 93 and then State Route 89 north, an easy 60-mile drive. On the way, stop at Congress, located at the intersection of state routes 89 and 71. Congress was a thriving mining center in the 1880s, with thousands working in the mines and stamping mills or busy providing the services such operations required. These included restaurants, saloons, two churches, and a school — yet nothing remains as evidence of this activity, save for two cemeteries.
Two miles up the road from Congress, a dirt road to the right (which usually is passable for passenger cars) winds 6 miles east to Stanton, one of the more active and notorious mining camps. Today the site is managed by the Lost Dutchman Mining Association, which purchased it in 1978. Three of the original mine buildings are still standing, as is the Hotel Stanton. Charles Stanton ran the mine and tavern with the aid of hired thugs. His life ended abruptly with a gunshot after he insulted the daughter of a Mexican worker.
Down this same road are two more old mining sites: Weaver (named after the aforementioned “Paulino” Weaver) and Octave. Only a sign designates where Weaver once stood, but some old mine buildings and an old water tank mark Octave’s location. Check road conditions before you start out, as high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles may be required.
Backtrack on the dirt road and continue north on State Route 89 through Peeples Valley, named after Abraham Peeples, one of the early prospectors and ranchers. The road gradually rises as you enter the Prescott National Forest, and stands of ponderosa pines make their appearance.
Prescott briefly served as the territorial capital of Arizona in 1863, and again in 1877. It is now a thriving town with 34,000 residents. As you travel through, you’ll notice the Victorian flavor of its architecture, a feature that homeowners work hard to preserve. Because it sits in the middle of the Prescott National Forest, with the Bradshaw Mountains nearby, the town is a major center for recreational activity: camping, hiking, boating, and fishing. Its 5,300-foot elevation makes it one of the coolest places in Arizona.
Prescott offers an active agenda of special events throughout the year. The biggest of these is the Frontier Days celebration, a weeklong series of activities that culminates on the Fourth of July and includes the Frontier Days Rodeo.
While you’re in Prescott, a must-see attraction is the Sharlot Hall Museum, a complex that includes the original Arizona territorial governor’s mansion among nine historic buildings on 3-1/2 acres. The museum was named after Sharlot Hall, the woman who restored the mansion. She turned the place into a treasure trove of historic artifacts and old photos, with a library used by writers and historians. The Sharlot Hall Museum is located on West Gurley Street and is open daily; phone (928) 445-3122 or visit www.sharlot.org for more information.
Prescott also is home to the Smoki Museum, which contains American Indian history displays, and the Phippen Museum, which features an extensive collection of Western art.
Next, head northeast on State Route 89A toward Jerome. Called the most well-populated ghost town in Arizona and a designated National Historic District, Jerome was formed after Morris Ruffner found copper deposits on the east side of the Mingus Mountains in 1876. Ruffner went through two unsuccessful partnerships in an attempt to exploit the find. After that, he sold out to investors, one of whom was Eugene Jerome. Although his name was given to the town that rose near the mine, Jerome himself never visited.
The entire town was built on a hillside (called Cleopatra Hill) and supported the famed United Verde Copper Company. Railroads played a major part in the success of the mine, as it had access to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, 60 miles north of Jerome at Ash Fork. By 1900 Jerome was the fourth-largest town in Arizona, with a population of 3,000, and when copper mining peaked in 1929, residents numbered 15,000. Unfortunately, the price of the metal fell to a point where the mining operations were forced to close in 1953. In all, the area produced more than $2 billion worth of copper and other metals.
Residents were determined to keep Jerome from becoming a ghost town, so many of them banded together and formed the Jerome Historical Society to protect — and perhaps capitalize on — the town’s heritage. With its population now near 400, Jerome is an attractive, historic town with museums, galleries, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, and hotels modernized from their original buildings.
On a nearby hill near the site of the Little Daisy mine sits the outsized Douglas Mansion, built by one of the mine owners in the early 1900s. It is now home to the Jerome State Historic Park, a museum complete with many of the tools, stamp mills, ore carts, and other machinery used to extract the copper ore, as well as video presentations and history exhibits that help to tell the story of mining. An admission fee is charged; phone (928) 634-5381 for more information.
The Gold King Mine and Ghost Town — situated 1 mile north of Jerome, where a little town called Haynes once stood — also offers a realistic idea as to what mining was like at the turn of the 20th century. This outdoor museum features a collection of antique mining equipment, as well as pettable animals, a 1901 blacksmith shop, and an old-fashioned working sawmill. It is open daily, and a small admission fee is charged.
The mine tunnels were woven underneath Jerome, and an explosion in one of the shafts eventually caused houses and buildings to slide downhill. Some were righted and saved; others had to be destroyed. Most notable was the town jail, which slid down two blocks, and is now perched on the edge of Sliding Jail Public Park. It is one of the many attractions on the self-guided walking tour, a brochure for which is available from the local chamber of commerce and at many area stores. It is the best way to experience this amazing ghost town that refused to die.
Clarkdale was a smelter town when copper was still being mined. Today it is the home depot for the Verde Canyon Railroad, which offers four-hour train rides along the Verde River Canyon and Sycamore Wilderness areas. The scenery is stunning. The train is pulled by a vintage FP7 diesel locomotive, one of only a dozen working models existing today. For a schedule and ticket prices, call (800) 293-7245.
Follow State Route 89A north of Jerome to experience the red rock country of Sedona, once a tiny country village and now a mecca for retirees. Continue north on the same highway to take in the Oak Creek Canyon, one of Arizona’s most scenic drives, which leads to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.
While you’re in the area, you may want to visit the ancient Sinagua Indian ruin at Tuzigoot National Monument. The pueblo contains 110 rooms sited high on a hill overlooking the Verde River Valley. As the park ranger mentioned during his tour and lecture, it was “a good defensive position.” No one knows why the Sinaguans left their pueblo around 1400; it had been their home for approximately 400 years. A visitors center at the monument displays tools, pots, and other artifacts from the ruins. A small admission fee is charged.
Return to Prescott and take State Route 69, a four-lane highway that winds east and south into the old mining districts of Humboldt, Mayer, Cleator, and Crown King. In the 1890s these mines were producing gold, zinc, and lead; the problem was, how could the ore reach the smelter at Humboldt? The solution: “Murphy’s Impossible Railroad” (named for railroad executive Frank Murphy), which climbed 2,000 feet, handled five switchbacks, and ran over several remarkable trestles, as well as a half-mile tunnel — all in 51 miles.
A major delay in the rail’s construction occurred when the rail crews blasted the side of a hill and opened up a huge lode of gold. The workers promptly became miners. Murphy had to hire more workers from the East and completed the line to the Crown King mine in 1904. None of the trestles remain, but parts of the rail bed are incorporated in the road to Crown King.
Not much remains in the other towns. In Humboldt, the brick walls and smokestack of the old smelter are all that is visible. Mayer was a trading center for the mines and ranches; its only monument now is a 120-foot smokestack, part of the defunct Great Western Smelter.
From Mayer, continue south on State Route 69 to Cordes Junction, then turn south on Interstate 17. Two miles south on I-17, a sign directs travelers to Crown King, which lies 21 miles west on a dirt and gravel road. This road is not suitable for motorhomes, and is best negotiated by a truck or four-wheel-drive vehicle. You may want to skip this part and return to Phoenix via I-17. But if you like four-wheel adventures, continue.
On the way to Crown King, you will pass Cleator, a veritable ghost town with a few homes, an old stone schoolhouse, and a general store that is open at the whim of the proprietor. Another 10 miles of dusty driving brings you to Crown King, once a rip-roaring mining camp, and now a summer colony of cabins for Phoenix residents looking to escape the heat. One relic remains of the town’s heyday: a 1910 restaurant and saloon that is still open for business. From here, retrace the road to I-17, then head south to Phoenix.
The entire central Arizona mine adventure covers 300-plus miles round trip, depending on how many extra excursions are worked into your itinerary. Give it a try one of these days!
Numerous campgrounds are available in the areas mentioned in this story. Check your favorite campground directory; FMC’s Business Service Directory, published in the January and June 2002 issues; or FMCA’s online Business Directory at www.fmca.com for campground information.
The following chambers of commerce for the towns mentioned in the story can provide more information about accommodations, attractions, events, and old mine sites:
Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce
216 N. Frontier St.
Wickenburg, AZ 85390
Prescott Chamber of Commerce
117 W. Goodwin St.
Prescott, AZ 86303
Jerome Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box K
Jerome AZ 86331