The lure of gold sparked the mining boom in the Arizona Territory in the Old West, but other shiny metals helped the industry catch fire here.
Many prospectors who arrived in the mid-1800s with dreams of striking it rich with gold quickly adapted to the more abundant copper and silver. There were times during mining’s boom period when those metals were more valuable than gold.
But those miners weren’t the first seek a fortune, or at least make a better life, by exploiting Arizona’s mineral riches.
Arizona’s mining history
As early as 1000 B.C., native inhabitants used cinnabar, coal, turquoise, clay, pigments and other minerals.
Spanish explorers followed a few hundred years later, searching for fabled lost cities of gold and other riches.
Charles Poston, sometimes called the father of Arizona (he played a significant role in securing Arizona’s territorial status), opened mines near Tubac in 1854 that employed nearly 1,000 miners. Four years later he was literally printing money. He owned the state’s first printing press.
In 1858, Arizona’s first gold rush began when Jacob Snively led an expedition that discovered a deposit of gold on the Gila River about 19 miles east of Yuma.
10 Native American museums and festivals in Arizona
Boom and bust
Many cities flourished while the mines produced, but they didn’t all survive.
Gila City (which sprang up from Snively’s find) and La Paz were boom towns that grew around around gold findings. Both were left high and dry when the Gila and Colorado rivers shifted.
Tombstone had a population of more than 4,000 people and at one point in the 1880s was the biggest city between New Orleans and San Francisco.
However, in 1886 a fire destroyed the pump house in the mining camp and in 1893 the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act caused a severe drop in silver prices. Those factors, among others, proved to be too much tor overcome for Tombstone to remain a bustling city.
Prescott also has roots in mining. That city, which at one time served as the territorial capital, was a hot spot for gold exploration in the late 1800s as rich deposits were discovered in the Bradshaw Mountains.
Mining was also the driving force in the development of the Verde Valley cities of Jerome and Clarkdale.
According to Herbert Young’s book, “Ghosts of Cleopatra Hill,” Jerome went from a tent city in 1876 to bustling mining camp to ghost town in the span of about 50 years. The city survived three devastating fires but began a sharp decline in the late 1930s when the Little Daisy Mine shut down. By 1953 Jerome was out of the mining business.
Clarkdale was established in 1912 with the construction of a giant smelter to process the ore coming out of Jerome. That smelter was shut down in 1950.
Life in the mining camps
Life in a mining camp wasn’t easy. In addition to the hard work, miners had to deal with the threats of raids from Native Americans as well as bands of robbers looking to steal their hard-earned wealth.
Disease, floods, fires and injuries also were constant threats. In a 23-year period starting in 1885, Bisbee had to rebuild from three devastating fires. The 1908 blaze wiped out three-quarters of the town.
From 1888 to 1900, hundreds of people died of typhoid fever, according to Arizona Memory Project documents.
Miners also had to endure (or enjoy, depending on their perspective) the attention of others hell bent on separating them from their money.
Jerome, for one, became a hotbed of prostitution, gambling and other vices. It was described as the wickedest town in the West by the New York Sun newspaper in a Feb. 5, 1903, article.
Some of the more well-heeled residents of the mining cities tried to bring culture to places like Jerome and Bisbee with the construction of opera houses and theaters in the early 20th century.
Hotels, restaurants and bars where you can still find the Old West in Arizona
But there was always the uncertainty of the work. Miners lived with the constant knowledge that a claim could dry up, leaving them out of work and having to move on.
Some corporate executives who traveled West to become more involved in their companies attempted to smooth out the rowdy towns, according to the Bisbee Library history website.
Copper Queen Mining Company executives visiting Bisbee from New York were appalled to see a thief who had been hanged the night before in a case of frontier justice still swinging from a tree. The executives were said to have thought such a barbaric act was the result of unenlightened minds.
They returned to New York and sent books and a librarian to Bisbee in an attempt to civilize the barbarians.
Women in mining
While rare, women were not totally absent in the Arizona mines of the Old West.
Jennie Hilton was described as “the only active miner of her sex in the United States” in a March 13, 1896, article on the sale of her share in a southwestern Arizona mine in the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican.
One of the most famous of Arizona’s mining women was Nellie “the Angel of Tombstone” Cashman, who was known for being honest and caring in mining communities in Arizona and other territories.
According to her biography on the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame website, Cashman was knowledgeable about geography and made accurate predictions about ore deposits. She made her fortune selling supplies and equipment to miners.
8 historic women of Arizona’s Wild West
The pursuit of riches through precious metals brought some colorful characters to Arizona.
In 1863, a group led by Paulino Weaver, A.H. Peebles and Jack Swilling (who would also play a major role in the development of Phoenix) led a group of prospectors up the Hassayampa River, according to the Arizona Mining Association’s “A History of Mining in AZ.”
They discovered such a significant deposit on top of Antelope Hill that they renamed it Rich Hill. The thing is, they weren’t searching for gold when they made their discovery. They were searching for a lost burro.
Some said it was proof that any stupid ass could find gold.
Another lucky find in that area was made by Henry Wickenburg who, in 1863, reportedly threw a rock at a pesky vulture. The rock broke open and Wickenburg discovered gold ore inside.
Prospecting in southeastern Arizona yielded its share of stories too.
A famous Arizona town got its name from the swagger of its founder, Ed Schieffelin.
When Schieffelin set out to seek his fortune, soldiers at nearby Fort Huachuca told him the only thing he would find prospecting in Apache land would be his tombstone. Schieffelin found silver and decided to name the town that sprang up nearby Tombstone.
Arizona’s most infamous mining character is probably Jacob Waltz, who, despite being German, became known as the Lost Dutchman. Waltz was prospecting in the Superstition Mountains in 1864 and was believed to have discovered a mother lode of gold. Waltz died in 1891, having led a modest life, but tall tales of his gold discovery have persisted.