March 2024
Making a Living from a Hole in the Ground
An Explorer Surveys Some Local Mines and Mining Camps

My maternal grandfather and 28 other men died in the explosion of the Little Betty coal mine in Dugger, Indiana in 1931. Today a plaque marks the site. I've seen photos of what coal miners had to endure in those days, and the conditions under which they labored, and you'd never get me to do anything remotely like that, no matter what the paycheck or the caliber of gun pointed at my head. One of the Little Betty survivors interviewed compared the disaster to a previous collapse he’d experienced, indicating that the risk just went with the job. It was madness.

Those were different times, in a rural area, the work was hard and the men who did it were tougher, crazier or more desperate than I. They may have consoled themselves that digging for coal served an important, perhaps even noble purpose. From the 1880s to the 1950s coal ran industry and heated American homes. The economy depended on that filthy, black, combustible rock.

The forests and mountains surrounding Prescott are riddled with old mines, but it wasn’t coal those miners were after. Mines in the county and Bradshaw Mountains were mostly dug in search of ores and trace metals, including copper, silver, zinc, gold, lead, molybdenum and rhenium. There are still some active mines in the area where, thanks to improved technology and safety standards, workers are much less likely to die by the dozens all at once.

But it’s the abandoned mines that I find fascinating, and I’ve personally visited many, including the Senator, the Tiger, the Oro Belle, the Del Pasco, the Blue Bell, the Swastika, the Jersey Lily and the Davis-Dunkirk. The work was dangerous and lives were cheap, as in my grandfather’s day, and even the ghosts have departed these places for lack of anyone to haunt. At many of these locales there’s misleadingly little to be seen.

Take Bradshaw City for example, a resident camp for the Tiger silver mine southwest of Crown King. Hundreds of buildings once stood in the forest on a cliff above the workings, including homes, hotels, restaurants and saloons. Though the town had a population in the late 1860s of 5,000, today a few stones, largely concealed by brush, are all that’s left of the old foundations. That’s quite a vanishing act.

Bradshaw City Cemetery

The reason for this, of course, is that it was a mining camp, and when the mine played out, the people moved on. Building materials cost money and had to be shipped from somewhere, and weren’t going to be left to rot. Businessmen and mining families took their town with them to the next site and rebuilt.

Entire lives were spent this way. Children were born in these places and moved to other similar places, where they grew up and worked before moving on to the next place. Memories were made in these camps. People died in them, as well, by natural causes, disease, violence or accident, and were left behind in graves now lost to time. At Bradshaw City there is something of a cemetery on an overgrown footpath off an impossible excuse for a road, where boulders bear indecipherable scratches behind a wire fence.

The Senator mine at the former town of Maxton, about ten miles south of Prescott on Senator Highway, doesn’t actually mark the end of the road, but it might as well. The going gets a bit treacherous past there, but the mine itself is quite accessible. It’s a visually impressive location in forested hills, a deep granite ravine filled with boulders, and a trickle of the Hassayampa River. The wise will park at the top and hike down the gravel road to the bottom, unless very confident of their four-wheel-drive capabilities. 

The mouth of the mine stands open today, though there was once a gate across it. Various bits of rusted equipment are strewn around, and the surrounding hills hold the sparse remains of a few buildings. These once included the ubiquitous saloons, along with a post office, a school, a church, a store, and a boarding house. On the other side of the streambed stands what’s left of the stamp mill that crushed the ore.

The Senator got off to a rough start in the early 1870s due to attacks by some Native American people (reportedly Apaches, though possibly they were Yavapai, who were for a time misidentified as a branch of the Apache tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs). While primarily intended as a gold mine, it produced a wide range of ores from various veins for decades. Union disputes and changes in ownership were responsible for occasional closings, but some work continued till 1918, when the post office officially closed.

Tiger Mine head frame

The Tiger at Bradshaw City and the Senator at Maxton are fine examples of mining activity in the region, easy enough to locate and enjoyable places to visit. The Senator can be reached via Mount Vernon Street in Prescott. To reach the Tiger, take I-17 to Bumble Bee and head up through Cleator, and be sure to stop at the Crown King Saloon (moved from the Oro Belle Mine in 1916) to load up on historical ambiance.

Mishap at Del Pasco Mine

For those interested in the human history of the area there’s plenty of evocative detritus out there. At the site of the Del Pasco gold mine, established in 1870 just north of Crown King, there’s an assortment of structures and equipment from different eras. That the site continued to be worked into modern times is indicated by the ruins of a late 1950s dump truck, a derelict school bus, and what’s left of a conveyor-belt system with what appears to be an inline four-cylinder Model T engine on one end.

The Blue Bell mine opened in the 1870s and closed in 1927, its best copper production coming during the first World War. Access is difficult, 4,500 feet up a rocky ridge. An aerial tram once carried ore three miles east to a siding on the Prescott-Crown King Railway. Fallen ore cars and lengths of cable still litter adjacent hillsides.

The Bureau of Land Management, the US Forestry Service and the Arizona Mine Inspector estimate that there are at least 100,000 inactive and abandoned mines in the state. Sometimes, when the works played out and closed, the entrances were sealed. This was usually done casually, since it wasn’t legally required for years, with a few sticks of dynamite, or in the case of the Senator, a steel gate against future need. Over time, though, gravity and weather would clear those obstacles and reopen the passageways, or adventurous vandals managed to circumvent weakened metal locks and gates.

A great many of these locations are on public land, and not specifically posted against trespassing. They would be, but no one’s got around to it yet. Others are posted, but with signage so old it’s impossible to say when or by whom. A fair number are utterly forgotten, appear on no maps and never officially existed. Many are on private property.

An aside: If you're in the forest or desert and come across a current mining claim sign, respect it. There are few things more dangerous than a paranoid prospector who thinks you’re a claim-jumper. In fact, carry a butterfly net so you’ll have an alibi, or a dog leash and keep yelling for Fido. To be fair, I’m sure most modern-day prospectors are perfectly harmless folk with a healthy and sometimes rewarding hobby, but it only takes one Fred C. Dobbs to start trouble. 

For the record, I never enter these abandoned mines, posted or not, and I don’t recommend anyone else doing so. Some years ago I ran across a group of intrepid nuts who made a hobby of exploring these places that I had only visited on the surface and wondered about. They produced some impressive photos of water-filled caverns, old equipment and human artifacts left behind in the subterranean depths. They were organized and seemed competent and skilled, and I hope none of them was injured doing what I was never tough, crazy or desperate enough to do myself.

Bumble Bee filling station

(Well, okay. I once went a few yards into the Senator mine, to the edge of the light from the entrance — I had no flashlight. It was then that I heard a just barely audible something, a split-second before noticing an unmistakable mountain lion track in the mud by my boot. Nice kitty. I departed with slow composure, backward.)

Whether these explorers were technically trespassing or not, what they were doing was still ill-advised, because a mine is not a cave. A cave is formed over thousands of years by water and temperature and pressure, along natural fissures in the rock. A mine is formed comparatively quickly, blasted and torn by force through the rock, faults and mineral composition be damned. A cave has inherent structural integrity that a mine does not. No sane person would trust wooden supports, platforms and ladders left unmaintained and untested underground for a century and a half. And mines are much more likely to contain volatile gases than natural caves — just ask my grandfather and his 28 co-workers. 

What today takes hours in a 4x4 vehicle following a trail map, with a Polar Pop in hand, then took weeks in a horse-drawn wagon, not a Circle K in sight. Getting to these places was once a monumental chore; setting up housekeeping and making a living there involved more work than the average modern human would likely commit to undertaking. Add to routine daily hardships the real possibility of being blown to bits or crushed to death at work, and you have the life of the underground miner of several bygone eras.

Myself, I’ll stay above ground with my imagination and the relics and scenery so thoughtfully left in place for my enjoyment.

Anthony Gainey is a local writer and observer of the human condition.

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