Arizona's Golden Past (Part 3)
(Gold in quartz from the Vulture Mine.)
Henry Wickenburg was too slow on the draw to join in on the fun at the Rich Hill discovery. This didn't bother Wickenburg much since his main focus was hard-rock prospecting and mining, not placer development. The modern day Arizona town of Wickenburg is named after Henry...and for good reason as you shall see.
Of Rocks and Vultures
In 1863 Wickenburg departed La Paz, Arizona to check out the terrain near Rich Hill. In his prospector's mind Henry reasoned placer gold as rich as that found by Pauline Weaver and his associates at Rich Hill indicated gold-laden vein material must be nearby as well. To Wickenburg's practiced eye, the area near Rich Hill showed great promise and he set about trying to find a gold source in the area. Here I must digress a bit. There are literally hundreds of tall tales about old timers like Wickenburg finding rich gold strikes by sheer accident. One of these tales has dogged Henry Wickenburg's memory as well. It's said that while prospecting southwest of the site of today's Wickenburbug he stopped to eat lunch and picked up a rock to throw at a nearby buzzard (turkey vulture). Well lo and behold, that rock he launched missed the vulture but split open revealing its inner core which was rich in free-milling gold. Thus the famously rich Vulture Mine was discovered. Although it may be true, I don't place much confidence in this tall tale. I choose to believe that Henry Wickenburg's mining and prospecting experience and acumen were responsible for one of Arizona's richest lode gold discoveries. But who knows for sure?
Millions in Lode Gold
However he found it, Wickenburg's Vulture Mine was rich indeed. But Henry encountered many problems in developing his mine. Ore extracted from the Vulture had to be transported on the backs of burros to the Hassayampa River some 12 miles away since the Hassayampa was the nearest water source of any consequence. Additionally, Wickenburg knew he'd have to build a series of arrastras near the Hassayampa to grind and mill the ore from the Vulture. This was far too big a task for a single blanket, jackass prospector so Wickenburg came up with an ingenious idea. He sold the ore in place at the Vulture Mine for $15.00 per ton to anyone who wanted to extract the gold from it. On the flip side, this meant that the Vulture was never systematically worked...at least in its early stages of development. Henry Wickenburg eventually sold four-fifths of the Vulture to a mining entrepreneur named Benjamin Phelps for $85,000...a princely sum in those days. During its first six years of operation, Wickenburg's Vulture Mine produced $2,500,000 in gold, despite the disorganized state of mining there in the early years. Over the next five-to-six years the Vulture's coffers revealed another million and a half dollars as an 80-stamp mill was built nearby and other, more efficient, mining methods were employed. By 1888, Wickenburg's Vulture Mine had produced six to eight million dollars worth of the yellow metal. That's a lot of gold. By the way, if you're wondering if Benjamin Phelps was one of the co-founders of Phelps-Dodge Mining (a major mining player in the world today), well...he wasn't. The Phelps part of that equation came from Anson Phelps, an Englishman. There's a tidbit of trivia for you.
(Early workings at the Vulture Mine.)
(Gold-bearing gossan near the Vulture Mine.)
The Truth Shines Through
It should go without saying that mining of any sort was a dangerous game to play in Arizona. Lone prospectors like Henry Wickenburg must've had nerves of steel to venture out into the Territory's far reaches in those days. Aside from the desperadoes and hostile Indians, injury or death was always lurking about in the form of accidents, slip ups, or the whims of Ma Nature herself. It took real grit to do what Henry Wickenburg and others did and they should be recognized for that fact. Anyone can sit on a D-8 or D-10 and aimlessly push swaths of gravel around all day on some television gold show, but I doubt some of these same "stars" have the common sense, the experience, or the balls to accomplish what Henry Wickenburg (and others of the day) did. Sure, I may be comparing apples to oranges here. But the truth shines through regardless of time or space.
Miners of the day endured tremendous hardships to find and get the gold in Arizona, just as they did elsewhere in the West. They ate and slept and worked in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, with few diversions or luxuries. At the sites of major gold strikes tent camps did spring up and even towns on occasion. These gold camps presented their own unique dangers to Arizona's prospectors and miners. Murder and violence of every description often ruled the day, as did scams, theft, and claim jumping. The latter was a very big no-no in Arizona's goldfields. A man's claim and his mining tools were sacrosanct and God help those who violated this unwritten law. Worse yet, stealing a miner's poke of gold could very well sentence that unfortunate soul to death in the hostile reaches of the Territory. For it was the yellow metal that fed him, clothed him, armed him, and allowed him to keep pursuing his individual golden dream. Thieves of any sort often received the same treatment as murderers in Arizona's early gold camps. A case of sticky fingers could easily result in a stretched neck, if you get my drift.
(The "hanging tree" at Wickenburg.)
There's more to come, as always. Hang tough out there.
(c) Jim Rocha 2016
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