Arizona Mining History

Long before the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and the formation of the state Arizona on February 14, 1912 there was mining activity and rich minerals in the area that became Arizona.  Copper mining is still a major business in the state even though many mines played out and declined into the dry dusty land.  The mining landscape of Arizona ranged from the desert floor to high in the mountains ranges of the state.  Gold, silver, zinc, and lead have also played a part in the mining history of the state.


Mineral discoveries from times as early as 1000 BC have been identified with the Native Americans using turquoise, copper, coal, and clay.  Copper and turquoise were used in jewelry and traded across North America.  These minerals are still found in the Native American jewelry and artwork of today.  Even though clay may not be seen as a valuable mineral it was used to produce many items the Native Americans relied on in daily life.


In the 16th century, the Spaniards began to explore the area with Coronado traveling northward opening the area for further exploration.  This lead to some small discoveries in the southern parts of what is now Arizona.  The mining in this time was limited and the revolt of the Pueblo Indians in the 1680’s made mining difficult.  The early days of mining in Arizona include many skirmishes and conflicts as this was the new frontier with many people culminating in an area with preexisting inhabitants.


The mineral exploration in Arizona gained momentum after the Mexican-American war in the 1840’s.  In the 1850’s prospectors began to move into the Arizona Territory when the gold fields of California began to play out.  The first discovery of gold in Arizona was in 1857 near the confluence of Sacramento Wash and the Colorado River.  By the 1860’s large discoveries of gold were being made in the Bradshaw Mountains and along the Hassayampa River.  With improved mining processes, a new boom in Central Arizona occurred between 1890 and 1917.  In the early 1900’s gold was discovered in the black mountains in which the town of Oatman sprang up.  The mines in the Oatman district became the richest gold producer in Arizona.  The richest gold mines were the Tom Reed and the United Eastern mines in western Mohave County.  Between these two mines $26.7 million was produced between 1908 and 1933.


In the 1880’s silver discoveries were being made in the central and southern parts of the state.  This included the eastern Bradshaw Mountains and the Tombstone Area.  These silver discoveries included mines like the Tiger Mine discovered in 1871, The Peck Mine discovered in 1875, and the Tip Top Mine located in the Bradshaw Mountains.  Silver discoveries in the Tombstone area started around 1877 with Ed Schieffelin’s starting the boom filing his claim under the name of “Tombstone”.  Silver mining exploded and the town of Tombstone was born supporting mines which included the Good Enough, Contention, Toughnut, and Grand Central.





















On July 14, 1890, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act became law to boost the economy but backfired and the act was repealed in 1893 causing the price of silver to greatly decline.  Thus brining the demise of the silver mining industry in Arizona and ultimately the Tombstone was set.


As the demand for silver began to decline in 1893 it was replaced by the need for copper which started to increase in the 1890’s.  Copper mineralization’s had been discovered prior to the demand it was not profitable to mine and usually ignored.  Copper mining began to get a boost with the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 making it more economical to mine and provided a method to ship the material to market.


One of the earlier discoveries of copper was near Ajo which was known about as early as the 1750’s by the Spaniards.  The Ajo area was again located in 1847 by Tom Childs, Jr. who was exploring the area for the legendary Plancas de Plata where early silver load discoveries had been made.  Childs was able to locate abandoned copper mines he described as “open cuts in the hillsides and a shaft at least 60 feet deep”.  As part of his exploration he also mentioned notched ladders and leather ore buckets still present in the shafts.  Childs and a friend Peter M. Brady, formed the Arizona Mining & Trading company to work the area and in the mid 1880’s worked the rich surface ores.  The mined surface ores were shipped around Cape Horn for smelting in Swansea, Wales.  The lack of water and the need for long supply lines discouraged larger mining companies from the area.  This area became one of the first copper mines in Arizona with its high-grade native copper.  As new methods of mining for low grade ore were developed, Ajo began to boom in the early 1900’s and prospered until 1985 when the mine was closed.























Arizona is known for its copper with major production taking place the Clifton-Morenci District, Verde District including Jerome, Ajo, the Warren District around Bisbee, and the Globe-Miami area.  The Clifton-Morenci District had claims staked as early as 1872 by a group of men which included the Metcalf brothers.  A town was named after the brothers which has since been overtaken by the mining production which continues to present day.  Following the claims in Clifton-Morenci area were those in Globe established in 1874.  After the Globe claims Jerome claims followed shortly thereafter in 1876 which prospered until 1953 when it was closed.  Following the Jerome claim was Bisbee in 1877 which started production in 1880 with rich copper oxide identified at the Copper Queen Claim.





























Group of miners, hoistmen seated with candles at Sprayshaft, Copper Queen Mining. 
AHS, Pictures-Places-Bisbee-Mining, #13291


In 1870, Robert Metcalf discovered a rich copper deposit near present day Clifton.  In 1872 Robert Metcalf and his brother returned to the area and discovered the Metcalf and Longfellow mines.  The ore mined from the Longfellow mine assayed as high as 80% copper and averaging 20% coper over the first 10 years of operation.  The initial mines were underground and later in 1937 open pit methods were being used to remover the ore.  This required stripping of the waste material from the top of the ore body which took place until 1942 when the first ore was processed at the new Morenci concentrator.  Mining in the Clifton-Morenci area continues into present day.


























A small scale locomotive pictured at the bottom of the Coronado incline in the early 1900's


Copper discoveries continued in Arizona with findings in what is now called Superior in 1900.  In 1914 the Magma Copper Company built a large smelter to support the mining.  Mining continued until 1981 when the smelter closed. 


In 1942 main ore bodies of copper were discovered in San Manuel with the first mine shaft built in 1948.  Major production began in 1955 and by the 1980’s San Manuel mine was the largest underground coper mine in the world in terms of production capacity, size of the ore body and infrastructure.  Mining continued at San Manuel until it was closed in 2003.























This Dec. 30, 1955, photo shows two miners getting ready to blast


Further exploration began in the northwest part of the state in the area of what became Chloride in the 1840’s.  In the early 1860’s, a rich silver vein was discovered and the location was dubbed Silver Hill.  Further discoveries in the area include lead, zinc, gold, copper, and turquoise.  The mining camp of Chloride was founded around 1863 and in the early 1870’s a treaty was signed with the Hualapai Indians allowing for mining to expand in the area.  Two major mines, the Tennessee and the Schuykill, were worked producing lead, silver, gold, and zinc in this area up until the 1940’s.






















The Tennessee Mine and Mill in 1906


There have been over 400,000 mining claims recorded in Arizona and it is estimated that more than 4,000 companies formed for the sole purpose of mining.  In reality, more money was probably invested in mining the hard rock than was ever taken out in gold.


There are many colorful stories associated with the discoveries around the state which included stories of vultures, tombstones, cities of gold, and many superstitions.  The mineral discoveries affected many cultures and nationalities in the territory now called Arizona.  The lure of the Wild West has made many men and women famous with stories of law men, outlaws, swindlers, discoverers, chiefs, military leaders, explorers, and others.  Tombstone is said to be the town to tough to die but I think this applies to a much larger boundary called the state of Arizona and its wild history abound in the state and beyond.




1)      Arizona Mines –

2)      Historical Atlas of Arizona – Henry P. Walker and Don Bufkin

3)      Gold Lured Route 66 To Oatman -

4)      Greenlee County History -

5)      The Arizona Daily Star

Please take out what you bring in and leave places the way you find them for others to enjoy.

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