We were born, raised, and lived the vast majority of our lives in northern New England – a part of the country known for its beautiful mountain ranges, pine forests, quaint ocean towns, miles of beaches, historic villages, Plymouth Rock, ski hills, spectacular fall foliage, lakes, rivers, wetlands, maple syrup, clam chowder (pronounced chowdah) and lobsters.
Northern New England, however, was never known as a major mining region. Some abandoned lead, graphite and mica mines, active in the 1800s and early 1900s, are sometimes found throughout the region, small pieces of gold or silver have been found in riverbeds and some explorers have found pieces of amethyst, garnet, pyrite and quartz. We were aware of some mining activities taking place within driving distance of our homes. As children, we dived from high stone walls and swam in abandoned granite quarries; we visited the mica mine in Grafton, NH and the garnet mine in Wilmot, NH
During our 21 month journey across the country, we passed through some major mining areas. We watched the activity at a coal mine in West Virginia, marveled at the Borax Pit in California, visited a lead mine in California, and spent most of the day at the Craters of Diamond State Park in Arkansas looking at the specimens that have been found at this site and watching people dig in the mud field in hopes of finding a huge, beautiful and priceless diamond. When we drove through Arizona in 2009, we spent the night at Globe and were impressed with the size of the mining in the area.
In 2010, we became permanent residents of Arizona and began researching mining activity in our adopted state. Here is some of the information we found.
Mining has taken place in this area for many years. Archaeological research indicates that early indigenous tribes mined both copper and turquoise for jewelry and trade. The Spanish, who arrived in the late 1500s, actively mined silver in the southern part of the state, and in the 1800s miners flocked to this area in search of gold, silver , copper and other precious metals. Today, mining continues to be a big industry. According to the National Office of Mines, in 2007 there were 400 active mines.
Grand Canyon State Mining
Arizona, nicknamed “the copper state”, is known for its numerous copper mining operations, but this state also conceals other treasures: gold, silver, azurite, malachite, lead, zinc, manganese, tungsten, mercury , limestone, pumice stone, diatomite. , peridot, potash, perlite, quartz, talc, marble, granite, basalt, ash, agate, jade, calcite, uranium, mica, gypsum, turquoise, tourmaline, salt, wulfenite and many others. Uranium mining was big business in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, there is believed to be an active uranium mine in operation in northern Arizona. In the book “Yellow Dirt”, by Judy Pasternak, she describes the extent of uranium mining and its consequences in this state. For those interested in uranium mining, there are remnants of the Hogan Uranium Mine on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon near the Powell Monument.
At this point in our research, we asked ourselves, “If there are four hundred active mines in this state, how many abandoned mines are there in the area?” We couldn’t believe the estimate! According to the State Mines Inspector’s Office, there are approximately 100,000 abandoned mines in Arizona. Some are in areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management and some are on private property. Over the past 11 years, we have seen several abandoned mines, both horizontal and vertical. Some of them have been fenced off with warning signs and others have remained as they were years ago.
After completing our preliminary research, we purchased the book “Roadside Geology of Arizona”, from Halka Chronic, to help us in our future explorations. We visited several active and former mining towns including Morenci, Globe, Bisbee, Miami, Superior, Ajo, Crown King, Safford, Tombstone, San Carlos, Flagstaff, Jerome, Klondyke, Ruby, Helvetia, Millville, Greaterville, Cerro Colorado, Pearce, Courtland, Alto, Salero, Gleeson, Haynes, Hilltop, Sunset, Goldroad, Hackberry, Bouse, Goldfield, Brenda, La Paz and many more. In some of the abandoned towns we found significant remains, but to our surprise we still located evidence of earlier habitation. While visiting Stanton, we had the opportunity (and honor) to see a young man panning for gold in a small stream that runs through town.
Over time, we could easily spot mining remnants on the hillsides and there were many times when the thought occurred, “Let’s go today.” We would take our mining “hard hats”, the geology hammer, a spade, a bucket, our Roadside Geology of Arizona book, a cooler full of water, our map of Arizona, and set off into the desert in search of riches. We haven’t amassed a fortune in 11 years, but we have accumulated some beautiful and “priceless” (to us) stones.
We found beautiful pieces of jasper along the road near Tuba City, excavated exceptional specimens of selenite crystals in St. David, picked up Mexican fire agates in Arivaca, found a piece of hematite in a pile of tailings at Cerro Colorado, returned home from Castle Dome with a large chunk of lead, salvaged for Apache tears and perlite at Superior, found a few small chunks of chrysocolla in Green Valley, and returned from Arivaca with an opal. Our most valuable discovery happened in Pearce – we were leaning on the wooden door looking at the huge mining equipment and suddenly the sun shone on a small rock and it shone. We picked up the rock (outside the door) and discovered gold flakes. The treasure currently resides in Green Valley.
Underground and above tour
Running around the state in search of mining towns, exploring abandoned towns, and searching for priceless treasures in the Arizona wilderness were becoming commonplace, so we came up with a new idea: let’s take a tour of some of the mines! It seemed like a really good idea until we realized we both had minor cases of claustrophobia. Well, let’s try.
Our first adventure was the Underground Queen Mine Tour in Bisbee (which we survived), so we tried the Good Enough Mine Tour in Tombstone (very interesting and a bit nerve-wracking). Our tour of the ASARCO mine in Sahuarita was conducted in an above ground vehicle and gave us the opportunity to view an active open pit mine and view processing procedures. Our last mine experience was in Morenci when we had the opportunity to walk through the mining district and see some of the structures, mining equipment and several open pits – a privilege to spend time walking through the most largest copper mining operation in North America and one of the largest mining operations in the world.
We have been asked, on occasion, what was the most interesting fact we discovered during our mining explorations. We clearly remember the day when we encountered some very startling information. In September 2014 we visited the Clifton Historical Museum and during our conversation with the pleasant and informative guide we learned that the nearby town of Morenci is a company owned town. He went on to inform us that the town had been moved to its present location to allow for the expansion of the mine. We thought this was an entirely new concept for us and it led to an interesting discussion as we left the museum.
When we got home, we did some research and found that there were six corporate-owned towns in the state of Arizona: Ajo, Clarkdale, Kearney, San Manuel, Baghdad, and Morenci. Today, two remain: Baghdad and Morenci.
Upon further research, we also learned that over time there were approximately 2,000 industry-based communities in several states within the borders of the United States. Today, only a handful of company-owned towns still exist, and some have remained accessible to visitors: Coltsville, CT, a gun-making town that is currently administered by the National Park Service; Kennecott, Alaska, a copper mining town also administered by the Park Service, and Lowell, Massachusetts, a textile town that was the first planned company town in the United States. When we lived on the east coast, we had visited Lowell National Historic Site, walked around and discovered the industrial town. We knew the concept of company towns, but we didn’t know that some still existed in the 21st century.
In September 2019, we packed our bags and headed to Baghdad, AZ, a census-designated community 60 miles northwest of Wickenburg. This copper mining community, with a population of less than 2,000, is one of only two company-owned towns in Arizona. Freeport-McMoRan owns all residential and commercial properties in Baghdad.
We were surprised when we arrived at this well-planned, quaint, beautiful, self-contained community. We saw a variety of churches, a grocery store, a mall, a credit union, a health clinic (with a pharmacy), a high school, an elementary school, parks, playgrounds, golf course, a baseball field and a restaurant. Residential areas were subdivided into neighborhoods with houses of different styles and sizes. We had lunch at “The Diner” and had the opportunity to ask our waitress many questions about the city. As we drove through town, huge piles of mine tailings were visible, but we couldn’t get close enough to see the mine entrance.
There are those of us (including us on some days) who would rather have others dig up the precious metals while we quietly enjoy our retirement days. Well, that’s a possibility in Arizona. When you think of mining, you think of big equipment, noise and piles of tailings. In the northern part of the state, there is a silent army mining tiny, beautiful and brilliantly colored garnets. The ants dig the gems digging their burrows and bring them to the surface. After a rain, they can be harvested from the stems of anthills. It is said that in the sun, the bright red “ant hills” are easily spotted. We searched and searched, but we never found any. Don’t worry, with some research you can buy some!
For those wishing to participate in their own mining adventures, we saw three “for sale” mines in Black Canyon City, Apache Junction and Cleator. The Cleator Mine was recently purchased, but stay alert when traveling in the state. Never know when another “mining” case will come up.