Arizona Ghost Town

Swansea, AZ from a miner’s window

Ghost towns have fascinated me since childhood. Several such places were located near our home in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The neighborhood kids often walked to old Robe, the location of a former mill town at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River canyon. Silverton and Monte Cristo, farther up the valley, had been mining towns. All three communities sprang into being in the late 1800s. When residents left, our burgeoning plant life and rainy weather rapidly returned the communities’ remnants to the forest. Reminders of Robe and Monte Cristo are hard to find now, but summer residents and others who live there year-round have kept Silverton from disappearing.

So this spring, when we visited cousins Darlene and Vernon Edinger in Bouse, Arizona and they asked if we’d like to visit the ghost town of Swansea, we said an enthusiastic “yes.”

Early builders in the desert often used dried adobe mud bricks for their homes. Though only cactus and spiky desert shrubs flourish in that land of little rain, doing little to hide evidence of civilization, infrequent downpours eventually dissolve the adobe buildings. Only stubs of mud walls are left. As in ghost towns everywhere, vandalism also hastens the disappearance of remains.

Desert roads and rainstorm     

Even so, we were eager to explore the site. We packed a lunch, grabbed our wide-brimmed hats and set out in the Edinger’s four-wheel-drive pickup. We were scarcely out of town before the paving turned to dirt. Desert roads in Arizona are easy to build. Scrape away the sparse vegetation to a depth of six or eight inches, following the lay of the land. Presto! That’s about all there is to it.

 Where the road dips into low spots, signs read “Do not enter when flooded.” Often someone ignores a sign and suffers the consequences. The Edingers, who spend two months of every winter in an RV park in Bouse, saw for themselves how quickly trouble can strike this winter. News reports had told of heavy rain far to the north. That night, Darlene woke to a strange rushing sound. No wind or rain beat against their RV. She got up to peer out the window. The deep, usually dry wash behind them was running bank full of roiling water. By morning the wild stream had drained away into the Colorado River. Fortunately no one was in the channel when the flash flood came crashing through.

As we headed northeast out of Bouse, a few cloud puffs sailed across the sky. We crossed a strait-jacketed river flowing direct as an arrow in its concrete channel. A sign credited the canal’s existence to the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the dammed-up Salt River to the thirsty conglomerate of cities making up the greater Phoenix area.

                                                                Ruins of the smelter from a slag heap

We had the gravel road to ourselves. After 25 to 30 miles, we reached the mountains cupping the once-busy townsite of Swansea (swanzee). As we wound up, then down, the road became narrower and more jarring. Finally, we glimpsed the town’s ruins ahead.

                                                                     Remains of a shaft
The Bureau of Land Management is attempting to protect the remnants. It has built an area with parking for a few cars, an interpretive sign, and restrooms. It has established an interpretive trail and installed protective roofs over a double row of crumbling miners’ quarters. Metal fences keep visitors away from vertical shafts, one of them 1,200 feet deep.

When mining began in this area in 1862, copper ore was shipped via San Francisco to smelters at Swansea, Wales. Later, George Mitchell, an  entrepreneur from Swansea, invested in rejuvenating the mines and named the site after his hometown. He built his own furnace to reduce the ore, installed hoists for five mine shafts, and constructed a pipeline to carry river water to the townsite. He built a smelter in 1908. An electric plant, water works, restaurants, movie houses, saloons, a railroad, even a newspaper served the 500 or so people who lived there. Until the 1920s, the town hosted a general store, a hospital, and a post office.

However, Mitchell spent too much money on building the plant and not enough on working the mines. His company went bankrupt.  Swansea as a community lasted only twenty-nine years.

Miners’ quarters undergoing renovation

Today, all that remains of the town is the double row of miners’ quarters, the foundations of the reverberatory furnace, the crumbling bricks of the smelter, and a few remnants of adobe walls. And, oh yes, the heaps of waste rock brought up from inside the mountain and the slag piles left from smelting the ore.

We sheltered from the wind against the side of the Edinger’s truck while eating our picnic lunch, then we wandered around the ruins. I tried to imagine living and working there in the broiling summer heat; the noise of the machinery, the squeal of the hoists, the belching furnace. A few other tourists poked around in the distance. Otherwise, the only living creatures were a few well-camouflaged lizards that darted from underfoot, startling us and reminding us to keep an eye out for snakes. The wind brought a growing armada of clouds to cast shadows across the hills below us.

As we turned back to Bouse, curtains of rain swept the faraway mountains. Eventually, the storm might reach our part of the desert and fill some of those sandy washes with rushing water, but for now the sun shone brightly. As we descended to flatter land, we peered hard into the rocky defiles. We almost expected to see ghosts of prospectors with their faithful donkeys, still searching for the next strikes.

        Even in springtime, the desert mountains are rugged.

Moving Mountains in Arizona

The Abandoned Lavender Pit

  When we visited the old Arizona copper mining city of Bisbee recently, we marveled at a vast hole in the ground called Lavender Pit. It was named not for the color of the rocks but for Harrison Lavender, the man responsible for the mine’s development in the mid-‘50s. Terraces spiraled downward to rust-colored waste water nine hundred feet below. Where had all the missing rock gone? A whimsical thought struck. Did the miners know about Jesus’ comment that if his followers had faith, they could remove mountains?

We’d toured Bisbee’s underground Copper Queen Mine on a previous trip, but hadn’t seen this example of Arizona’s open pit copper mines. When we stared into the pit, which covers an area of some 300 acres, we noticed that its sides were much steeper than others we’d seen in the Southwest. That’s because the rock was less crumbly than in other mines. Then we drove past remnants of structures where the ore was recovered and past oddly smooth hills of broken, barren rock. In the distance we saw the town of Douglas, where trains had taken the ore for final smelting.

We returned to explore the part of old Bisbee that clings to the walls of Tombstone Canyon. A deep concrete ditch runs along the canyon to contain the frequent flash floods that used to wash away buildings every year. Some of the channel is hidden beneath the paving. Where the channel is open, narrow bridges connect picturesque small dwellings to the street.
                                                                                     The Writing Room
A sign pointed up a steep driveway: Schoolhouse B & B. We investigated and found a red-brick schoolhouse perched on a ledge just big enough for the building and a few cars. What a serendipity! It was built in 1913 as a four-classroom elementary school. Its rooms had been divided and turned into charming, high-ceilinged bedrooms with schoolhouse themes. When we saw the one labeled “The Writing Room,” we couldn’t resist and decided that’s where we’d spend the night. Besides the usual amenities, our room had antique books and typewriter, toys, and framed samples of a long-ago student’s penmanship. High-ceilinged windows     and old-fashioned transom over the door were curtained in lace. We also had comfortable armchairs where we sat to read from some of the old books and where I wrote this blog.

While waiting for breakfast the next morning, we found a compilation of stories from an old Bisbee newspaper, the Brewery Gulch Gazette, accompanied by early-day photos.

One picture, taken in the early 1900s, showed Sacramento Hill–a huge pile of low-grade copper ore–looming above the town and mine buildings. In 1917, Phelps Dodge began to develop the first pit, Sacramento, atop the peak. William C. Epler, the newspaper’s editor, wrote: “Many tons of explosives were placed in hundreds of drill holes in the top of the mountain and set off with a bang that shook old Bisbee from one end to the other. The entire top of the mountain rose into the air with a mighty heave, then settled back into place–broken into millions of tons of mineable ore. In later years the Lavender Pit and then the extension to that pit took away much more of the hill. Today there’s only a nubbin left.”

So, a mountain had once stood where the pit now gaped.

The arrival of our gourmet french toast interrupted my reading. Two other couples invited us to join them at their table, another serendipity. One man told us he’d grown up in Bisbee. Like boys everywhere in those years, he and his friends made the whole community their playground. They hung around the mines and knew all about the mine operations.

He told us that at 3:05 every school day, all students had to be in their classroom seats because that was when the blast of dynamite went off in the mine, shaking the whole town and loosening ore for the next day’s digging.

Until mining ended in the Lavender pit in 1974, shovels loaded ore onto massive trucks. The trucks carried the ore to a crusher building on the lip of the crater. After the initial crushing, the ore passed by conveyor belt up and over the highway to the concentrator.

There, according to our new friend, the ore was dumped into tanks and mixed with a solution of acid, which caused the copper to float to the top. We’d seen the remains of the tanks still perched beside the highway. Huge wipers skimmed the liquid copper. The concentrate, containing about 13 percent copper, was loaded into railroad cars and hauled to the smelter in Douglas where gold, silver, and other metals were separated from the concentrate. The gold paid for the operation of the mine. Workers also found some of the world’s finest turquoise in the broken rock.

                              Hill on the right is composed of waste rock from the mine.     

The waste rock was conveyed to the  mountain-like dumps we’d seen looming against the sky. Now we knew where the insides of Sacramento Hill had gone.

As I photographed one massive pile of waste rock, and again stared into the crater of Lavender Pit Mine, I could hardly imagine the creativity and hard work needed to conceive such a project. I’m not sure this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but it seemed to me it took a lot of faith to move that mountain from one place to another.                                                                          

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