The Spanish came to Arizona in the 1500s, looking for legendary cities of gold. They found only mud-walled adobe villages. The Mexicans mined some areas of Arizona in the 1700s but the fierce Apaches soon drove them out. After the 1849 California gold rush began, Americans came to Arizona, but they were only on the route to California.
In 1858, Jake Snively discovered gold on the Gila River in the southwestern part of the state and, suddenly, Arizona was noticed. Frontiersman Pauline Weaver made another major strike in 1862, a little farther north along the Colorado river, at La Paz. With the second discovery, every miner who had not struck it rich in California headed for Arizona. Almost overnight, Arizona was awash with would-be millionaires.
Henry Wickenburg and the Vulture Mine
Henry Wickenburg reached in Arizona in 1862. He was believed to be an Austrian or German immigrant, and had probably been a farmer. Some tales of Wickenburgs origins say that his real name was Heinrich Heitzel; some say he was running from the law in Europe. Whatever the reason, Wickenburg ended up in California during the gold rush. It was there that he learned how to prospect and pan for gold. He was likely part of Pauline Weavers exploration party which traveled along the Hassayampa River. One version says this was when he spotted the quartz outcropping which later became the Vulture Mine.
Wickenburg initially worked the mine by himself, but began to sell the gold ore to other prospectors. By 1866 Henry Wickenburg had had enough of gold mining. He sold eighty percent of the mine to a man named Benjamin Phelps, who represented some eastern investors. The Vulture Mining Company was born.
The Vulture Mining Company announced plans to introduce modern mining methods, and to build a twenty-stamp mill on the Hassayampa River. The stamp mill site was to be twelve miles to the northeast, about one mile north of an existing settlement on the river. This settlement had already attracted merchants eager to provide the Vulture with goods and services. Henry Wickenburg retired from mining and established a farm near this settlement. The settlement became known as Wickenburg.
Henry Wickenburg, for his 80% interest, received $20,000 in cash, and a note for $65,000. The new owners soon claimed that Wickenburg didnt have a clear title to the property, and refused to pay the remainder of the price. Wickenburg spent most of his $20,000 trying to collect on his note, but never succeeded.
The Vultures Discovery
There are numerous stories about how Henry Wickenburg discovered the Vulture Mine, including the following:
Wickenburg picked up a rock to throw at a stubborn burro, and noticed gold traces in the rock.
Wickenburg was camped in the desert, and wanted to sweep out his tent. He shot a vulture, intending to use a wing for a broom. The vulture fell right on an outcropping with gold.
He was traveling along the Hassayampa River, and noticed a large outcropping of white quartz. Knowing that this material often contains gold, he decided to investigate. The original outcropping was quite large, large enough for him to see it ten miles away from the river. He named the mine "Vulture" after the birds he saw circling a nearby peak.
This last version is the most likely, although the least colorful one.
Gold Mines vs. Gold Placers
When most people think of prospectors, they think of panning for gold. Panning for gold involves gold placers, defined as gold contained in gravel and sand. This form of gold was originally embedded in rock. Natural erosion processes wore down the rock into gravel and sand. With gold placers, separating the gold is a relatively easy processing of washing the gravel and sand from the heavier gold.
With mining, the gold is still embedded in the rock. First, the miner must dig the rock out of the ground. Then he must pulverize the rock. Only after this can the miner use panning methods to separate the gold from the rest of the rock.
The Goldwaters and the Vulture Mine
Michael Goldwater, one of the financiers of the first Vulture stamp mill, saw opportunity in Arizona in 1862. He began supplying the new mining industry by transporting needed goods across the California desert. Michael and his brother Joe hauled freight to and from Prescott, and opened up new stores in several boomtowns, including Wickenburg and Seymour. The Goldwaters' business grew into a chain of department stores across the Southwest. Michaels grandson, Barry, gained prominence as a senator from Arizona, and as the Republican candidate for President in 1964.
The Vulture Mine and the Birth of Phoenix
In 1868, Jack Swilling saw the ancient irrigation canals along the Salt River, and saw an opportunity.
Swilling caught gold fever in 1857, a fever which brought him to Arizona. He was an enterprising young man who had worked for both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. When Swilling saw the old canals left by the Hohokam Indians, he realized that, with proper irrigation, crops would grow in Arizona.
Swilling needed financial backing to dig out the old canals. When he went looking for funds, he went to Wickenburg. Here Jack Swilling raised enough money from Henry Wickenburg and others to start the Swilling Irrigating Canal Company. By 1872, there were eight thousand acres of land under cultivation and a thriving farm community along the Salt River. Swilling sold food and grain to the U.S. Army, and to mining areas such as Wickenburg and Vulture City. An educated British immigrant, Lord Duppa, noting that the farm community had risen from the ashes of an ancient civilization, christened it Phoenix.
Freighting & Highgrading
Water was a necessary ingredient in the processing of the gold ore. Water, however, was also the indirect cause of many of the Vulture Mines troubles. Freighters would line up at the mine with wagons to transport the gold ore. As soon as they were out of sight of the mine, the freighters would begin picking through the gold, pocketing the best nuggets. "Highgrading" was the name of this practice, stealing the highest grade pieces of ore. In fact, freighting for the Vulture was more profitable than mining. Several nearby mine owners closed down their mines to become freighters for the Vulture.
Freighters werent the only ones "pocketing" extra profits from the Vulture. Thanks to the miners, many gold nuggets never made it into the companys storage room. It was widely known among the prospectors that working at the Vulture for a few months could provide them with a grubstake for the rest of the year.
The Hanging Tree
Suppliers to the Vulture Mine cut down most of the nearby ironwood trees for fuel. One of those that remained stood outside Henry Wickenburgs old cabin. This tree became known as "The Hanging Tree." The tree wasnt very tall, but it had the main requirement: it had branches several inches taller than its victims.
We know that men were hung on this tree for committing rape and murder. There are persistent tales of men being hung for highgrading, but there are no actual records. The names of most of the men and their crimes are not remembered; no one wrote them down. But legend says that at least eighteen men ended their lives on the Hanging Tree at Vulture City.
The Walnut Grove Dam Disaster
In the late 1880s, a water company built two dams on the Hassayampa River, north of Wickenburg. Runoff from the Bradshaw Mountains was severe in February 1890 and the upper dam was in danger of bursting. The water company sent a messenger to warn people at the lower dam and further down the river, but the messenger stopped at a bar for a drink. Several drinks later, the messenger had completely forgotten his errand. The dam burst and water washed down the riverbed.
The devastation was great. Eyewitnesses said a wall of water some ninety to one hundred feet high swept down the stream, carrying away giant boulders and trees. About eighty people lost their lives, and the property loss was enormous. Henry Wickenburgs farm, except for his house, was almost a total loss.
Henry Wickenburg, despite being denied payment for his mine, was not destitute. His farm prospered and his remaining mining venture, the Smith Company, brought in some money. Wickenburg, unfortunately, had sold the Vulture Mine before anyone determined its true wealth. At the time, most gold strikes played out within a few weeks. It had probably seemed prudent to sell before the Vulture did the same. Wickenburg continued to prospect, but he was never again as lucky. He regretted selling the Vulture Mine for the rest of his life.
Wickenburg was a likable man who made many friends throughout the years. When he was seventy years old, in 1890, the Walnut Grove Dam disaster destroyed most of his ranch. Wickenburg was too old to start over. He told friends that he was old and tired of living. Little by little, he donated most of his land to the town of Wickenburg. In 1905 he was eighty-five, and no longer able to live on his own. Wickenburg walked into a grove of trees behind his house, and turned his old Colt revolver on himself. The town of Wickenburg now surrounds his grave.
The Vulture Mine "Profit Sharing Plan"
One of the side benefits of working at the Vulture Mine was its personal mining profit sharing plan. This personal mining was, by no means, approved by the mining company. Nevertheless, miners would often work the mine during evenings and weekends for their own benefit. The early owners of the mine treated harshly anyone caught doing personal mining. Later owners may have silently condoned personal mining when they were not able to pay their workers. Personal mining also attracted people to Vulture City during the Depression.
The miners practiced personal mining mostly in areas where the company was no longer working. This type of mining continued long after the government officially closed the mine in 1942, and long after many residents had moved away.
The Glory Hole
In 1923, some "personal miners" were working in one of the large underground chambers. The Vulture Mine, a hard rock mine, had no need of support timbers. The mining company found it necessary to leave about forty percent of the ore in place as supporting columns. One large chamber had ore columns that were very rich in gold. The personal miners were chipping away at these columns when they suddenly gave way. One hundred feet of rock over their heads collapsed on them. The cave in killed seven miners and twelve burros. There was no hope of rescue.
Above ground, what had been a small hill became a pit. The collapsed chamber area became known as the "Glory Hole." Ironically, the miners soon discovered that the new Glory Hole was an excellent place for personal mining.
John Osborne, the mine caretaker, often meets people who once lived at the Vulture. One man told John his tale of living through the Depression at the Vulture Mine.
He and some other men lived in one of the washes in the desert which surrounds the Vulture Mine. Each of these men would pan for gold. Every week or so, they would pool together the gold they had accumulated and give it to the one man among them who owned an old car. This man would drive into town and buy supplies, enough to keep the men going for yet another week, while they continued to pan for gold.
John and Marge Osborne
John and Marge Osborne have been the caretakers and hosts at the Vulture Mine since 1970. They have lived for most of that time in the mine supervisors house, a century old structure perched on the top of a hill. There is running water, when the pump is working. There is electricity, when the generator is working. There is a telephone, when their cellular phone can make a connection. John packs a gun on his hip to deal with rattlesnakes, although he prefers to catch them with his snake stick. Marge says they have been camping out for twenty-seven years. It is an unhurried, uncomplicated life, and seems to suit them well.
John Osborne knows more about the Vulture Mine than anyone living. He has mined for gold in the Glory Hole, and has assisted in a survey of the miles of underground tunnels. He routinely assists people who use the mine for other purposes, too. The mine has been used as a site for movie scenes, and for a German issue of Playboy magazine. Photographers and news crews visit occasionally, for tourist articles or to recap a part of Arizonas history.
Although John and Marge seem to be almost a part of the Vulture Mine, they are ready to retire. They have already purchased some acres of land nearby. Still, they cannot retire until the mine is sold. And as John says, twenty-seven years at the same job is a long time.
Russ Hunting and the Vulture Ghost Town
Some people have seen ghosts at the Vulture Mine, even smelled cake baking in the old mess hall. If there are ghosts, the Vulture Mine ghost town would be a likely spot for them. Here is a spot where three thousand people once lived, worked, loved, hoped, and died.
One resident of several years was Russ Hunting. Russ cleaned up many of the buildings at the Vulture Mine. The companies who leased the property for exploration filled many of the buildings with plastic sacks of sample drillings. Over time, the sacks deteriorated and left dirt inside the buildings, sometimes several feet deep. Russ cleaned out the buildings, one by one.
While Russ was working in the mess hall, silence descended on him. He couldnt hear the usual desert noises, and he began to hear voices. The voices cheered him on, told him he was doing a good job. They repeatedly called him "Ben." Gradually, his hearing returned. After this, Russ Hunting would occasionally give tours, in costume, as his alter ego, Ben Russell. Russ died in 1996. His friends, John and Marge, fulfilled his request that his ashes be scattered at the mine "so that I can be with my friends."