The Arizona Gold Rush

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“There’s gold in them thar hills”

In Arizona, copper has proven a more valuable metal than gold. And much of the gold produced since 1900 has been recovered from copper sulfide ores as a byproduct of the copper concentration and smelting process. Spanish conquistadors came to Arizona searching for gold and found silver instead. Mexican prospectors began mining the gold missed by their former Spanish rulers. But it was silver mining in the mountains south of Tucson that lured the first Americans to Arizona. Soon, they too discovered the more valuable yellow metal. And a gold rush along the lower Colorado and Gila rivers initiated settlement in the western part of New Mexico Territory, an area that would soon become the Territory of Arizona.

“By 1858 prospectors had located placer beds on the Gila River. There they started Arizona’s first modern gold rush, which resulted in the establishment of Gila City. In a few years perhaps 1500 people were living there on the banks of the Gila, panning gold and defying the heat and perils of an unknown desert. In a land of almost perpetual drouth, their city was finally swept away by an unexpected flood, and the first gold rush was over.”
– – p.227, Frank Cullen Brophy, Arizona Sketch Book (1952)

Gila City was established at the end of 1858 and had a population of 400 by the spring of 1859. The placer deposits apparently played out shortly afterward and the flood came in 1862. By then, prospectors had already hit pay dirt along the Colorado River, at El Dorado Canyon in April 1861 and at La Paz lagoon in 1862.

This map by Norton Allen appeared in the April 1953 issue of Desert magazine. Gila City was located on the river about 12 miles east of the McPhaul placer (16). The town of La Paz was located close to the upper placer (14), while Ehrenburg was near the lower La Paz placer. This map also omits a good placer stream southwest of Payson.
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“More than 5,000 people worked the placers of La Paz and moved the freight and supplies which came by boat up the Colorado River from distant San Francisco.” (Brophy, p. 228) The bustling town of 155 adobe houses and numerous saloons and stores, missed becoming the capital of the new Territory of Arizona in 1864 by a single vote in the legislature. More than one Arizona family of merchants got their start in the gold camps of La Paz and Ehrenburg.

Throughout the history of Arizona Territory, San Francisco was the principle source of information, goods, machinery and financing. The gold rush city by the bay was the largest city in the West and an important financial, publishing and higher education center. San Francisco sent miners to the new gold rush in Arizona and by 1877 sent the first railroad line to Yuma.

Gold has been mined throughout the central mountains and low lying deserts of the state. While the soils and clays of the Colorado Plateau region commonly hold very fine particles of gold, extraction has proven unprofitable. Instead, gold is sought in underground veins of quartz and sulphide deposits or the surface sand and gravel of placer deposits.

A model of an Arizona gold mine displayed at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in 1922 showed how underground mining of pyrites or chalcopyrite sulphides enclosed in quartz could produce as much as $40 in gold per ton of iron sulphide, “a value that well repays working.”

“If the sulphides are worth forty dollars a ton and it is necessary to mine three tons of quartz with each ton of ore, then the material mined is worth only ten dollars a ton, a value that is so small a mine in so remote a region will barely pay expenses of mining and treatment, although larger mines find such ore very profitable.

“When, as is the case here, the ore can be so mined that with each ton of sulphide only one ton of quartz must be mined, the material hoisted is worth twenty dollars a ton and yields a good profit.”
– – p. 4, Model of an Arizona Gold Mine (1922)

The solitary prospector wandering the mountains with his train of burros became an icon of the desert southwest. It appears this guy has a dry washer loaded up, along with several five-gallon square steel cans of water. He must have camped with few bedding comforts and little food.

A solitary prospector passes over sulphide ore in search of free gold in quartz outcrops or placer deposits. He may use a dry washer, wet washer or panning to recover the coveted mineral. “Gold is a very heavy metal. . . .it is the high specific gravity of gold which causes it to settle in the bottom of your pan, or to be caught in the riffles of your sluice, instead of being carried away with the lighter rocks and gravel by the water.” [Walter J. Robertson, Gold Panning For Profit]

Tourists pan for nuggets during the annual Wickenburg Gold Rush Days in February. This postcard was published by Petley Studios in the early 1960s, using a photo by H. H. Raab. Someone censored faces, probably because a model release had not been obtained, though at a public event permission is not required.

The Arizona Gold Rush Continues

With the price of gold now floating around $1000 an ounce, pans are again dipping sand and gravel from streams like Lynx Creek and Turkey Creek near Prescott. While gold is a very useful metal in electrical circuits, plating and even as a pharmaceutical, historically it has garnered extrinsic worth in jewelry and as a currency. When money became limited by the supply of gold, governments about 200 years ago invented paper currency as an alternative to simply sending galleons and conquistadors to seize a weaker government’s treasury of bullion. But it quickly became clear that paper currency would still have to be backed up with the promise of redemption in gold or silver.

To protect paper currency, banks in the United States began regulating the value of gold early in the nineteenth century. In response to the economic depression of 1873-1875, Congress adopted a “Gold Standard” whereby currency would have a value in gold, at the already established market price for gold of $20.67 a troy ounce. This policy may have had the effect of limiting gold fever, but mining the precious metal in Arizona remained lucrative.

The Gold Standard did not prevent periodic economic recessions, notably in 1893 and 1907. Congress responded with the Federal Reserve act in 1914, which among more powerful provisions also established a price control on gold at the $20.67 figure which had held steady since 1879 in the United States. When the Great Depression hit after 1929 big changes were made. A law which took effect in 1934 dropped the Gold Standard for currency and raised the official price of gold to $35.00 an ounce. Gold mines were able to continue to operate until the L-208 order in 1942 closed them to divert production to war materiel. After the war, however, most gold mines in Arizona were unable to restart operations through the 50s and 60s.

This postcard from around 1909 shows an unidentified gold mine near Phoenix. It appears to be the Congress mine 16 miles north of Wickenburg which hoisted underground sulphide ore to produce gold from 1884 until the mid-1930s. Using the new cyanide process, with a new railroad for shipment, after 1895 it became one of the greatest gold mines in Arizona, recovering $11.81 in gold and silver per ton of ore, plus another $1.20 recovered from tailings according to one source. (pp.143-144, Dunning, Rock To Riches,1966)

Emerging from World War Two as the richest and most powerful industrial country on earth, the United States saw no need to return to the Gold Standard and by the end of the sixties financial speculators were eager to trade in gold like any other commodity. Price controls on gold were dropped in 1971 and soon economic turmoil driven by globalization and restricted oil supply sent the value of gold soaring. It reached a high of $850 an ounce at the beginning of 1980, slowly deflating over the next two decades only to rise again in 2002.

See also:
Galbraith & Brennan, Minerals of Arizona (Univ. of Ariz., 1970)
Vicky Hay, “Gold’s There To Be Found If You’ll Just Pan For It.” Arizona Highways, September 1992, p.51.
Eldred D. Wilson, Gold Placers and Placering in Arizona. (Univ. of Ariz., Bureau of Geology and Mineral Technology, Geological Survey Branch, Bulletin 168, 1961) .pdf file available

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This entry was posted in Ehrenburg, Gila City, gold mining, Gold Standard, La Paz, Wickenburg. Bookmark the permalink.

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