Tombstone mining is the original reason for the start of this historic old west town. Yes, some do wonder: was Tombstone a mining town? Mining in Tombstone Arizona is actually what first brought a Variety of Immigrants here! So how did it all start? Let's get to the beginning of Tombstone Arizona mining history...
Frederick Brunckow, an 1848 German immigrant with a mining degree, had some mining experience in Europe. Hired by Charles Poston's mining company, he quickly rose in the ranks.2
In 1857 Brunckow explored the area West of what's now Tombstone. By 1859 he'd quit Poston's crew, starting his own business. He hired three mining professionals, and some laborers from Sonora Mexico.2
They dug for silver a little Southwest of today's Tombstone city proper. Things were going well, until they weren't! The laborers killed Brunckow and all but two miners. Read the Brunckow Mine History.
Brunckow's silver strike became known. But few risked going into that area with Apache bands' raids on travelers and settlements.
Ed Schieffelin arrived at Camp Huachuca in Southern Arizona Territory. He'd prior mining experience and wanted to investigate rocks for minerals in the area. Seeking protection, he asked to shadow a military crew scouting out raiding Apaches. They okayed it. Yet he eventually felt boxed in to a specific search area.2
So in the summer of 1877, Schieffelin started on his own. A soldier told him: if you're going out alone, there won't be silver or gold, but...
"...you'll find your Tombstone!"
He remembered that warning!
And actually, he found silver-promoting geology about 12 miles East of that Brunckow mine. August 1, 1877 he put in his claim for the "Tombstone" mine. His next two mines were called Graveyard No. 1 and Graveyard No. 2.2
Yes, he had a sense of humor! You can research Tombstone Mining areas back then. Find the Claims on the Mining Map!
Ed needed help to work his mines. His brother Albert came to town. Together they recruited Richard Gird.
Reports spread about the Tombstone Mining District and its silver strikes. Anson P.K. Safford was appointed Arizona Territorial Governor in 1869. Tombstone was on his radar for mining ventures.
Safford and his friend John S. Vosburg, a Tucson gunsmith, organized the Tombstone Gold and Silver Mill and Mining Company. They gathered partners, bought up mine claims (including the Lucky Cuss & Tough Nut), obtained water rights, and built a mill along the West side of the San Pedro River.
Richard Gird became the mill's superintendent. He married Nellie McCarty of San Francisco. They lived in the mill bungalow, with a view across to the town called Millville. Across the river, another town overtook it: Charleston.
More mines gave rise to more mills. The Contention Mill on the East side of the San Pedro River. Another was the Sunset Mill. Contention City was both the supply town for both.
From 1879 to 1882, Tombstone attracted experienced mining men. Suppliers and caterers of mining men's needs followed. The town expanded rapidly!
The natural area of Tombstone Arizona is high desert - the Chihuahuan Desert. Water is scarce. If you were a new miner in town in 1879, you'd have to think about where to get water! Likely one of your first thoughts!!
A few natural springs were nearby, at Watervale. But some "strong-men" guarded them and charged high prices for the water. The place was nicknamed "Gouge-Eye."2
D.S. Chamberlain said he'd sell water to the miners from his two wells for a better price. But his wells weren't reliable, particularly in the dry season.2
The Sulphuret Mine in Tombstone had a water source within. The owners, the Girard Gold and Silver Mining Company built their mill in town, since it had that water supply. Started on February 11, 1882, becoming a source for the Tombstone Water Company.
Mining brothers Samuel and Charles Calhoun bought 320 acres called "Goose Flats." A place to easily pull wagons up to their Mountain Maid claim. Thomas J. Bidwell, friend of Richard Gird, talked them into giving up most of Goose Flats' rights in March 1879. The Calhouns stipulated it be surveyed as a town-site, and become a livable community.
Two businesses were involved: Tombstone Townsite Company and Clark, Palmer & Company. April 19, 1879, the filed the Townsite at the Land Office in Florence AZ. It was recorded April 22nd in Pima County as New Tombstone.
Many town businesses were already operating. Some supplied mining operations. Others catered to mining employees in their off-hours. Ranchers, Cow-boys and distant miners came in to buy supplies, arrange cattle deals, do banking and other errands.
Often ending the day with a meal, some Gambling, and Saloon Visits. Saloons were popular. Miners especially needed release after their grueling day's work. They ranged from grubby little counters to deluxe establishments. By 1880's end, about 33 saloons served the town! The Red Light District entertained some patrons. Coming into town from outlying areas, lodging was always needed.
So town leaders petitioned for city incorporation. They considered changing the name at that time. But decided to keep Tombstone, since many businesses already had that association.
Because of silver mining, people daily poured into town since early 1880. Early 1881, Tombstone had over 4,000 people living there. (Under half that today!) Mines produced, people had cash, merchants doing well, homes being built! As a mining boom-town, word spread throughout the country.
It seemed all was going well. Many sought mining riches - yet Tombstone mines were easily worked! Categorized as a "soft-rock camp" - that meant less labor was needed to dig a vein.1 Only 400 Tombstone men were normally employed as miners.
Many men come to town, ran out of funds, and found themselves idle. Finally they'd leave for other possibilities. Others came thinking of the easy, ill-gotten gains. Silver nuggets in mine areas, supply wagons, and stage-coaches were targets.
Tombstone is in the Chihuahuan Desert. Yet there's a strong, but shallow water table. This circumstance affected mine shafts. At a certain point they started flooding.
Silver and gold veins beneath water undergo chemical changes. This decreases the ore's value. They needed to get water pumps going - easier said than done!
Only one suitable brand: Cornish pumps. Ordered in November 1882. Operating in the Contention Mine on December 11, 1883. In the Grand Central in July 1885.
Miners were optimistic! Then tragedy struck the Grand Central. The spring of 1886, fire devastated the mine. Everything flammable burned, metal melted, foul gases erupted from caved-in gaps.
Mine water levels rose again. One idea was to tunnel into the Contention for that pump's help. But silver's value headed downward. Half the Tombstone mining workforce were let go by 1886 summer's end.
During Tombstone mining's flood problems, mine management planned to cut worker pay. From $4/day to $3/day. Tombstone Miners went on strike.
Then on May 10, 1884, the Hudson Bank in Tucson shut down. Tombstone had a branch in the Vizina & Cook Building on 5th & Allen Streets. That local teller closed up, and headed for Tucson to investigate. Meanwhile, striking miners gathered at the bank door anxious to know about their own funds. Rumors started! - That the cashier made off with their money!
The sheriff stepped in, diverting possible vigilante action. The miners lost their money, since the Hudson Bank failed. It wasn't the teller's doing!
The miner's strike continued - hard feelings all around. Some militant events happened around mining areas. A military company from Fort Huachuca was sent to check the situation. On September 1, 1884 the Miner's Union relented - accepting the $3 per day pay. The strike was over.
The Contention Mine and Grand Central Mine owners decided on deeper mining. On May 1, 1887 they formed an Arizona Corporation: the Grand Central Mining Company.
Men hired for Grand Central clean-up. They opened a new shaft and repaired machinery. More hired to work adjacent mines owned by the company. 300 employees total!
New mines opened, older mines did well. Things looked up - but in 1890, silver prices dropped once more. Then Tombstone mining got a near-fatal blow. Fiery blazes attacked. Christmas 1891, after midnight, the Contention Mine spouted flames, shooting in the air from the shaft's draft, giving it oxygen energy. It spread to all mine buildings.
With just one water pipe for firefighters, conditions were impossible. It just burned out, and the mine was in ruins. Contention management stopped all mining. Metal scraps were shipped to Mexico.
Of the two local Tombstone mining employers - one was just getting by, the other now gone.
Some individual miners staked their own claims. They got by. They sold their ore to the Tucson Sampling Works, whose agent came to town intermittently.
The Tombstone Mill and Mining Company still employed some miners. Those miners went on strike on May 16, 1896 for a 50 cent pay increase. After nine days the company complied, and the men returned to work.
The town squeaked by with the price of silver. But most businesses had left town. In 1890, Tombstone's population dwindled to 1,800 - close to what it is today! By 1900, only 649 people were left in Tombstone!
E.B. Gage and W.F. Staunton wanted to revive mining in town. In May 1900 they formed the Tombstone Consolidated Mining Company. They bought 96 good, local claims. Their plan:
Frank Murphy was its major player. An experienced railroader, his goal: get the railroad from Charleston over to Tombstone. It was needed for efficient delivery of company supplies and equipment. For years Tombstone hoped for this line.
Murphy got Phelps-Dodge to sponsor the line. Work began July 29, 1902. They used second-hand rail, it reached town, was ready to go on March 25, 1903. Two box cars used for a temporary station, at the end of 4th Street. The line was usable by April 1903 and fully finished by January 1906.
Advanced water pumping equipment was installed. A crew hired to run the pumps. Some pumped water used for steam power.
Tombstone Consolidated Mining Company's success inspired others to get back to mining. Soon thereafter, November 1906, a bump up in silver price also benefited the town. Happy miners received a pay raise!
It's April 21, 1907, 1 p.m. Charles Gage hitched his horse near the Southeast corner of 5th and Toughnut Streets. The horse started stumbling, Gage tried to figure out what's wrong. The horse, and the wagon all disappeared into a caved in hole! Gage was right on the edge!!
Eventually becoming a Mine Tour, this was a roof area of the Good Enough Mine. Only about 12 inches thick when it caved in! The horse, amazingly, wasn't injured - and was brought out. The area was fenced in, and became a sight to see! Thought possibly the new train coming through weakened the soil's crust.
Can good times never last? The people of Tombstone must have wondered! The stock market crashed. Large companies couldn't meet their payrolls. Unemployment surged.
Next year's silver value dropped over 3 cents an ounce. Tombstone Consolidated cut three mine operations, unemploying 50 miners. Fire erupted again - at the Lucky Cuss. But the company recovered by 1908's end, with superintendent James Macia's help.
Still problems weren't over. Like a continuous fight to keep water out of the mines. Pump maintenance was an issue. Timely repairs and replacement parts could be difficult. The financing institution for Tombstone Consolidated - Development Company of America - didn't manage funds well. That discovery happened when liens were filed for three months back pay!
To solve it, they reorganized - filing bankruptcy. F.M. Murphy put $40,000 into an account. To ensure his employees got their back pay and Tombstone businesses got paid. It took two years to finalize bankruptcy proceedings. Tombstone Consolidated was offered for sale. Purchased by Phelps-Dodge for $500,000 on July 8, 1914.
The new owners began work soon. They brought in their own management, hired 300 men for mining positions. U.S. economy at that time wasn't booming. So Phelps-Dodge took a slow, steady pace developing their new purchase. By the middle of 1915 they employed 60 more workers.
August 1914: war started in Europe. By May 1917 the U.S. was involved. The American mining industry was nervous about the war's effects. Copper was affected. American copper mines let workers go. Including Bisbee copper mines, until a resurgent need in mid-1915.
Manganese was an important need during World War I. Western silver mines often have manganiferous silver ore. And Tombstone was the prime producer in the U.S. By early 1917, Phelps-Dodge Tombstone hired 600 employees!
The company followed the war's circumstances. Recognizing when peacetime was imminent, they shut down most big mine production. Then fully shut down on April 1, 1918. Many employees left, looking for mining jobs elsewhere.
Phelps-Dodge leased smaller gold and silver ore mines on their property. Mining men from surrounding areas rushed in to look at getting these leases. But 1918 was economically slumping.
Then the U.S. government got involved in silver, with passage of the Pittman Act that April. For four years after passage, the government purchased silver from all U.S. silver mines. The silver price skyrocketed!
Again, those good times ended. The government's purchasing through the Pittman Act ended on May 31, 1923. Silver's value immediately dipped. Tombstone mining leasers did hang in there!
Tombstone had a period of stabilized lull. The remaining miners earned enough to get by.
In 1914 Arizona Prohibition ended all local saloon businesses.
After WWI, the government began a road construction program. More auto traffic entered Tombstone. Therefore Allen Street was paved in December 1922.
"Broadway of America" - a cross-continental route linking the U.S. East Coast with the West Coast was promoted. A Western road was U.S. 80 which went through Tombstone - Fremont Street.
Those traveling Broadway of America stopped to see what was in Tombstone. Slowly the town had something for tourists:
Thursday, October 24, 1929 - Black Thursday
The Day the American Stock Market Crashed
The stock market crash critically affected Arizona. Mined metal values, especially those from Southeastern Arizona:
Their prices dropped - further and further. Credit was a non-starter! Millions lost their jobs by the end of 1930, Tombstone was no different.
Phelps-Dodge cut production, decreasing mine working days. At 1931's end they totally shut down Tombstone mining - including the leased mines.
Miners couldn't pay their rent or support families. If single, they just left town. Married men, family men - got together on downtown street corners. Passing time, wondering what to do.
The Red Cross helped, especially families and children. Relief agencies formed. Phelps-Dodge contributed to fundraising efforts. They also specifically helped some long-time employees' families.
But still many were hungry and malnourished. Some stole food where they could. Children suffered ill-health consequences.
In the Spring of 1932, a new mining corporation filed, and started operating. The San Diego, Last Chance, Grand Central and Empire claims restarted. By summer, 150 miners were at work.
In 1939 the government reentered the silver game. A bill passed setting the price right under 71 cents an ounce. It was good for two years, with possible renewal. This kept things on a bit of an even keel.
Two fires at two Tombstone mining claims made some further set back.
World War II began. The war had detrimental effects on the local economy. The population in town took a nosedive to 822.
This time manganese wasn't needed. Lead was desirable. They mined it three places:
Zinc was mined in Bisbee, 23 miles Southeast of Tombstone. Local miners received military deferments to work these mines.
After the war, the Federal Government helped. Manganese was again desired. A program covered portions of mining exploration, and also bought ore for five years. But six More Fires plagued mine claims over the years.
From 1950 until 1990, scattered mining attempts took place. Tombstone's pioneering Escapule family formed the Escapule Mining Association. Other Escapule family members formed companies for some Tombstone mining.
That included Dustin "Dusty" Escapule, as the General Manager of Tombstone Exploration Inc. Termed "economical mining." Escapule started an open pit, consuming a hill South of Tombstone and the old Grand Central Mine.
By the late 1970s, some mining professionals felt the Tombstone area was exhausted. Although some ore value remained, the investment to get it wasn't worth it. That's why open pit was thought a method of the future - but not so.
Costs vs. effort, pollution dangers, and government paperwork made it unreasonable. So by 1990, it essentially came to an end.
Tombstone has the look of a Wild West town. That's often what visitors look for when they come to the mining town of Tombstone. But do they realize the true history of why and how the town got its start?
We certainly appreciate our visitors and tourists. For quite a time, they've been the town's financial replacement for the mining ventures. Our local people acknowledge that, and hope our visitors will realize that also. People who live in the area make their living from tourism. They want visitors to have a good experience here.
We also like helping visitors, our guests, get a good feel for the history of our town. Some of the local museums help with that. To get a good feel for its beginnings, and its overall history we certainly recommend you take in the Tombstone Mine Tour.
1 Daily Nugget, December 2, 1880.
2 Bailey, L.R. (2004). Tombstone, Arizona: "Too tough to die" The rise, fall, and resurrection of a silver camp; 1878 to 1990. Westernlore Press, Tucson, Arizona. A prime general resource for all historic details not notated.
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