On the discussion page for my novel The Men in the Trees, I have a variety of photos from an Arizona ghost town called Vulture City. Over the years, visitors have asked about the town and its mine so I've created this synopis of the area's history, legends and what you can expect when visiting one of the best preserved frontier communities in Arizona. It should be noted that the images and experiences shared here are from 2009, when my son Myles and I spent the better part of a day exploring the townsite.
The Beginning of Vulture City
Like many of the state's mining towns, the story behind Vulture City is an amalgam of fact, fiction and falsities. According to legend, the town's origins began in 1862 when a prosector named Henry Wickenburg shot a vulture while out hunting. Where the bird dropped to the ground, Wickenburg discovered some spectacular quartz formations infused with gold and promptly established a claim to the area. Although the dead vulture part of this story is most likely an affectation, Wickenburg's instincts about the quartz were spot on and the mine eventually became the most profitable gold producer in Arizona.
Wickenburg sold his controlling interest in the mine to Benjamin Phelps and a group of investors in 1866. Under Phelp's supervision, it is estimated that the Vulture produced $2.5 million in gold (or roughly $60 million in today’s dollars), with almost as much being snuck out by the miners and their corrupt foremen. The theft of raw gold was mentioned in The Men in the Trees in a conversation between Meryl and Rose (pp. 86-87):
Meryl exhaled slowly. “Okay, then. Let’s say you actually find the mine, which would be like finding a needle in a haystack I think, but let’s say you do it. Then what? I doubt if the U.S. government is going to let you go in there and dig out any gold. It’s a national forest, after all.”
“What if they don’t know about it?”
“Well, this mine is in the middle of nowhere. Who’s going to notice some old coot like me carrying out some ore in my backpack? It happened all the time during the frontier days. Miners would stuff a nugget or two into their boot and walk out with it. It was called ‘high-grading the gold.’”
“And if they caught you, they’d hang you?”
“And what would they do to you today?”
“Prison, I imagine,” Rose said with a casual shrug.
“High-grading” was such a persistent problem at the Vulture mine that there was actually a "hanging tree" on site for those who were caught. The tree was still around when Myles and I visited the site.
The mine changed hands again in 1878, being sold to a man named James Seymour who quickly identified another gold-rich vein and further increased profits. During this same era, Vulture became an important rest-stop in an otherwise unbroken stretch of desert. By the 1890s, the site included many houses, dormitories, an assayer's office, a general store, a post office and a school. At its height, the town was home to 5,000 people.
Tall Tales from Vulture City
During our 2009 visit, the caretaker at Vulture City told us a marvelous story of how a freak accident brought about the end of the mine. According to this grizzled attendant with a six-shooter strapped to his hip, the mine ceased production after a cave-in trapped several men and burros in a large subterranean chamber. Ever since — or so he told us — visitors have spotted the mangled ghosts of dead miners wandering the nearby hills or have overheard the desperate, disembodied cries of the dying burros. This is a quintessential Old West legend, but I doubt it ever happened. The only reference I could find about this cave-in came from the long-neglected Vulture City Pioneer Cemetery website and read:
In 1923, some "Personal Miners" (as they were referred to, paid the Mine Company to extract ore) 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.
My research of local newspapers from 1923 found no mention of this disaster. This is suspicious because mines were the basis of the local economy and were regularly and thoroughly covered in by the papers. Certainly a large scale collapse resulting in numerous deaths would have been a front page story, right?
The time frame also doesn't work here. According to the Arizona Geological Survey, the Vulture Mine ceased production in 1942. If the disastrous collapse happened in 1923, rendering the site unusable, why did it continue to produce gold and silver for another two decades? In fact, in the book Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps by Philip Varney, I found a more mundane explanation for the mine's closing:
"In fact, it wasn't until 1942, when President Roosevelt's Executive Order 208 banned the mining of non-strategic material during World War II that production ceased." [p. 26]
So no, there probably aren't the spirits of crushed miners wandering the desert hills around the Vulture mine — but who really cares? It's all part of the experience.
Visiting Vulture City Today
Before touring in 2009, Myles and I were asked to sign a liability waiver (the place is 150 years old and not maintained after all), given a crudely-drawn laminated map and sent on our way. We were the only people there and were allowed to wander through the various buildings. The loop through the major part of the town was only a mile long, but there was so much to see that we ended up staying over three hours. Some of the buildings were partially collapsed, others virtually intact. The two-story assayers office was of particular interest to us, and we even tempted fate by climbing the sagging stairs to the now mostly caved-in second floor. Myles also went on a brief subterranean expedition into the massive floor safe on the ground level. Almost all of the buildings had period furnishings and — as the caretaker with the six-shooter warned us — plenty of rattlesnakes.
To the southwest of the assayer's office was the mine and a collection of large buildings including a machine shop and powerhouse. The mine shaft was covered with chain-link panels to keep anyone from going inside, but I still felt a touch of vertigo looking down into its dark maw. Working in such a remote place so deep in the ground certainly took a special kind of man.
On the far side of the small visitors center and gift shop were the remains of Vulture City itself. Located here were the residential areas, a church and a school. I found this area almost as interesting as the mine, particularly when the desert wind kicked up and caused the old schoolyard swings to creak.
Bu 2009, the desert had already reclaimed much of Vulture City. Palo verde and mesquite trees had consumed the disturbingly steep children's slide and the nearby outhouses. Wooden structures and adobe walls had collapsed and their remnants were often indistinguishable among the dark greens and browns of the desert floor. But all of this gave me more of a sense of place and time than any other ghost town I have ever visited.
If you happen to find yourself near Wickenburg, Arizona, I suggest you make the detour to see this lost city and its mine. Listen to the crazy stories the caretakers tell you and enjoy them even if you take them with a grain of salt. Trust me, Vulture City is a place where you should let your imagination run wild!
Vulture City is located at is located at 36610 N. 355th Avenue, Wickenburg, Arizona. Tour information is available at vultureminetours.com.
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