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Arizona's Mining Legacy

Updated on December 18, 2014


From centuries past, through success and failure, our great state has witnessed a rich history in mining.

And…it is believed the name Arizona actually comes from an ancient mine discovered by native Americans eons ago. So many stories related to the history of Arizona have their basis in mining. Understanding the history of Arizona cannot be separated from the impact that mining has had on our home.

In the early days, mining is what brought growth, prosperity and desperate heartache to the region. This has been the legend of numerous books and Hollywood films glorifying the rough life that is inherent in establishing a new and dangerous undertaking like prospecting for the riches found in mother earth. The hard work and toil suffered by our ancestors is directly related to the strong work ethic we see in the people of today.

In 1540, the great explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition north from Mexico into what is now Arizona looking for the fabled “seven cities of gold.” Coronado found great canyons,rivers, and beautiful vistas throughout his journeys but no cities of gold. Thus ending Spanish interest in the area for many years.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado


By 1821, Mexico had achieved independence from Spain and some efforts were made to continue mining in the northern Sonora and southern Arizona area. This proved difficult and dangerous for Mexican prospectors who had no protection from local tribes fighting for the preservation of their land. Mining and economic development did not resume until the Americans arrived in 1848 following the Mexican-American war.

Serious mining efforts resumed in the Arizona territories following the discovery of gold in California in 1849. These efforts included the use of newer methods and technologies such as “placer” mining. Heavier mineral deposits, which eroded away and settled in streambeds were panned, sluiced and dredged. These methods proved successful until large gold deposits became more difficult to find. In 1873, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act required the federal government to purchase and mint a fixed amount of silver every month. This was incentive enough to power a “boom” in silver for the next twenty years.

The U.S. Governments’ decision to repeal the legislation in 1893 signaled the end of the silver boom. Fortunately, this coincided with one of the most important new discoveries in history. A former employee of Thomas Edison, and under contract with Westinghouse, developed the use of alternating current (ac) electricity. That employee was Nikola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola Tesla


Tesla’s demonstration of alternating current electricity at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago proved far superior to Edison’s direct current system. Alternating current provided for long distance transmission of power and, the fact that copper was an excellent conductor, led to an immediate demand.

This was obviously great news for mining interests in Arizona where copper was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. The demand for copper gave new life to mines that were believed to be “played out” or no longer profitable for gold or silver production but had vast amounts of copper deposits.

With the Nation’s involvement in The Civil War, new discoveries of gold, silver and copper deposits became less frequent. However, there are some interesting and even comical stories of how some mining claims were found. For instance, in 1863, Jack Swilling led a party of prospectors up the Hassayampa River where, after searching for a strayed burro, they found a rich deposit of placer gold on Antelope Hill. The deposit proved so profitable that it was later named Rich Hill. While celebrating their find, one of the miners happily suggested that “any stupid ass” could find gold.

Also in 1863, Henry Wickenburg, attracted by the news of successful claims near the Bradshaw Mountains, was said to have thrown a rock at a vulture only to discover that the shattered rock contained gold ore. Wickenburg placed his claim on that very spot and it was later named The Vulture Mine. Some historians have suggested that this mine was the source of the gold from the Lost Dutchman Legend.

Charles D. Poston, considered to be the Father of Arizona, began the first large-scale mining venture in 1854 when he formed The Sonora Exploring and Mining Company. By 1858, Poston had hundreds of miners working in the Tubac area using the “lode” mining method. This method required much larger amounts of earth or “overburden” to be moved in order to uncover the ore body or “vein.” Once the ore had been mined, it was refined or concentrated into pure metal. This was an expensive process for early miners so only the highest-grade ore was shipped east to be refined. On February 24th 1863, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the creation of the territory of Arizona and the town of Prescott was designated as its capitol.

Pick and Shovel
Pick and Shovel


Following the end of The Civil War, mining exploration resumed throughout the territory. Attempts to search for silver deposits in the southeastern region were extremely dangerous, however, as this was Apache territory. One miner, Ed Schlieffelin, was told that all he would find would be his tombstone. In stubborn defiance, he persisted, and eventually struck it rich. Schlieffelin, mocking his naysayers, decided to name his camp Tombstone. Soon hundreds of miners arrived and Tombstone quickly grew to a population of 4,000 making it the largest town in Arizona.

By the 1890’s the increasing demand for copper led to one of the first corporate partnerships in Arizona copper mining. The Arizona Central claim, near the San Francisco River, established by Henry Clifton, Jim and Bob Metcalf and the Lezinsky brothers became the Morenci mine. Named after a town in Michigan, the Morenci mine became the first mine in Arizona to use a narrow gauge railroad to transport copper ore. Originally named The Detroit Copper Company, the Clifton, Metcalf, Lezinsky group later sold their shares to The Arizona Copper Company.

In 1882, William Church, another miner from the Arizona Central claim, convinced the Phelps-Dodge Mercantile Company to invest 50,000 dollars in his operation. In 1895 William Church sold his interest to Phelps-Dodge, which became principle owner of an operation that has, throughout the years, produced hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

By the beginning of the 20thcentury, improvements in technology had increased the efficiency of mining operations and in 1910, Arizona was leading the country in copper production. By April 1917, Arizona’s first open pit mine, the New Cornelia in Ajo, began production. During the same period an English company, Ray Copper Mines Ltd., began developing their operation north of Tucson. Machinery was updated and steam tractors were used to load the ore onto rail cars. In 1927 the Bagdad Copper Company began operation.

The beginning of the great depression in 1929 slowed copper production statewide but did not end it entirely. Bagdad Copper managed to continue operations throughout the 1930’s and in 1941 received a government loan, which enabled them to add modern equipment. However, underground mining became unprofitable for Bagdad because of the low grade of ore. By 1950, all underground mining at Bagdad had ended and mine managers converted to open pit mining. As a result, the Bagdad mine became a proving ground for much of the mining equipment of the day including large haulage trucks and electric shovels.

Mining Equipment Evolves
Mining Equipment Evolves


These early advances in the scale of mining equipment began the “giant” leap forward (literally) that would be seen in the coming years. The huge size of modern mining machines dwarfs the equipment of only 40 years earlier. Other advances in technology include computerized mining dispatch systems that monitor all mobile equipment locations using global positioning satellites.

Refining methods have been developed that are designed to draw out valuable metals to the last ounce. These advances, along with environmental conservation techniques have combined to create an industry vital to our states economy with relatively minimal impact on the states environment compared to the early years.

By the time Arizona had gained statehood in 1912, mining employed over 18,000 workers or nearly 25 percent of the wage earners in Arizona. Arizona still produces nearly 65 percent of the copper mined in the United States. Copper mining is still one of the big “C’s” in our economy along with cotton, cattle and construction. Although the declining richness and availability of new mineral discoveries has forced changes in equipment and refining techniques, the mining industry continues to be an important contributor to the states economy.

21st Century Giants
21st Century Giants

Much thanks and credit to:

Jimmy Lee

Artist and Father

Ellen Jean

Editor and Mom


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    • profile image

      Dick Zimmermann 

      8 years ago

      Unfortunately, Governor Brewer is spending millions to diminish part of Arizona's mining legacy. She is converting the top rated Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum into another history museum. See Mineral Museum Madness at

    • Sufidreamer profile image


      10 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Looking good, Deanomax - the pictures have broken the text up.

      A great hub about a fascinating period of history.


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