Tuesday, April 28, 1998

The Secret of Bluff Springs

April 28, 1998 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Deep in the Superstition Wilderness Area is located an important source of water for the early cattlemen of the region. This site is known today as Bluff Springs.

According to old timers, this was one of the best permanent water sources in the region.

When I was first employed by the Barkley Cattle Company, I accompanied Bill Barkley to Bluff Springs. At that time Barkley had a tin line shack located a short distance east of the springs. The line shack was used to store feed and supplies, and the tin from which the cabin was constructed was hauled from Charlebois Spring by Jimmy Ruiz, according to Barkley.

During the late 1950s, I spent a considerable amount of time around the old cabin at Bluff Springs, using the cabin as a base camp when I worked on the corral and other water sources in the area. I rarely stayed in the line shack because it was usually infested with spiders, scorpions or snakes and sometimes a combination of all three.

The line shack had a water bucket and a dipper to drink out of. That bucket and Bluff Springs were a fine combination and amenity during the hot dry summers I often spent in and around that cabin.

Early one spring day, an old timer named Jack Riddle showed up at the Quarter Circle U Ranch. He was a friend of Gus Barkley, Bill’s father. We started talking about Sims Ely and Jim Bark, and he told me about a cave that was located on Bluff Springs Mountain that could have served as a Mexican or Spanish smelter.

The old man was so sincere I decided to look for the cave. He told me it was located on the side of the mountain just south of Hog Cave. I wasn’t even sure where Hog Cave was located. I had heard Barkley talk about Hog Cave, but I was too embarrassed to ask Riddle for the location.

I looked for what Riddle referred to as Hog Cave off and on for several weeks. I found a large cave south of Bluff Springs cabin that had a herd of javelinas living in it. I decided it was Hog Cave and made my search for the old smelter from that location. I knew Bill Barkley had a distinct displeasure for Dutch hunters and didn’t want them on his property. This wasn’t the case for old Gus Barkley, his father.

I might add at this point the cave actually did exist. The question as to whether or not it was a smelter remains unresolved to this day. Let me describe the cave and you make your own decision.

The cave is about twenty-five feet in depth. There was a hearth at the extreme rear of the cave, and the heart was designed so that air could be pumped into a bowl filled with charcoal. Immediately above the hearth was a vertical vent or flume which allowed for the exhaust of smoke. It could also function to allow the escape of vaporized gases from smelting.

Was the cave ever used for smelting? My guess is no. There was no sign of smelting in this cave other than the physical appearance of the hearth itself. Could this hearth be the real thing?

I built a fire in the hearth and all the smoke escaped up the flume or vent. A roaring fire created no smoke in the cave. Another interesting thing was the fire. As it burned, it created a draft through the cave. This would suggest the hearth functioned perfectly.

I was convinced at the time that I had found an old smelter of some kind until I was told that Native Americans who used caves like this could have pounded out the hearth for cooking and heating when they lived in the area. This theory is also a reasonable possibility.

The exact purpose of the cave’s stone hearth and flume remains a secret of the Bluff Springs area on the east side of Bluff Springs Mountain.