Tuesday, June 22, 1999

The Black Nuggets of the Pinals

June 22, 1999 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

In the [annals] of the American Southwest, few lost mines or treasures have been rediscovered. Actually, very few of the stories of lost mines and treasures are based on fact. Most are based on fiction or are just outright lies.

This is not the case with the fabulous Silver King Mine north of Superior, Arizona. The “Black Nuggets of the Pinal Mountains” is a true story from beginning to end about a lost mine actually being found in the wilds of Arizona Territory in 1875.

This story may have fired the imagination of early pioneers, who continued to tell stories about lost mines. The story of the Silver King is a true story of a lost mine rediscovered.

Silver was first discovered in the Globe area prior to the great American Civil War. The approaching war, the hostile Apache and the extreme cost of transportation discouraged the development of the ore bodies in the area until 1873. The close of the Civil War and the suppression of the Apache led to the development of the mining industry in Arizona Territory. At first the development was slow, but then it boomed. At the onset, only the extremely rich mines offered any opportunity for profit because of the cost of transportation.

As men and equipment made their way into the Globe area, other prospecting ventures were started in other parts of the region. Eventually, the development of a transportation link between Globe and Florence led to the discovery of the Silver King.

The construction on a wagon road between Camp Pinal and Globe began in 1873. It was during this period that work began on a particularly difficult section known as the Stoneman Grade. The grade was located near the foothills of the Pinal Mountains directly east of the present site of the Silver King. The work crew, a group of soldiers, took a lunch break. A soldier named Sullivan was wandering around and noticed an outcrop of black rock. He broke off a piece of what appeared to be rock but it turned out to be somewhat metallic. Finding this unusual sample of rock to be metallic and heavy he put it in his pocket to keep.

Sullivan showed these heavy metallic rocks to a rancher named Charles Mason, who lived along the Salt River west of Superstition Mountain. Mason told Sullivan his black rocks were rich specimens of native silver and silver sulfide.

Mason tried hard to convince Sullivan to let him grubstake him for a percentage of the mine. Sullivan kept the secret of the “black nuggets” to himself, planning to return someday and [stake] a claim on his discovery. He returned to the area a year later after being mustered out of the army. Sullivan searched the area of his discovery, but couldn’t locate the source of his silver.

Shortly thereafter Sullivan gave up his search and moved on to California in hopes of finding a gold mine. But, the rich silver ore intrigued Charles Mason, and he soon planned his own expedition to rediscover the “black nuggets” of the Pinal Mountains.

[Part II – June 29, 1999]

Mason reasoned that Pvt. Sullivan must have found his silver nuggets somewhere along the route of the wagon road constructed by General Stoneman. This was the area where he concentrated his search. 

On March 20, 1875, while searching a canyon near the foot of the Pinal Mountains, Mason and his party were attacked by hostile Apaches. After the battle, Mason’s men searched the surrounding area for their horses and pack mules. One of Mason’s pack mules was standing on a knoll. The animal was still nervous because of the gunfire. Mason’s men spread out and approached the animal from four different directions. As they approached, they discovered the source of Sullivan’s “black nuggets” at their feet.

There on the ground, a short distance from the abandoned wagon road, was the richest outcrop of silver ore any of the party had ever seen. Sullivan’s “black nuggets” had been found.

Sullivan immediately returned to Florence and filed the Silver King claims on March 21, 1875. The Silver King proved to be a rich vertical chimney. The mine operated continuously day and night from 1876 to 1887. There was a large town at the mine site and another town, Pinal, grew up at the mill site on Queen Creek. The greatest obstacle for the Silver King planners was transportation of supplies and ore. As the price of silver fluctuated on the market, the Silver King had its ups and downs.

By 1895, and at the depth of 1,100 feet, the mine finally played out. But this was not the end of mining in the Pioneer District. A short distance from the Silver King, the Silver Queen was developed, first for silver then for copper in 1895.

The development of the Silver Queen Mine led to the founding of Hastings at the base of Apache Leap in 1882. Shortly thereafter it was suggested that the town be named Sieboth, after the mining superintendent. But, the United States Post Office [chose] to name the town after the superintendent’s company, the Lake Superior Mining Company.

Today, little remains of old Silver King. There are the foundations of some old stone buildings, underground workings, a cemetery, and old dumps to remind us of the glorious past of the Silver King. Occasionally men have tried to reopen the old mine.

A woman named Grace Middleton lived at the old mine site for many years guarding over the relics of the past. Her husband had worked at the old Silver King Mine. I visited with her on several occasions in the early 1960s. The superintendent’s office was still standing as late as 1980, but was destroyed by fire several years ago. I photographed the old building in 1975.

Even though Private Sullivan was insignificant in the history of the Silver King Mine he did plant the seed in the minds of some men that, sometimes, stories of lost mines turn out to be real.