Tuesday, April 11, 2000

From Gold to Conservation

April 11, 2000 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Several years ago I was riding in the Horse Camp Ridge area when I came upon an interesting trail. The trail had been carved out of solid stone by animals carrying heavy loads and there were places [where] the hooves of the beast[s] of burden had worn deep into the volcanic tufa. The prospect that this trail may have been made by a pack train of mules carrying Mexican gold back to Mexico certainly excited my imagination. The thought was mind provoking even though it probably wasn’t true.

Then reality set in and the situation appeared a little different. If mules had made this trail then there should be a large camp back in one of these canyons around Music or Hermann Mountain.

I followed the trail westward toward Music Mountain. I recalled a man named Michael Bilfry in the 1980s who claimed he had discovered gold in the area, but was never able to produce enough evidence to convince the forest rangers to allow him to develop a mine. I soon found out it wasn’t Bilfry who made this trail.

The trail predated any activity in these mountains during the past century. It was easy to convince myself of this when I looked at what appeared to be an ancient Spanish drag stone (a stone used to crush gold ore) in the bottom of a deep draw.

At first I thought I had found a drag stone from the Peralta Mines that Barry Storm wrote about in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. When I examined the drag stone carefully I concluded it was used for something else. It appeared to have served as a weight to keep the fence from washing away. Cattlemen often used large rocks tied to the bottom of a fence to keep it from washing away during a flash flood. It soon dawned on me that a cowboy had found the stone somewhere else and dragged it to the site of the fence. The drag stone was quite heavy and probably wasn’t dragged very far by any cowboy on horseback. It was also possible a cowboy used some hand steel to drill a hole in the rock so he could anchor it to the fence with an eyebolt.

Now the mystery really deepened for me. It was either Sims Ely or Jim Bark who had talked about such a drag stone on Peter’s Mesa. Walt Gassler had mentioned one also. I wanted to believe this was a drag stone used as part of an old Spanish arrastra to crush gold ore and I searched the entire area hoping to discover the drag stone’s origin. 

I did not find the mill trace where the stone may have come from. This further eliminated the idea there was a mine in the immediate area. The entire area appeared non-conducive to gold bearing rock or ore.

I rode on eastward until I reached Tortilla Creek, but the area around the old Miller Mine produced no better clues. As I searched the area closer I wondered if an old cowboy had hauled the stone up from the Salt River. I thought that was highly unlikely. The actual stone appeared to be some type of very hard gray basalt common to the immediate area. The Barkleys had an old drag stone around their ranch for many years.

Nancy and Kenneth McCullough gave a drag stone to the Superstition Mountain Historical Society several years ago. I don’t believe this stone and the one used on the fence line were one in the same.

[Part II – April 18, 2000]

The mystery of this old drag stone will continue to fascinate people and cause them to speculate about things that occurred in these mountains more than a century ago. 

I have found many clues that are indicative of mining in the wilderness, but very few clues pointing to smelting and refining operations. This would lead one to believe if there were any rich mines in the area the ore was concentrated then transported to another location to be processed. This mountain mystery will be passed on to others and they can try to resolve it. This is the nature of things when it comes to the Superstition Mountains and stories of lost mines.

During the past fifty years, I have never found anything within the Superstition Wilderness Area that would convince me a mine of substantial worth ever existed here. I will admit there are many examples of prospects and some very extensive prospects within the wilderness. But, the truth is none of these prospects turned a profit or produced profitable ore.

My father spent three decades wandering the Superstition Wilderness and, while Dad enjoyed the beauty and solitude of the region, he was never convinced anything of monetary value existed in the region. His friend Bill Cage told him many wonderful stories about the old days involving those who believed the Superstition[s] were filled with mineral wealth.

There have been plenty of scams perpetrated by unscrupulous promoters over the years that have separated many unfortunate people from their money. You might say this is “The Land of the Dutchman’s Lost Mine.”

I have found the real treasure of the Superstition Wilderness Area. The treasure falls into three categories: 1) the beauty of the area, 2) the history of the area, and 3) the enormous archaeological resources that lie hidden within the wilderness.

We all might remember the wilderness was set aside to preserve the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert for future generations of Americans to enjoy. This goal has led to the preservation of many other valuable resources associated with this 159,780 acre wilderness.

We all owe a tremendous debt to men like Pinchot, Muier, and Leopold for being activists about the conservation of public lands in the 1920s and 1930s. Everyone may not be in agreement, but someday our nation’s greatest resources will be the public lands we have preserved in their natural state. The Superstition Wilderness may not have survived if it had not been for the legacy of the “old Dutchman” and his lost gold mine. All this legend-focused efforts toward preserving the Superstition Mountain area by both private and governmental groups.

Today, when I ride through Garden Valley and down into Second Water Canyon and on to La Barge Canyon, I’m thankful we call it the Superstition Wilderness Area and it remains today much like it did two or three hundred years ago, undisturbed by rooftops and commercial development.

There is no price tag on solitude, beauty, wildlife and nature.