The lead photo in this article (Figure 1) shows a sign that most of you have probably never seen. In the decades that I’ve been hiking around mines in this state, this is the first and only barricade with a State Mine Inspector warning sign that I’ve ever encountered – and I have been to hundreds of mines that are every bit as dangerous as the shaft behind this barricade. The fine print on the sign states that “Entry into these workings is criminal trespass.” Hopefully, the rest of the sign speaks for itself.
Figure 1: Warning!
Interestingly, this is not an easy mine to get to. You can’t accidentally drive an ATV into this shaft. In fact, you can’t get within a hundred yards of it with a vehicle of any type. It is, nevertheless, a particularly dangerous ‘incline’ shaft that is entirely smooth. It has no timbers, ore car tracks or other means of leveraging oneself into or out of for anyone foolish enough to attempt it. In other words, it is a potentially fatal “slippery slope” and it is entirely appropriate that the barricade and signs were placed around it.
It should come as no surprise that many outdoor enthusiasts in the Wickenburg area – both permanent residents and winter visitors alike – are drawn to old mines that dot the landscape in our vicinity. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many seasonal and weekend visitors come to our area. The motivations for this type of recreational pursuit are probably as varied as the people who seek them. Whether it is a casual or serious interest in history, an opportunity to hike through an interesting area, or even the lure of danger, old mine shafts or tunnels attract many people. In any case, they seem to serve as “magnets” for the curious and the careless. Thankfully, most people come away safely from a mine encounter and with memorable photos of an enjoyable outing.
I have written a number of articles about mining history and the recent tragic fatality near Chloride has given me a few reasons to reflect on the consequences that can result from lack of awareness or poor judgment. For those not familiar with the Chloride event, a 13 year old girl and her 10 year old sister fell into a 125 foot deep mine shaft while riding cross-country on an ATV over Labor Day weekend. The older sister died from the fall and the younger girl was critically injured. In January of this year a man was killed when he fell into a 300 foot deep shaft near Globe.
There are several factors which I believe should bear upon public policy regarding safety at abandoned mines:
- The rapid and seemingly unabated growth in Arizona’s population; comprised mostly of people that have no experience with mines
- The rate at which metropolitan areas are expanding toward historic mining territories such as Wickenburg
- The increased accessibility to remote areas brought about by the availability of off-road (OHV/ATC) vehicles
- The ability to transmit the GPS coordinates of a dangerous mine with the click of the “send” key via the Internet
In other words, the concept of “remoteness” no longer applies or it is at least becoming a meaningless term with respect to dangerous mine tunnels and shafts. Stated in a different way, the knowledge of and accessibility to abandoned mines has exceeded the capacity of state and federal agencies to cope with public safety issues.
State and Federal Involvement
Mr. Joe Hart of the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s office (ASMI) recently stated there may be more than one hundred thousand abandoned tunnels and shafts in Arizona. This is only an estimate based upon the recording of more than one million mining claims since 1872 (See Reference 1). Beginning in the 1990′s the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began inventorying abandoned mines located on BLM-administered land, projecting approximately twenty-seven thousand abandoned mines features on these lands. However, this study concentrated on population centers and “high use” recreational areas in the state. The BLM report titled “Abandoned Mine Land Work Program – FY 2007 – FY 2013″ contains a particularly revealing statement:
“Arizona currently has an inventory of 1,953 known abandoned hard rock mines on BLM-administered public lands. This inventory includes 38 mines that may impact water resources, and 961 sites that likely pose significant physical safety hazards. Arizona’s inventory covers the entire state; however, it currently is a patchwork from data from the U.S. Bureau of Mines MILS system (least accurate), data collected for the Arizona BLM via an assistance agreement with the Office of the Arizona State Mine Inspector (1992 – 1998, moderate accuracy), and from our own field data (most accurate). Only about 20% of BLM administered public lands in Arizona have been covered with moderate accuracy (or better) surveys.”
Regardless of these estimates, the obvious disparity in the numbers and the scope of the effort, it is safe to say that no one has an authoritative handle on the actual number of abandoned mines in Arizona. Neither the BLM nor the ASMI have, nor have they ever had, the budgetary means to identify where the most dangerous of Arizona’s abandoned mines are located, much less the resources to secure them (See Reference 2).
I do not write this article to criticize the ASMI, the BLM or their understaffed agencies. When it comes to public safety, they are tasked with an impossible job and have chronically inadequate budgets. Sadly, it takes a tragedy to focus public attention on an accident that is always waiting to happen. Only the times, places and victims are ever uncertain.
It is not my objective to press for the sealing of every abandoned mine shaft and tunnel in Arizona. I believe that a more effective solution is to identify the shafts and tunnels that are particularly dangerous and barricade, but not seal, these mines. One of the current popular proposals is to seal all abandoned mines by filling them with rock and dirt and even “plugging” them with cement. That is an interesting proposition but it is naïve in the context of a practical time scale. In any case it is prohibitively expensive, as you will see.
Where are the abandoned mines?
If you were to draw a circle that reaches thirty miles from the center of Wickenburg you will have defined an area containing hundreds of abandoned mine workings on BLM land, the Prescott National Forest, State Trust land and private deeded land that began as patented mining claims. In some cases the patented claims continue as “non-producing” mines with no active plans by owners to reopen them. In other cases the primary land use has shifted to ranching or investment.
Consulting modern U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps is not an effective way of determining the location of abandoned mines. Many of the old mines were opened and then closed between the earliest USGS publication date of 1885 and the most recent map editions in our area. Furthermore, mines that might have been identified on one map edition may have been removed in subsequent publications for safety reasons.
The ASMI’s web site contains a modest sense of where, but not how many, mines have been identified; but this still doesn’t come close to a real census of abandoned mines. In any case, the web site does not provide coordinate locations to help you locate (or avoid) these mines.
Historic mining district maps can provide reasonably accurate locations of some abandoned mines, but these old maps do not ordinarily identify the many prospects that failed to turn into viable operating mines.
Finally, the BLM and other federal web sites provide information about mining claims (current and historic) if you are willing to conduct the research. You can perform plat searches on the BLM site. Another highly useful research tool is www.geocommunicator.gov, (See Reference 3).
Figure 2: Protected Mine Shaft on Private Property
Private versus Public Lands
There are a significant number of mines located on private land in the vicinity of Wickenburg. In many instances the current or previous property owner has installed sturdy fencing around the shafts on their property in compliance with Arizona Revised Statute §27-318. See Figure 2. For the most part, I believe that most property owners are aware of these old mines and have taken appropriate measures to secure shafts and tunnels that they consider dangerous. I suspect, however, that each land-owner’s definition of the term “dangerous” is a subjective determination that may be driven in part by the ease of public accessibility – or lack thereof. For example, if a mine is located on private property, is more than a mile beyond a locked gate, can only be reached by hiking into the area and does not appear on any map, it is reasonable to conclude that it does not pose a high public risk, even though the mine may be inherently dangerous.
Unless people research their outing in advance, most will have no idea whether they will be entering public or private land. Fence lines may indicate nothing more than the separation of grazing leases on public land and there are relatively few posted “private property” signs. I encourage you to take the effort to know where you are going beforehand. Otherwise, you may find yourself face to face with a rancher or property owner who doesn’t feel comfortable with your presence near an abandoned mine on their property. You might also want to consider that the Arizona statute regarding barricading of mines on private land pertains only to individuals who are legally on the premises.
Abandoned mines are the least documented and inventoried on state and federal lands. I believe this is the result of staffing limitations and vastness of the rugged terrain. Whether you accept the upper estimate of one hundred thousand mines provided by ASMI or the incomplete estimate of twenty-seven thousand provided by BLM, it is certain that the majority of these mines do not appear on maps. The popularity of all-terrain vehicles and GPS units makes many of these sites accessible in ways that were probably never envisioned by state and federal safety planners.
What is a “Dangerous” Mine?
To begin, let’s agree that there is no such thing as a “safe” abandoned mine. And, when you consider that much of the pioneer mining history in Arizona and the West was dominated by the philosophy that “miners were cheaper than lumber,” there is ample reason to stay out of these sites. So let’s not debate semantics.
The ASMI uses a set of sixteen “ranking parameters” to determine whether an abandoned mine constitutes a significant public hazard. Neither these criteria, the methodology for ranking them, nor the location of the 1,200-plus mines thus far classified as “high risk” are published on their web site. This represents about thirteen percent of the roughly ten thousand mines inventoried and mapped since 1992, with only ninety thousand to go. I requested and received a list of the ranking parameters from the ASMI and have included them in the Footnotes section at the end of the article. Thanks to Ms. Laurie Swartzbaugh at ASMI for her speedy reply. My risk assessment for each of the mine entrances shown in the photos in this article follows the list.
I have seen many undocumented prospect shafts that range from a few feet in depth to more than two hundred feet. These typically have no adjacent structures to help identify them as a mine. In some instances, there is brush growing near the edge of the shaft which masks unsuspected danger. In many cases, depending on your direction of approach to the site, these shafts may have no obvious identifiable demarcation such as a tailing pile. Simply stated, they are just a “hole in the ground.” Such was the case in the fatal accident near Chloride.
Figure 3, Hole in the Ground
Figure 3 provides an example of just how “invisible” an open shaft can be to an unsuspecting person. The shaft is in the lower right corner, hidden by brush. It doesn’t really matter whether the hole is 12 feet or 125 feet deep if you break your neck in the fall.
Second, there are quite a number of unprotected shafts that have loose tailings leading down toward the entrance, resembling a crater. I would characterize these sites as “yawning invitations to death.” Getting anywhere near the edge is an act of profound carelessness.
Figure 4, Yawning Death
This open shaft in Figure 4 is located on private property, but is highly accessible to off-road traffic. Fortunately, the land owners have had a barricade around the shaft for many years. There are many other shafts similar to this located on public lands.
Figure 5, Unprotected Open Shaft
Figure 5 illustrates another open “crater” shaft that is approximately thirty feet in diameter. You can easily see that decades of erosion have degraded the approach. This is an unpatented mine that I believe is on public, rather than private land.
Third, there are many mine tunnels which contain interior vertical shafts (known as a winze) that may descend hundreds of feet. Some of these tunnels have doors that serve as a barricade in front of the winze, while others are just a gaping hole in the dark. In the worst cases, the miner may have covered the winze with wood planking that is now rotten and covered with dirt or rocks, rendering it undetectable and lethal if someone steps on it.
Figure 6, Shaft inside a Tunnel
Figure 6 is an example of a tunnel with a winze leading to lower levels in the mine. You can see a wood plank that crosses the shaft near the center of the photo. Although the plank might appear to be solid, decades of dry rot could make this piece no stronger than balsa wood. Notice also the debris in the foreground. This tunnel has been sloughing rock from above and is inherently unsafe.
In case you think a timbered mine tunnel is in some way “more safe,” take a look at the tunnel in Figure 7. Aside from the obvious cave-in near the entrance, the interior timbers have been displaced and no longer provide support to the tunnel roof. The timbers are dry, but that does not mean they still have the strength to prevent further collapse. This particular tunnel also has a winze that descends approximately three hundred feet.
Figure 7, Tunnel with Timbers
Vandalism of barricaded mine entrances is a concern to both state officials and private property owners. Figure 8 shows the barricaded entrance to an incline shaft that has been vandalized. This barricade stood for nearly thirty-five years, but “thrill-seekers” decided to demolish it so they could rappel into the shaft.
Figure 8, Vandalized Barricade
This mine is located on private property, but is highly accessible to traffic. The shaft is more than eleven-hundred feet deep and is flooded. Expert-level search and rescue personnel will tell you this is dangerous business. Aside from a fundamental violation of safety principals, the reckless actions of these vandals have destroyed the efforts of private property owners to protect a dangerous shaft. No one has a legitimate reason to enter this mine.
By the way, if you believe that the notion of rattlesnakes in tunnels is the western version of an urban legend, you are entirely wrong. Not only are you likely to encounter snakes, you are just as likely to find javelina or other wildlife using these tunnels as a den.
The type of shafts and tunnels I have described are in the most urgent need of remediation. So, why would I advocate a seemingly “conservative” approach to public safety – that is, not sealing all abandoned mines?
Unfortunately, the answers are tied to economics and time. According to ASMI, it costs approximately $200 to place a sturdy fence around a shaft or in front of a tunnel. I assume this only represents the cost of materials and excludes the salaries of department resources. By contrast, it could cost up to 100 times this amount to fill in or “plug” a shaft or tunnel. The deeper the shaft is, the higher the cost would be. That potentially works out to $2 billion in current dollars for one hundred throusand abandoned mines and would probably take many decades to accomplish.
Referring again to the BLM strategic plan, there are 150 high-risk mine openings that are targeted for remediation from 2007 through 2013 at an estimated cost of $1.7 million. Individual costs range from as low as $4,000 to as high as $66,000 each. An interesting (but probably unfair) math exercise suggests that it would take more than 4,760 years to fully remediate all abandoned mines at the proposed rate of twenty-one per year.
True, filling in a shaft is a “permanent” solution; but who wants to wait that long when a simple barricade will serve as effective protection? In the meantime, some of these sites will become increasingly unstable due to wet or dry rot of the mine timbers, erosion and geologic factors. More importantly, increased population and accessibility will place ever more mines in the category of “significant public hazards.”
A Solution of Sorts
Frankly, if you engage in any significant off-road activities in the area around Wickenburg, you are eventually going to encounter an old mine. The real questions are: “What are your intentions?” and “How can you guarantee the safety of yourself and those in your group?” If the answer to the first question entails unsound judgment, you may as well forget the second question. In my view, it primarily comes down to an issue of personal judgment and accountability. Nevertheless, there are a number of things that state and federal agencies can and should do to protect unwary and incautious citizens and visitors.
Rather than engage in an effort to seal off every abandoned shaft and tunnel in the state, I suggest the following course of action be taken:
Identify and fence off the most dangerous mines on state and federal land by using a more comprehensive set of ranking parameters than are presently defined by ASMI. But, in general, if you have “high” danger, accessibility and use, then the abandoned mine should be a top priority candidate for placing a barricade.
- The first focus should be on prospect shafts that cannot be easily detected by unwary individuals. In other words, the “hole-in-the-ground” shafts depicted in Figure 3. These shafts represent the highest risk to operators of off-road vehicles. Thus, a “hole in the ground” that also possesses high accessibility in a high use area would justify the quickest remediation effort.
- The second priority should be to barricade any shaft that has the characteristics of a “crater,” as depicted in Figures 4 and 5. Although they are much more obvious, they represent a real danger to people who don’t understand the risk of walking near the edge of unstable mine tailings.
- Third, place high barricades (6 feet high or more) around other high risk abandoned shafts – whether vertical or inclined. The perimeter of these barricades should extend several feet beyond the dimensions of the shaft entrance because the edges of the shafts may be unstable.
- Fourth, barricade any tunnel that contains a winze and/or old mine timbers.
- Finally, develop a program to assist property owners to more effectively classify and remediate unprotected abandoned mine entrances located on their property.
The key to long term safety is to continually review “high risk” mines since accessibility and use factors will add “new” abandoned sites to the list for years to come as Arizona’s population expands into remote areas. Of course, none of this is ever likely to happen without adequate staffing and budgetary support.
The ASMI was kind enough to provide a statement on their budgetary and staffing objectives that extend into fiscal year 2009. For the present, the ASMI lacks the resources to address or expand the Ranking Parameters that are currently used for assessing hazards. Your thoughtful comments and suggestions are welcomed and I encourage you to contact them at their web site.
Looking forward to the next year, ASMI plans to develop more comprehensive methods of assessing risks associated with tunnels and adits; however, even these modest goals are contingent upon funding. ASMI hopes to add three employees next year to deal with the issues of abandoned mines. Mind you, this is three people to deal with potentially one hundred thousand abandoned mines that are spread over roughly 73 million acres of Arizona back-country. It is difficult to think of a more daunting task.
I also sought feedback from the Bureau of Land Management before publishing this article. Several BLM officials reviewed the material and concurred with the statistics and examples of hazardous mines described in this article.
In the final analysis, this article isn’t just about public policy regarding abandoned mines. It is really about your personal safety. The probability is that the state legislature will never adequately fund ASMI with the personnel and financial resources to address this problem in your lifetime. Nor is the BLM ever likely to receive the funding it requires to deal with abandoned mines on lands they administer. The overriding reality is that outdoor enthusiasts need to be aware of the inherent dangers and conduct their activities in a safe and responsible way. A great way to start that process is to read the excellent safety tips on the ASMI web site. You will almost certainly leave this site armed with knowledge about mine hazards that you had never previously considered.
Please don’t think that I am opposed to the existence of old mines in Arizona. In my view, the rich history of Arizona mining deserves protection. But so do people who may not know that serious injury or death is a mere fifty feet in front of them. I have enjoyed visiting and researching Arizona’s old mines for a long time and have contributed a number of articles about mining history to this web site. I remain convinced that you can gain an authentic sense of the rich mining history in Arizona without endangering your life, the safety of others, and without erasing these sites forever.
As the photo at the beginning of this article states: “Stay Out! Stay Alive!” Please be safe as you explore the history and terrain around Wickenburg.
1. www.asmi.state.az.us: The official web site for the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office. This site contains excellent safety tips and illustrates how mine entrances can be barricaded.
2. www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/mining/aml.html: The Arizona web page for the Bureau of Land Management. See also their link to the Abandoned Mine Land Work Program – FY 2007 – FY 2013.
3. www.geocommunicator.gov: GeoCommunicator is the publication site for the Bureau of Land Management’s National Integrated Land System (NILS).
1. Each of the photos used in this article was taken within a 15 mile radius of Wickenburg.
2. The Arizona State Mine Inspector’s office provided the following ranking parameters for classifying an abandoned mine as a hazard:
ASMI Ranking Parameters for Hazardous Abandoned Mines
|RANKINGS||0 – NONE||1 – LOW||2 – MEDIUM||3 – HIGH||SCORE|
|Type Opening||Prospect||Adit or Tunnel||Decline/Slope||Shaft|
|Size Opening||< 4′||4′–6′||> 6′|
|Depth Openings||<10′||10′–20′||> 20′|
|# Opening In Area||1–2||3–4||> 4|
|Ground Stability||Good or Solid||Fair||Poor or Unstable|
|Waste Present||< 100 Yds3||100–500 Yds3||> 500 Yds3|
|Accessibility||4WD/Hike||Dirt Road/Trail||Easy Access|
|Populated Area||> 3 Miles Away||1–3 Miles||< 1 Mile|
|Visibility||Difficult To See||See If Search||Obvious|
|Structures||Small or Remote||Moderate||Large or Unsafe|
|Rescue Difficulty||10′-20′ Entry||> 20′ Entry||Experts or Equipment|
|Public Attractiveness||Not Attractive||Mod. Attractive||Very Attractive|
|Water Present||Slight or Periodic||Deep Water||Flood or Discharge|
|Wildlife Use||Possible Use||Occasional||Habitat|
|Recreational Use In Area||Slight or Remote||Occasional||Extensive Use|
Using the criteria provided by ASMI, I have taken the liberty of ranking the risk for each of the mine entrances shown in the eight photos accompanying this article. Admittedly, I have used my own judgment and knowledge about these mines. My views might not concur with those of the ASMI or BLM. Each of these mines is potentially fatal if you have an accident, yet the hazardous ranking scores vary significantly.
Figure 1: Receives a score of 32 out of a possible 48. Anyone who falls into this shaft will probably suffer fatal injuries.
Figure 2: Receives a score of 34. This is a deep vertical shaft that is protected with a sturdy barricade. Falling into it would be fatal.
Figure 3: Receives a score of 16. It is precisely this type of prospect shaft that was involved in the death of the young girl near Chloride. The only substantive difference between the Chloride mine and the shaft in this photo is the depth. Yet, this type of shaft received the lowest score on the list!
Figure 4: Receives a score of 40 because it is classified as a “crater” shaft. It is protected with a sturdy fence, but, it is several hundred feet deep and a fall would be fatal.
Figure 5: Receives a score of 39. Again, this is a “crater” shaft but it has no barricade. The area around this shaft is more unstable than that shown in Figure 4. The shaft is at least two hundred feet deep and is flooded, as are other shafts in the vicinity. If the fall doesn’t kill you, you will probably drown.
Figure 6: Receives a score of 23. The ranking parameters ignore that this tunnel contains a winze, which is partially covered with dry-rotted wood, or that the tunnel is sloughing rock from above. The tunnel is also a habitat for rattlesnakes.
Figure 7: Receives a score of 34. There are two tunnels and a shaft in the immediate vicinity plus several additional tunnels and shafts within a few hundred yards, several of which are used as wildlife habitats. The ranking criteria do not recognize caved-in entrances or displaced mine timbers. The winze inside this tunnel drops approximately three hundred feet.
Figure 8: Receives a score of 37. This shaft is estimated to be more than eleven-hundred feet deep and is believed to contain more than 18,000 feet of tunnels, drifts and adits. The incline has ore car tracks that may inspire some people to believe the mine is safe, but the shaft and lower workings have been flooded for several decades.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
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