We are surrounded by the rich history of mining and ranching pioneers who settled and developed the area around Wickenburg. Sometimes, the evidence of pioneer activity is very clear; it may appear as a visually prominent feature, such as the tailing pile of a long abandoned mine in the distance. At other times, a curious shadow may reveal the opening of a mine adit at one time of day, or conceal its presence at other times. More often, however, it is very subtle, appearing as a hidden miner’s rock cabin, an old water casement or a dry stack wall or building foundation, seemingly in the middle of “nowhere.” These features may lead to the discovery of long lost or forgotten pieces of the past. I have frequently hiked near features of a pioneer settlement that were obscured by brush and trees, or that were simply above my line of view, without noticing them on the first, or even third, pass through the area. You can miss a link to our history by a mere twenty feet and never know it. This is typical of the challenge of finding and ultimately documenting our pioneering history.
Mining has always been a dangerous business, especially in the early days of settlement in Arizona, dating from the 1860’s. Accidents, illness and even violence caused many deaths in the mining districts. But it should also be understood that there were more than miners in these areas – there were also families that operated cattle and goat ranches, as well as business operators that ran the gamut from saloon keepers to restaurants to mills.
If a prospector’s claim developed into a working mine, it is a safe bet that you will find a cemetery on, or very near to, that mine. Such is the case at the Black Rock Mine where seven cemeteries and a handful of dispersed graves have been identified in the past year – all previously unknown to our current era.
This article focuses on the efforts to document and restore the largest of these seven sites – a double-terraced, hillside cemetery containing forty-three organized graves plus three dispersed burials within fifty yards of the terraces.
A Bit of History
Sam Powell discovered the Black Rock ore vein in 1902 and the mine began operation in 1906. Operations continued until 1941 when the federal government shut down many mines due to the onset of World War II. During its thirty-five years of operation, the Black Rock Mine produced gold, silver and a lesser amount of copper ore. Gold values from the pay streak vein yielded more than $16,000 per ton based upon 2005 prices, so this would have been an exciting time for the mine operators. You can still walk this area and find rocks containing chrysacolla lying on the surface, as well as an abundance of beautiful white and rose quartz. Unfortunately, the scant historical records indicate that the mine was not very well managed from the outset of operation until at least the middle 1930’s.
Other well-known mines had been in operation in the area for two or three decades before the Black Rock came into being, such as Monte Cristo, Keystone, King Solomon, Abe Lincoln, Bloo Nellie and O’Brien mines, to name only a few. Farther east and north, in the Bradshaw and Weaver districts, there were hundreds of mines and prospects.
The Black Rock Mine is located about two-thirds of a mile NNE of the Monte Cristo Mine and is approximately 1.5 miles downstream of the historic settlement of Constellation in upper Slim Jim Creek. Northeast of the Black Rock Mine is the Gold Bar/O’Brien Mine, which began operation in the late 1860’s. This concentration of sites meant that there was regular traffic on the old pack trails and stage coach roads – well before the modern route of Constellation Road was established.
In 1910 the population surrounding Constellation far exceeded that of Wickenburg. There are estimates that as many as fifteen to twenty thousand people may have lived in the mining districts east of town at the height of activity. Although much of the population was itinerant in nature, the area surrounding Constellation endured as a significant economic factor until the 1930’s. For example, Constellation had a Post Office that remained in operation until January 31, 1934. Today, there is nothing more than a few foundations and two piles of broken glass to mark the passing of this historic site (See note 1).
The East Hillside, Below Black Rock Mine
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Black Rock Mine is its abundance of man-made terraced walls on the east and west sides of the hill, southwest of the old ore chute (which still stands). The east side of the hill, which is nearest to Slim Jim Creek, contains several layers of terraced space that provided flat ground for houses and other structures. As you work progressively down the terraces you eventually come to an area that served as a corral. The barrier for the corral was constructed from a combination of metal pipes and Ocotillo plants, which still remain. It doesn’t take much examination to appreciate that this “living wall” would have been very effective in holding horses, mules and perhaps even a few cattle or goats (See Figure 1, Note 2).
Figure 1. Ocotillo Fence
The eastern side of the hill shows ample evidence of habitation in the form of collapsed buildings, metal debris and nails. In fact, The Black Rock Mine is also distinguished by a relative abundance of wood buildings, both on the eastern terraces and a few hundred feet to the north. Abandoned mines were often stripped of usable lumber and carried off to build other structures, sometimes at great distance from their original location. Thus, the survival of so many wood structures at this site is a valuable aid to the historical documentation of the mine (See note 3).
The “dry stack” rock terrace walls are, in some locations, four to five feet in height and are as solid today as they were when originally constructed. Much effort must have been invested in creating this well organized area. In spite of decades of plant growth on these terraces, the east side of the hill is still quite easy to inspect on foot.
The West Hillside
In early 2007 when I began researching the layout of the Black Rock Mine, the western facing side of the hill was completely overgrown with cactus, mesquite, Palo Verde trees and native shrubs. There was a single, long section of old water pipe lying on the northern edge, but, otherwise, the area lacked any of the features that were so prominent on the eastern hillside. Inspection of other ruined structures to the north initially led me to believe (incorrectly) that the pipe was related to a water casement and windmill about 150 yards away, so I paid little attention to this area until mid-year. The only other distinguishing characteristic was that the area near the pipe seemed to be flat – a decidedly “unnatural” feature in this terrain. Repeated trips past this location raised my curiosity and I began to wonder why the west hillside should have large flat areas where there were no building ruins or other evidence of past habitation.
In the May-June period I began a methodical investigation of the area and did some minor pruning of shrubs and tree limbs to improve visibility. These efforts began to expose three important features: low terraced wall structures, old (collapsed) wood fence posts and rails and upright metal pipes that had been placed in rectangular fashion at various locations. Although there was still no evidence of buildings or metal debris, the site clearly suggested that it had served a purpose at this mining settlement. The upright metal pipes were suggestive of several pioneer cemeteries in the vicinity, leading to the suspicion that there might be a large grave area along these terraced flats (See Figure 2).
Figure 2. Metal Pipes
After taking a hiatus from the heat, survey activity resumed in November of 2007. I began to clear dead brush and prune tree branches to open the area for an easier survey. These efforts quickly exposed the presence of an upper, middle and lower terrace wall that measured 98 feet in length (north-south axis) by approximately 40 feet. The removal of low branches revealed eleven upright metal pipes that were closely oriented to sections of the terraces in a fashion that suggested multiple grave plots of varying sizes as well as cemetery boundaries (See Figure 3).
Figure 3. Cemetery Corner on Southern Edge
At this point I began sharing photo documentation with the Arizona Pioneer & Cemetery Research Project (APCRP) and members of the Arizona Site Steward Program, who are charged with monitoring historic and prehistoric sites across the state. When APCRP members joined me at the site in December, we were able to identify a number of grave locations, a few rock headstones (without inscriptions) and the remains of two possible wood grave markers that had either collapsed from age or had been trampled by cattle in past decades. Additional discoveries included the remains of the fence line and wooden top rail on the southern margin of the cemetery, as well as old fence posts on the northern margin (See Figure 4).
Figure 4. Remains of Fence Rail
After clearing a large area of dead cactus, we made a surprising discovery. On the southern edge of the cemetery there was a crudely made concrete structure that had become filled with sediment from the uphill slope. Modest exposure of the edges revealed it to be oval in shape, but there was so much overlying dirt that we could not initially determine its true shape, size or function (See Figure 5).
Figure 5. Oval Structure
We now knew we were dealing with a cemetery that was fairly large. The terraces were purposely built to provide a sizable space for burials; indications were that it was a well-organized area. Our continued efforts at clearing the space further confirmed that no buildings had occupied the west side of the hill – there were no ruins, no nails and virtually no discarded trash. In fact, the primary trash dump area for the Black Rock Mine was located to the west of these terraces (See Note 4).
By early February we had identified forty-four grave sites and were finally ready to restore the cemetery to a semblance of what it would have looked like before the area was abandoned. A crew of seven APCRP members and Arizona Site Stewards trekked to the site to reestablish grave outlines and finish cleaning the landscape. These activities included restoring the fence line on the northern margin of the cemetery (the long section of pipe) and excavation of the concrete oval (See Figure 6).
Figure 6. Lower Cemetery Terrace
Sediment in the oval was removed, revealing a bowl-shaped concrete and metal structure measuring 64 inches by 58 inches, with a maximum depth of 10″ at the center, as if it had been designed as a small pool or birdbath. Its location places it directly in line with a series of graves and appears to overlay two of them. I can only speculate, but it is possible that the builders of the oval structure either had no knowledge of graves at this location, or perhaps had no concern.
Rocks were collected from beyond the perimeter of the cemetery to aid in the construction of grave outlines. During this process we examined additional locations to the west of the cemetery and identified three more graves. At first glance, grave #45 appears to be a flat space enclosed by rocks and boulders around the perimeter (See Figure 7).
Figure 7. Grave #45
When viewed from the south side, however, it becomes evident that considerable effort was invested in constructing this grave. Building the perimeter walls of the grave involved the movement of some very large rocks. The grave site actually juts out above the downhill slope with the boulders serving as a retaining wall.
Grave #46 is even more unusual in that it was constructed in the fashion of a rounded rock wall that completely encloses the grave (See Figure 8).
Figure 8. Grave #46
The final restoration effort of the terraced cemetery area is shown below (See Figure 9). This photo was taken from a hilltop to the northwest and provides a nice overview of the cemetery and restoration. When viewed from this perspective, it is easier to understand the overall layout. As you can see, there is a distinct upper and lower level. It is only when you view the northern (left) margin of the cemetery from this angle that the two terraces appear to merge.
Figure 9. Hillside View, Looking East
Physical Condition and Future Prospects for the West Terraced Cemetery
As evidenced by the photos, the cemetery is generally flat on the north-south axis. Because it is located on a hillside, there is progressive sedimentation from the uphill (east) side that has partially “reclaimed” the landscaped surface over the decades. Fortunately, the terrace walls remain reasonably intact and serve to retard (but not entirely prevent) the movement of soil.
The physical location of the cemetery is indeed fortunate for it is sufficiently far removed from any creek or wash so that flooding and erosion are not an issue. Second, because it was purposely constructed as a cemetery, the use of dry stack walls has prevented damage to individual graves. If there is a problem at all, it would be sedimentation from the uphill slope that is slowly, but inexorably, causing the contour to change shape on the east-west axis (See Note 5).
This is a grazing area for cattle and there are mule deer and javelina that frequent the site. In fact, the persistent smell of javelina musk is a distinct reminder that wildlife – and not humans – are the dominant visitors. Animal activity (including cattle) will eventually displace the newly established rock outlines of graves, as had already occurred between the early 1900’s and the present time. This is a natural and not unexpected occurrence. With periodic maintenance, however, there is no reason why this pioneer cemetery should not last for many more decades.
Why is the Black Rock Cemetery Important?
The Black Rock Mine passed into history no later than 1941. Even so, it is a visually prominent piece of our heritage and attracts many viewers from Constellation Road near the Monte Cristo. More importantly, the Black Rock Mine is a history book – fixed in time – that offers tantalizing glimpses of life in the pioneer Black Rock Mining District.
Most importantly, people lived, worked and died here. This cemetery is the only remaining testament to their struggle to live and succeed in the Arizona frontier. Sadly, the names of people buried in this cemetery have passed beyond modern day knowledge or recollection. It is my hope that this article will eventually connect them with a descendent who knew that a family member once worked at the Black Rock Mine. This can provide important clues that aid in historical research of this and other sites.
As APCRP and Arizona Site Stewards well know, distant family members are always searching for the location of an ancestor. Even though we may never know the names of an individual in any particular grave, the opportunity to connect descendents with their ancestors is a justified and rewarding experience.
Although our work to restore this site has been very conservative in nature, it is, nevertheless, a conscious and determined effort to preserve our heritage.
What Can You Do?
If you are a long-time resident of the Wickenburg area and know people who knew folks that were connected with the mining operations anywhere in the Black Rock District, we would appreciate your help. Business transaction documents dating back to this era, death certificates, photographs and anecdotal information would greatly help us reconstruct the history of mining activity and the people who lived in this district. We must face the inevitable fact that generations pass on and first-hand knowledge of these areas slips away from us.
Even if you are a seasonal visitor or non-resident, you may still have a connection with others that can lead to important discoveries about the history of the Black Rock District. You might be surprised at the serendipitous connections that can lead to new knowledge about our heritage.
Finally, the law pertaining to the preservation of historic cemeteries in Arizona has always been very weak. The state legislature is currently considering Senate Bill #1189, which would only modestly improve the definition of pioneer cemeteries, but it still falls far short of laws that are in effect in many other states. At present, nothing prevents a land developer from claiming ignorance of, or refuting, the existence of a pioneer cemetery. There is, therefore, little to prevent these sites from being paved over for economic gain. It is a bit amazing that commercial development requires an archeological assessment for prehistoric ruins, but pioneer cemeteries are largely ignored. They are equally important aspects of Arizona’s heritage.
How To Get There
- From the Wickenburg Rodeo Grounds you will drive 11.1 miles on Constellation Road. At this mileage point you will arrive at Slim Jim Creek after passing the Monte Cristo Mine.
- Turn left (downstream) into the creek bed and drive .4 miles to arrive at the base of the Black Rock Mine.
- There is a cattle gate in Slim Jim Creek. This is an active grazing area, so please keep the gate closed at all times.
- Hike up the granite escarpment on the trail. You will arrive at the terraces after about 100 yards.
- I have a photocopy of a post card that was mailed from Constellation to Ashville N.C. on January 31, 1934, the last day the Post Office operated (courtesy of Scott Rogers). The Library of Congress confirms that the Constellation Post Office ceased operation on this date.
- There is a second Ocotillo fence northwest of the housing terrace and corral. Corrals of this type have also been located in areas near the original route of Constellation Road.
- Ore production in the Black Rock District generally declined after the 1920’s, along with other areas in the Bradshaw and Weaver Mountains. It is possible that the wood structures at the Black Rock Mine survived simply because the government shut down “non-strategic” mining activity throughout the country after the onset of WW II.
- Long-term occupation at mines produced sizable quantities of discarded materials, including old cans, broken glass and other durable trash. There are several “debris fields” at the Black Rock Mine. My personal view is that every item that you would ordinarily call “trash” is a piece of history at this site. Please preserve it in its present location and condition!
- I have seen several pioneer graves that were situated very close to a wash or gulch. In some instances, periodic flooding has severely eroded the grave margins and caused the exposure of skeletal remains. The necessity of quick burial sometimes precluded the wise selection of a durable grave location.
- My deep thanks are extended to the APCRP members and Site Stewards who contributed their labor to the surveying and restoration of this historic cemetery.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
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