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Dry Stack Walls: A Pioneer Legacy, Part Five

Part Five: Rock Cabins

In Part Four of this series we examined a variety of dry stack terrace walls that are found at old mines and settlements. These were built to provide flat areas for housing and cemeteries. In Part 5 we conclude the series with a discussion of Dry Stack Cabins.

Our modern concept of a cabin probably conjures the notion of a place up in the high country where you go to relax on weekends and during the hot summer. This typical ‘cabin’ has hot and cold running water, a microwave oven, indoor shower and toilet, and may even sport a solar panel on the roof. There will be double pane windows and a gas burner in the fireplace. Of course, the fireplace would be purely for enjoyment, since the cabin will have a heat pump that provides thermostatically controlled, whole-house warmth (or cooling) on demand. It may have two or three bedrooms and a loft, and probably has a security system for peace of mind when you are away.

Cabin Wall
Figure 1, Dry Stack Cabin at Columbia. Photo by Neal Du Shane

These so-called ‘necessities’ would have been unimaginable luxuries to the miners and settlers who built dry stack cabins in territorial Arizona. In fact, dry stack construction was necessitated by the paucity of other resources, such as mortar or lumber, in the early settlement days. Figure 1 shows a rock cabin that lacks all of the features described in the opening paragraph, yet it fulfilled the most basic requirement for shelter and safety. There are several noteworthy features about this structure at the Columbia ghost town:

  • The entryway had no door. Wood planking would have been needed for the door and its frame, but no suitable materials were locally available. The entry was probably covered (from the inside) with a piece of carpet or other heavy material to block wind and rain, and to help retain heat from the fireplace during the winter season.
  • The wood beam at the top of the doorway appears to be a roughly shaped piece of juniper; which could have been obtained from a higher elevation in the nearby Bradshaw mountain slopes. The (very) course nature of the wood indicates it was not made of Ponderosa pine, which would only have been available above 5500 feet and perhaps fifteen miles to the northeast of this cabin.
  • The dry stack walls below the wood beam and the rear fireplace wall appear to have been constructed with shaped stone. The faces of these walls are generally smooth, the entryway is neat and vertical, and the courses of rock are tightly fitted.
  • The area above the wood beam is not uniformly constructed. In some respects, this section of the wall appears to be a jumble of irregular rocks that were used to form the angle for the roof.
  • The small openings on the right side of the wall may possibly have been for defense against attack.
  • The opening above the entry (and a similar opening at the rear of the cabin) provided ventilation.
  • The floor of this one room cabin was dirt.
  • The relatively small size of the fireplace suggests it was used only for heating the interior. It was probably not used for cooking.

When you consider that the temperature in the high desert can range from the mid-90’s in April to 115 (or higher) in August and September, it is no wonder that food preparation would have been more pleasant outside of the cabin.

Dry Stack Cabin
Figure 2, Reverse View – Dry Stack Cabin. Photo by Neal Du Shane

Figure 2 shows a reverse angle of the cabin at Columbia. I have selected it for two important reasons: First, it shows that the chimney was an external structure. In other words, the chimney walls were built on the outside of the cabin. Why is this? My assumption is that an internal chimney structure would radiate more warmth in the living area, but would take excessive space in this very small cabin. The second observation in Figure 2 is to show the foundation structure. Notice that the rear and right walls are inset from the base. This construction technique provided greater stability for the cabin walls and has contributed to its survival to this day.

The roof of this cabin may have been made with sapling poles that supported a canvas tarp. Regardless of the method of construction, it is unlikely that the roof would have been watertight. No evidence remains of the roofing material today.

Historical information on the earliest days of Columbia is scant, to be sure. There are anecdotal records indicating that mineral exploration began in the 1850’s, but the site was abandoned. A renewed effort to develop mining in this area occurred 1868. Whether this structure dates to the earliest mining effort or to 1868 is unknown. In either case, this was a dangerous area for miners and settlers due to persistent hostile actions by local Native Americans.

Natural Stone Cabins
Figure 3, Natural Stone Cabins

The construction of dry stack cabins was not limited to the use of flat, shaped rocks. Figure 3 shows two small structures that relied upon material that is best described as boulders. The lower cabin (bottom center) is a small, single room structure. The cabin in the center differs only in size. In both cases it is likely the roofs used the pole and canvas method. There are no fireplaces or chimney structures in either cabin. Because they are located in the immediate area of a mine, it probably means that meals were provided to workers at a central location at the camp, since there is no evidence of cooking pits at either cabin.

Neither structure shows indication of a peaked roof, as compared to Figures 1 and 2. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude these were semi-permanent ‘tent cabins’ that may have been used by a series of itinerant miner workers.

Dry Stack Cabin
Figure 4, Dry Stack Cabin at Unida Mine

Figure 4 provides an example of a dry stack cabin that used a mixture of shaped and natural stone to achieve a tight fit. The courses of rock in the walls were carefully laid, but rise only to a height of less than five feet. Notice the absence of rock debris around the structure. If this building had collapsed from natural causes, you would see a lot of material lying along the wall margins. Instead, I speculate that portions of the cabin walls were intentionally removed, possibly to build another structure nearby.

Of particular note is the front wall in the left center of the photo, which is nearly three feet wide. Another distinguishing characteristic of the cabin is that these grayish stones do not match the local granitic rock. The material must have been hauled in from a quarry site.

Natural Destruction of Cabin
Figure 5, Natural Destruction of Cabin

The rock cabin shown in Figure 5 is located near the bottom of a wash that flows into Buckhorn Creek, east of Wickenburg. Unfortunately, the builder selected a location that was a bit too close to the wash, resulting in the eventual demise of the structure. Even so, there are several important features of this cabin. For example, the interior wall was built into the hillside. The fireplace and rear wall serve as a retaining barrier against sedimentation from the uphill slope. The fireplace is quite large and would easily allow cooking.

The jumbled pile of rocks in the right foreground are the remains of the right (south) wall. Interestingly, there is no evidence that a front wall was ever constructed. Three- walled enclosures may have been a common occurrence, since an open structure would have provided better ventilation (but less radiant warmth) than a fully enclosed cabin.

This cabin appears to be quite old and probably pre-dates a settlement to the left (north) that may have had up to 300 residents in the early 1900’s. The area is dotted with abandoned mines within a one mile radius of the site.

Miner's Cabin
Figure 6, Miner’s Cabin near Keystone

Figure 6 shows a rare example of a dry stack cabin that still contains wood components. A mine adit and shaft are about one hundred yards to the east (right) of this photo. This is a typical one room cabin that features a small fireplace in the upper left corner. Wall construction appears to be haphazard, as evidenced by the very large boulders resting on top of smaller rocks on the front wall.

The seeming abundance of wood beams suggests a roof structure that (again) employed a canvas tarp, since there is no evidence of other wood roofing materials or corrugated metal. Another mine settlement is located in the valley beyond this hillside, but the structures there were made entirely with wood, indicating a younger age than this cabin.

Primative Tent Cabin
Figure 7, Primitive Tent Cabin

In Figure 7 you see a partially collapsed “U” shaped structure with rock walls that are about three feet in height. This is probably the most primitive type of dry stack dwelling you will find. It is known as a ‘tent cabin’ and was a common method for creating a temporary sleeping shelter to protect an individual from the weather. This particular ‘cabin’ had an interior dimension of approximately four feet in width by nine feet. The builder (probably a transient mine worker) dug a flat area out of the hillside and then stacked the rock walls. A canvas tarp – supported by one or two wood poles – would have completed the structure. This type of cabin could only have been used for sleeping and could not have accommodated more than two people. In contrast to previous examples, this structure does not suggest a sense of permanency on the part of the occupant. This dwelling could have been re-used over a long period of time, since it is located near two mines that operated from approximately 1885 until 1941.

Ravages of Time
Figure 8, Ravages of Time. Photo by Kevin Hart

Figure 8 shows a cabin near Columbia that is slowly succumbing to the forces of nature. In its day, it was surely an impressive structure and it is larger in area than any other dry stack cabin shown in this article. The walls were about eight feet high and the peaked roof would have provided a sense of spaciousness. The fireplace, located on the right wall, was large enough to radiate warmth throughout the cabin. Notice that the chimney structure is on the interior, in contrast to the example in Figure 2. Sadly, the near left corner has collapsed, destroying a significant portion of the wall.

When you examine all photos in this article, it becomes evident that dry stack cabins were quite small by modern standards and were utterly Spartan in their features. They may have supported a single individual or an entire family in a one room structure. They are found in places that were then, and remain today, in remote and rugged areas. That remoteness is, perhaps, why they have survived to the present time. These cabins and the other structures shown in the previous articles, endure because of the respect and forbearance of visitors who admire the effort and struggle of pioneers who came to the Arizona Territory in dangerous times.

Every dry stack structure you have seen in this series, regardless of how well it was crafted, is a treasure from our past. They were built by Mexican, Chinese and Native American laborers as well as immigrant miners and settlers from Ireland, England, Germany and even Brazil. You may think they are silent markers to our history, but each one has a story waiting to be told. They cannot be replaced.

My thanks go to fellow members of the Arizona Pioneer and Cemetery Research Project for their photo contributions to this series. APCRP.org is dedicated to the location, documentation, preservation and ongoing research of Arizona’s derelict pioneer settlements, cemeteries and mines. It is truly a labor of love.

Last 5 posts by Allan Hall

2 comments to Dry Stack Walls: A Pioneer Legacy, Part Five

  • Jon Lorensen

    Just a note to say GREAT WORK!. Very well done as well as informitive. Jon Lorensen.

  • I must tell you again how much I have enjoyed reading this series! I have turned all my friends onto your work, and the site. Thank you and GREAT WRITING!


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