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Abandoned Mines Part I: Preserve or Destroy?

Many stories about abandoned mines in Arizona don’t have happy endings. For example, the Tonopah-Belmont Mine, located about 24 miles southwest of Wickenburg, operated intermittently from the 1860’s until 1942 with a record of no fatalities. This, in spite of having a 500 foot deep shaft with working levels at 100, 250, 400 and 500 feet.

Responsible collectors of mineral specimens regularly (and safely) visited this popular site for 48 years until, in 1990, a young man set out to explore the underground workings on his own. About 100 feet into the McNeil Tunnel, in darkness, he stepped into a winze and fell 350 feet to his death. The entrance was sealed off a few years later but, in June 2002, another visitor entered the same tunnel after prying open the protective metal grating. Predictably, his fate was identical to that of the previous victim. The Tonopah-Belmont Mine now has the distinction of having more fatalities in its underground workings after it closed than during its long years of operation.[1]

Arguments for or against mine closures can be passionate – if not always rational. At one extreme, some would advocate that all underground mines should be found and permanently sealed – regardless of the cost for closing an estimated 100,000 shafts and adits in Arizona. At the other extreme, some argue this is simply wasteful government spending, that public funds should not be used to remediate any mine opening unless it is leaking toxic substances into the water table or poses a similar ecological threat.

To be sure, injuries, fatalities, vandalism and ecosystem damage have left an unhappy legacy at more than a few of Arizona’s historic mines. Federal and State agencies have struggled to find solutions but, as off road recreational vehicles make more mines accessible to incautious people, there is an increasing sense of urgency to destructively close mine entrances; either by collapsing the entrance with explosives or by backfilling with rock and soil. Some official circles have even suggested dumping old tires into abandoned shafts.[2]

An example of destructive closure can be found at the Mammoth Spar Mine south of Wickenburg, between Vulture Peak and Morristown. In January 2010, the BLM contracted to have five shafts backfilled with waste rock from the mine dump.[3] The Mammoth Spar was an underground fluorspar (calcium fluoride) mine that dates to the early 1950’s. Records indicate the mine produced about 100 tons of the mineral, which is an important flux material for smelting. The shafts at the Mammoth Spar are not particularly deep, ranging from 60 to 100 feet to reach the mineral vein. The area within a one mile radius is dotted with old shafts and adits, many of which are within a few yards of old mine trails.

Figure 1

Figure 1, Location of Mammoth Spar Shaft Closures

Figure 1 shows the location of the Mammoth Spar Mine, including five shafts that were backfilled. The two with red arrows were photographed by me.[4] A sixth shaft was also backfilled at another location about 1.5 miles west of Vulture Mine Road near the upper end of Mill Wash. This shaft is not related to the Mammoth Spar Mine.

Former Site of Mammoth Spar Shaft

Figure 2, Site of Former Mammoth Spar Shaft

Figure 2 shows the results of backfilling at the south shaft shown on the map. The second (red arrow) shaft is about 200 feet to the left (north) of this photo.

At first glance you might think the area was scraped clean, that historic artifacts might have ended up in the bottom of the shaft; but that is not the case. The decision to seal, fence or gate a mine entrance involves a careful, sometimes lengthy, process that includes inspections by mine engineers, archaeologists, wildlife conservation personnel and mitigation experts. Items of historic importance, even old concrete foundations, are left in place. Trash dumps that contain old cans and bottles are not disturbed and, generally speaking, are not located on the mine dump or tailing pile anyway. The appearance of the shaft area in Figure 2 shows that waste material from the mine dump was used for fill and leveling purposes. According to the BLM, nothing else at this site was moved or destroyed.

Open Shaft at Mammoth Spar

Figure 3, Open Shaft at Mammoth Spar

Surprisingly, there is a recently fenced open shaft less than 100 feet from Figure 2. This shaft is as visible, accessible and dangerous as the five nearby shafts that were backfilled. In fact, it was so dangerous that wildlife specialists could not safely rappel into it to perform subterranean inspections. The Arizona Game and Fish Department will conduct “emergence surveys” later this year to determine if bats or owls are flying in and out. This type of survey, typically using night vision or motion activated cameras, is not totally effective in determining seasonal use or the size of a resident colony, but it is one of few alternatives when safety is an issue.[5] Only after this survey is completed will a decision be rendered on the final disposition of the shaft. In the meantime, the fence serves as a visual warning to visitors.[6]

Since it is impossible to fall into a hole that doesn’t exist, you can say that destructive closure is 100 percent effective. Still, there is something vaguely disturbing – a sense of history lost – about closing an old mine site in this manner.

In Part two we will examine an alternative known as “Protective Closure” that preserves subterranean mine workings for wildlife while preventing access to people.

Footnotes and References:

[1] Steve Voynick. “Stay Out and Stay Alive.” Rock & Gem, July 2006.

[2] Arizona Daily Star, “Plan: Use old tires to plug state’s abandoned mines.” February 1, 2010. The State Mine Inspector’s Office advocates dumping tires into shafts because they are cheaper to haul than concrete, gravel or bricks. The state has a problem figuring out what to do with a growing surplus of waste tires.

[3] Funding was provided via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the federal “stimulus” program) and cost $14,300.

[4] The main site of Mammoth Spar Mine is located at N33 52.763′ X W112 43.118′ in the NW1/4 of section 7 T6N, R4W. Mindat erroneously places the mine in section 5.

[5] “Managing Abandoned Mines for Bats.” Scott Altenback, University of New Mexico; Richard E. Sherwin, Christopher Newport University; David L. Waldien, Bat Conservation International. External surveys (such as above ground motion detection) are only 61 percent effective in confirming the presence of a bat colony inside a mine.

[6] There is no record of injury or fatality occurring at any of the abandoned shafts that were backfilled. Although there were several complaints filed by recreational visitors to this site in the past, the BLM’s policy is to proactively close abandoned mines that may pose a risk of injury or death.

Last 5 posts by Allan Hall

5 comments to Abandoned Mines Part I: Preserve or Destroy?

  • E. Schraut

    I could not agree more ! Having visited this site and many others in my years of residency in Arizona, I have come away with a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer determination of those who worked these sites and believe this IS a part of our history ( a legacy ) that has unfortunately been forgotten and generally ignored.
    I have entered many drifts, adits and shafts with relative safety in so far as I have a background in mining – both hard rock and coal – and an appreciation of the safety issues involved. I have never once been in a “deadly” situation – I simply avoid them if I deem it so.
    Those few individuals who decide to barge in like the proverbial “bull” with no pre-planning or prepared equipment unfortunately, usually end up as in your narrative above.
    These are the same people who don’t look both ways before crossing a busy intersection and end up in the hospital or worse.
    It is sad that the “remedial” reaction by the “authorities” when an incident like this happens, almost always is heavy-handed and occasionally, even what might be considered extreme.
    Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done to educate the occasional idiot and I wonder as well, what ever happened to the concept of “personal responsibility” for ones actions ? When was is it that “government” took on the responsibility for protecting everyone from everything – where is the adult ?
    Some of these mines should be placed on the National Register of Historic Places – not simply filled with scrap and refuse and erased and forgotten as though they never existed !
    A slap in the face of anyone who ever tried making his living in this manner !

  • Allan Hall

    Mr. Schraut,
    Thanks for your comments. If you have had the opportunity to read the 2nd and 3rd installments of this series, you will know that I believe there are better options for preserving Arizona’s historic mines. My greatest concern is the BLM’s approach to dealing with abandoned mines. Simply put:

    1. A citizen’s complaint about the perceived danger of any mine can lead to destructive closure. In the case of the Mammoth Spar Mine, two complaints were filed by non-resident visitors, leading to its closure.

    2. There is no procedure that allows the general public to comment or lobby for the preservation of a mine on the BLM’s closure list.

    3. The BLM does not issue public notices about planned closures.

    4. The BLM will not provide a list of planned closures when requested. They maintain “there is no list.”

    5. The BLM has recently used deficit financed “federal stimulus funds” to pay for destructive closures.

    I share your concern that an important aspect of Arizona history is being lost – without our knowledge or recourse.

  • Very nice article. Like Mr. Schraut, I could not agree more. Having been to both of these mines, I know exactly what you are talking about. I also agree that they are a part of history and should not be filled in. A simple fence you mention in your other articles was prevent accidents and preserve their history. Anyway, thank you for writing such an interesting article.

  • E. Schraut

    Thank you both for the kind replies. I have read the subsequent articles and your points are well made.

    While not covered in this series of articles, the “closure” of the Anderson Brother’s Mica Mill
    ( c. 1950 ) on the San Domingo Wash in the White Picacho District is yet another example of the BLM’s “heavy handed” methods.

    When I first came out to Arizona, I “discovered” this site and was truly amazed at the
    “craftsmanship” and sheer ingenuity of the operators ( Andersons ) in constructing this operation out of literally anything at hand from old WW II aircraft runway sections to assorted other “scrap” materials. During my early visits, there was a working well, that I have pictures of myself “pumping” ( the original motor was long gone at that time but a hand priming pump still drew water. )

    There was a very tall bucket conveyor that was used to carry the quartz/mica up to a series of sizing trommels where the mica was separated and sized. Other interesting equipment was also on the site including a windmill ( again made from scrap materials ) that still spun and tracked into the wind, and a core drill which had been used to take samples of the nearby geology and a “shack” where the core samples were once stored. ( I have several of these that I picked up and use occasionally to sharpen my knives ! ).

    The first “sign” that some sort of “clean-up” was at hand was during a subsequent visit with a friend who I had wanted especially to show the windmill … It was gone ! Just as though someone had pulled up a carrot, there literally was nothing to be found where it had formerly stood ! No foundation, no structure of any kind …
    Little by little, the abandoned equipment and “parts” began to disappear, culminating in the complete removal of the well apparatus and the “capping” of the water supply pipe ( it and the “priming” pipes now being welded shut ! ) Today, ( 2008 ) there is almost nothing left of the original site as I had initially found it.

    When I inquired as to why the extreme measures for a site that of any which I’ve visited, should in my mind have been designated an Historical Site ( if for nothing else, the amazing ingenuity displayed in its construction ), I was told that there were concerns about ” homeless squatters using the site” so it was decided to essentially raze the site- another piece of Arizona’s “history” now lost to time …. At least I have my photos of this amazing place.

    This is the very reason a friend and I have taken up, as a sort of “hobby”, the locating, exploring, and photographing of these various sites so as to preserve, as best we can, this part of Arizona’s fast disappearing “history”.

    have made it kind of a “hobby” to visit as many of these places as we can and at least record and preserve what remains with photos as many of these sites have already been destroyed

  • Allan Hall

    Mr. Schraut,
    You are a rare individual and I applaud your efforts to record as many mines as you can. I would encourage you to contribute a few articles with photos so that others can read about and “see” what history has already been lost in the general Wickenburg area. Even if you don’t have a detailed record of the history, people will appreciate knowing what these mines looked like at a point in time.

    There are two other local mines that were destroyed by the BLM in years past. One was the “Camp B” mine, below Constellation Road and south of the King Solomon. Another was a very large placer mine (complete with buildings) that operated for years about two miles northeast of the The Box, above the Hassayampa River. Culturally, this was an important location because of the mine settlement and the contribution of Chinese labor at this site. Sadly, nothing is left today.

    Keep up the good work! There aren’t nearly enough folks dedicated to the preservation of history – even if on an informal basis.