Water for Silver

The Total Wreck Mine versus Ciénega Creek
Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Courtesy of Jim Rorabaugh, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Courtesy of Jim Rorabaugh, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ciénega Creek

[+]Mining and water…

Southern Arizona’s Ciénega Creek, a small stream in the Sonoran Desert, supports an ecosystem of great variety and resilience. The upper story is cottonwood and willow, perennial water runs in many stretches, and hundreds of species make a home here including several endangered or threatened: Chiricahua Leopard Frog, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gila Chub, Southwest Willow Flycatcher. There is almost no reserve in the creek’s water supply, and an argument continues today about whether the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine, a few miles to the west in the Santa Rita Mountains, will reduce the creek’s flow. In June, the month of lowest water flow, the streamgage measurements in Upper Ciénega Creek, on the Empire Ranch, regularly fall below 0.2 cubic feet per second (cfs). However, environmental threats are not new to this spot. Dos Aguas recently investigated one of the earliest man-made stresses on the creek’s waters: the Total Wreck Mine which operated in the Empire Mountains beginning in 1880.

[+]The Total Wreck Mine…

The Mine

In 2015 very little is left of the mine, or of the mill and camp which once supported it. One adit remains, a five foot square opening on a southeast slope facing Ciénega Valley and the Whetstone Mountains. A few slag piles are recognizable, both below and above the mine, and one section of the mill’s carefully-laid rock foundation wall contrasts vividly with the disordered desert. But the old ranch road leading to the site might qualify for the name Total Wreck. It’s no more than a jeep trail now heading northeast between the two main Empire ridges, narrowed by branches of catclaw, mesquite, rosewood and sumac. One or sometimes both tracks are washed out by gullies which slide down into the arroyo below, jagged rock shelves protrude at odd angles into the road bed, and periodic stretches of loose fist-sized boulders can bury a tire as quickly as sand. On Dos Aguas’ recent visit, after five miles of very slow driving the trail rounded the north end of the main Empire ridge into the last stretch – and became rougher. It seemed easier to walk.

Total Wreck Mill Site. (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

Total Wreck Mill Site. (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

After half a mile the first sign of human intervention appeared: a solid, mortarless wall built into the slope above the road for more than 100 feet. The Total Wreck mill was built here. The building and equipment – stamps, grinders, pans for aggregation and settling – are gone, the desert is slowly reclaiming the space, and only this retaining wall still stands. Mesquite, oak and hackberry trees grow where the building used to be. Agaves are scattered along the top of the wall, a few with young seed spikes reaching up six, eight some even a dozen feet.

Around the flank of the mountain, to the southwest, is the mine itself, visible only as an arched hole, half-heartedly fenced, sloping down into the mountain toward what once was nearly a mile of tunnels. Beyond the mine to the south, in what is now empty desert, the Total Wreck camp was laid out: several general stores, hotels, saloons, a Chinese laundry, a butcher shop, brewery and lumberyard. The main street was named Dillon. The camp’s post office opened in August, 1881, serving a maximum population of around 200 over the next few years. But by the end of the 1880s the boom was over, and the post office closed in November, 1890.

Total Wreck Camp. (Courtesy F.C. Schrader, US Geological Survey)

Total Wreck Camp. (Courtesy F.C. Schrader, US Geological Survey)

Edward “Ned” Vail, of the family who developed and owned a majority in the mine, has left us a story of the Total Wreck camp.

“…it was quite an orderly camp, and to my own knowledge no one was ever killed in a gun-fight there, although there were several narrow escapes from such tragedies. I remember one which was caused by a little yellow Mexican dog I picked up. He always followed a little team of mules I had to haul my butcher wagon. I called him Billy and he had a body like a daschhound, and long head and short legs. He always ran between the mules under the wagon tongue. One day a big dog owned by one of the miners jumped onto little Billy and was chewing him up. I picked up a stick and was beating the big dog off of Billy when the owner of the dog came up and pulled out a gun. In a minute several men with six shooters drawn were facing each other and I was in the middle. But some way, although I was scared, I felt most anxious to prevent a fight. I think I said “You men are all friends of mine; don’t kill each other over a yellow dog.” One of them laughed and I said, “Come with me,” and we all went into George’s saloon and I paid for the drinks that ended the trouble.” [Edward L. Vail Papers, Folder 12. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society.]

The Water System

There was no permanent water source at Total Wreck. A spring did exist about a mile to the north (on what was then called New York Hill), but even a trip to its owners in Oil City, Pennsylvania, by one of the Vails failed to seal a purchase deal. So the Total Wreck owners devised a system to pump water from Ciénega Creek, over two miles down at the foot of the mountain. Two large water tanks were constructed on the next hilltop to the southwest, in the direction of the Ciénega Valley, which were filled by a steam-driven pump at the creek. Then the tanks supplied the mill and the camp by gravity-feed. The imprint of those tanks is still visible in the ground, two circles each about 30 feet in diameter. The wooden walls of each tank would have been at least 10’ high.

[+]The Total Wreck Water System.

The pump was located two miles downhill, a few hundred feet to the west of Ciénega Creek, just above the arroyo now called Pump Canyon. After 135 years some parts of the boiler are still lying about on the dry ground – riveted tanks toppled over and only moderately rusted, pipe fittings now connected to nothing, some timbers mostly rotted. A wood-burning boiler generated steam here to suck water from the creek and push it uphill.

None of this mine would have been developed without deep pockets, capital from shares sold in New York to finance purchasing and dragging all the equipment across miles of desert – boilers, rails, stamps, pipe, lumber. It all happened quickly. Full production at Total Wreck began within a year of the mineral discovery, and lasted less than two years. As the richness of the ore quickly declined the investment was withdrawn. By the end of a decade there was almost no activity: post office closed, butcher shop empty, most buildings torn down for the lumber, water system turned off.

[+]Ciénega Creek Flow.

Total Wreck slag heap from remains of a stone house. (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

Total Wreck slag heap from remains of a stone house. (Courtesy Rick Bowman)

From the slag heap above the mine there is at least a twenty-mile view in three directions, and silence save for the whistle of a steady breeze from the southwest. In two of those directions – north and east – no sign of human activity is visible to a cursory glance. In the south a few roofs can be seen, and an occasional stretch of road. The mill wall, and the slag heap itself, are the only nearby evidence that this was once a town with a daily scheduled stagecoach, a steam boiler fired around the clock, and saloons serving the mine workers and prospectors. At the bottom of the mountain the cottonwoods on Ciénega Creek shine bright green against the desert. Here on the mountain the dark slag bakes in the morning sun, undisturbed for decades. In this latest round: Creek 1, Mining 0.

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