Mountain Springs at Rosemont

Santa Rita Mountains, Pima County, AZ (Courtesy Mitch McClaran)

Santa Rita Mountains, Pima County, AZ (Courtesy Mitch McClaran)

Springs were once plentiful along the slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains, the broken rocks of the mountains leaking moisture down the slopes to support sedge, a few sycamore or sometimes willow and cottonwood trees, Sonoran Desert wildlife, and eventually men and cattle. Most of the springs are gone now, or much diminished. The men are also gone, but not diminished.

The Homestead

Juan López came from Hermosillo, Mexico, to Rosemont, Arizona, as a teenager in the mid-1870’s. There were jobs in one mine or another (at about $2 a day in the beginning), but Juan had a vision of working for himself. He was a carpenter; he raised cattle and sold meat; he may have had a small mine which he worked periodically; he supplied fresh produce to the residents of Rosemont. He married in 1881, and with these occupations he and his wife raised a family of five children in the Santa Ritas – three boys and two girls. In 1916, he sold his Rosemont holdings and ‘retired’ to Tucson where he continued with occasional carpentry. He died in Tucson in 1951 at more than 90 years of age.

[+]Copper Mining…

To drive now from Tucson to the old Juan López homestead takes about an hour (instead of the full day it took Juan by horse and wagon). Highway 83 climbs along the east side of the Santa Rita Ridge from the Vail area onto the grassland plateau. Prickly pear litters the low ground, hundreds of ovals silver in the morning sun. Higher up the ocotillos appear, standing tall, and then the gnarled mesquite scattered among the cactus. Near milepost 47 Helvetia Road turns west along Barrel Canyon toward Rosemont Junction. The brushy growth is now sprinkled with dark splotches of juniper. The buildings from the mining settlements are gone, bulldozed away long ago to discourage squatters. The left-overs of mining still litter the mountain, often hidden in the brush: shafts (some over 300’ deep), adits – horizontal passages curving back into the mountain, tailing piles sliding down the hillside, and the slag heap from Rosemont’s one smelter, shining black against the brown and red earth. The 1900 census listed 234 residents of Rosemont (most of them Hispanic); by 1920 it was up to 350. Now it is 0 – as long as cattle are not counted.

It was quiet in the desert on an early January morning, bright sun working its way down the slopes to the valley floor, a cool breeze from the west. From the smelter pile near Rosemont Junction the dusty road climbs north and west from Wasp Canyon into McCleary Canyon and then up the east face of the ridge toward the high point at Gunsight Pass (elevation 5449‘). More than half-way up a lesser road forks north to López Pass and Sycamore Canyon – all of these routes were built for the mines scattered along the slope. The truck was wedged off-road here for a hike to the López homestead.

[+]Rosemont Studies…

Juan’s ranch was variously named Rancho San José or El Tonel (Spanish for barrel or cask). The first homestead was placed on an Arizona State Museum map in the crook of a hairpin turn about a mile up toward López Pass. The rutted road follows the stream bed up a moderate slope in McCleary Canyon. Many hackberry trees border the wash, some of them more than fifty feet tall. After the hairpin turn (elevation 5200’) the slope becomes much steeper. The land in between the two arms of the turn is even steeper – at least 100% grade. The adobe López house was supposedly built 50 feet east of the road facing this slope, and the corral was located up the wash a few hundred feet, north of the bend. There is now no obvious sign here of human settlement. This spot is protected – below the surrounding hills, and thus out of the wind and the strong afternoon sun – but if a family of seven were to settle here, along with their cattle and perhaps pigs and chickens, there had to have been a nearby and reliable source of water. In the valley by Rosemont Junction (elevation 4790‘) there was a hand-dug well, timbered down in the alluvial bottom to a depth of 45 feet. At one time it supported 200 people. There was a report of a well here directly in the bed of the wash, but no evidence remains. Then Dos Aguas noticed a depression in the hillside just beyond the hairpin turn, 12 to 15 feet across, haphazardly lined with rock. This could have been a spring (though it’s not marked on the map). There is no sign of flow or seeping at the moment, but growing immediately below the depression is a large water-loving sedge. There would have been at least one barrel to keep full from the spring. El Tonel. Dos Aguas found no sign of the peach or fig trees that Juan’s son Ruperto remembered.

López Brand

López Brand

Juan raised cattle, one of half a dozen small ranches spread along this mountain. His herd was small – perhaps 50 head – in contrast to the large Empire Ranch a few miles east, which hosted about 5000 head by 1880. Ruperto, Juan’s son, remembered that the family butchered once or twice a month, selling the meat to Rosemont residents who usually wrapped their portion in canvas and hung it in a tree. Juan registered the ‘Y9’ brand for his cattle, number 7358 – a side-by-side double oval with an outward facing notch in each.

Making A Living

Via Google Earth Dos Aguas roamed over the Rosemont area with Phil Ogden, Emeritus Professor of Range Management at the University of Arizona. Phil, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, met Dos Aguas at his front door, on the southeast side of Tucson. He is tall, with short-cropped hair. We talked first in the living room, then went to his office. Book shelves fill the right side, file cabinets fill the left, and in the middle two desks face his flight deck.

[+]Santa Rita Water…

“Rosemont was a busy place 100 years ago,” Phil said. “Mines on both sides of the ridge, cattle, homesteads.” I asked him how many head Juan might have owned. “They probably got about a 50% calf crop. So if they butchered 12 to 15 head a year, and saved back a few for replacements, perhaps about 40 head. They also had a few bulls, so between 40 and 50 head.” And how much pasture would he have needed to support 50 head? “Prior to 1902, when the Coronado National Forest was established, the area between homesteads and mining claims was ‘open range.’ So often they just let the herds run together and sorted them out by brand at roundup time.” Phil added, “One hundred years ago there would have been less brush up here, and some more grass – but not a lot.” He pointed to the upper reaches of the east slope on Google Earth. “The higher ground has other brush that gives more protein in the winter months. But the main problem before fences was that the cattle would ‘beat out’ the area around the water. This Rosemont slope is ‘well-watered’ – not a large volume of water, but it’s spread out to support good rotation – springs, artesian wells. With a stable water source they could leave a group of cattle near each watering place and let them fend for themselves.”

A quarter mile straight up McCleary Canyon from the López homestead (or closer to a mile if by road, as Dos Aguas went) an earthen ‘tank’ lies completely across the wash – a stock pond created behind a dam made from rocks and soil. When full it might hold 10 to 12 feet of water captured from rains in the wash, totaling several thousand cubic meters – a life saver for grazing cattle, and wildlife, and men. On this January morning there was still a foot or two of water in the bottom. But the dam seems too big to have been constructed by hand one hundred years ago – perhaps they had a smaller version at this same place.

Juan’s 50 head would have needed the equivalent of about 2000 acres of grazing (or about 3 square miles) to remain healthy, along with multiple dispersed water sources to support access to the far corners of the spread. It’s not unreasonable to envision that much space centered around upper McCleary Canyon – bounded by the Santa Rita Ridge on the west, the Scholefield Ranch on the north and east, and on the south the settlements and other small ranches. This McCleary Tank, even a smaller version of it, would have been key to disperse the grazing.

Another mile up the road, in the brush a few hundred yards off to the east, is the intermittent Fig Tree Spring, which does appear on the map (including Google). Once this spring watered a large sedge, and a fig tree, and was piped down the hillside to a metal water tank. Some scraps of pipe and the remains of the tank are still scattered about. This tank probably belonged to the Scholefield Ranch (which lies about a mile due east down the wash). With sharing of pasture and water among neighboring ranches, as Phil Ogden mentioned, the López cattle probably watered here also.

[+]Copper Cycles…

In 1909 Juan moved to “the other side of the mountain,” as his son Ruperto reported – a more level half-section homestead on the northwest flank of Mt. Fagan, 6 or 7 miles north of his original place. By this time his citizenship status apparently could support a formal homestead claim, which was entered in his name on Dec 13, 1915, for 225 acres in the east half of Township 17 South, Range 16 East, Section 30, Pima County – outside the new Coronado National Forest. Here the new National Forest grazing rules implemented in Rosemont in 1908 would not apply, but on the other hand Juan would have to find grazing access to nearly 2000 acres with water to maintain his 50 head. By 1915 Juan and his family were back in Rosemont. Why? We don’t have Juan’s reasons. Perhaps the grazing range was shrinking, or drying up. Perhaps the regional cattle markets, supported by the railroad, were so competitive that a small producer was squeezed out. We do know that the concentrated and somewhat isolated consumers at Rosemont camps were a simpler market – though not necessarily an unsophisticated one. Excavations done in the trash dump of the Rosemont Hotel (which was abandoned in 1909) yielded containers for Hershey’s Cocoa, Borden’s Eagle Brand Evaporated Milk, Hill Brothers Coffee, Karo Syrup, Gebhardt’s Chili Powder, Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy.

[+]Cattle Cycles…

Back in Rosemont in 1915 the López family lived not at the old homestead but just down the road in the “New Rosemont” settlement, which supported the reopened Narragansett Mine. They had two tents, or “tent tops” as they were called – a level dirt floor bordered with narrow timber sills and covered with canvas. The war boom was in full swing. Juan‘s son Francisco ran the local saloon, his son-in-law José Moreno was a foreman at the mine, his son Ruperto worked in the mine, and the rest of the family sold fruits, meat, and perhaps milk to the mining community. Here they depended for water on the community well (dug to a depth of 15 feet at the north end of the camp), or perhaps another nearby spring. Grandson Frank Figueroa remembered hauling water up from the well by horse. In 1915 there were more than 300 people to support in the sprawling camp.

This second residence in Rosemont was short-lived. Some time in the next year (1916) Juan sold out everything at Rosemont and moved to Tucson. It was likely a good time to sell – Rosemont copper production and population were at peak, profits were high, but by 1920 the war and the boom would end. Soon after 1920 Rosemont was again nearly deserted.


From the high point on the Helvetia Road at Gunsight Pass, more than a mile above New Rosemont, one can see easily 50 miles to the east and to the west. Due east lie the two Rosemont settlement sites – New Rosemont just below on the shoulder of the mountain, Old Rosemont at the bottom bordering Barrel Canyon. To the southeast is the designated site for the proposed new open pit copper mine, to be more than 3000 feet deep. Due north is López Pass, and below that, hidden by the ridge, is the old López homestead. Behind to the west is the wide Santa Cruz valley, with the expansive Santa Rita Experimental Range at the foot of the mountain.

The road from Gunsight Pass down the west side is narrow and rough. To see how rough, watch the stagecoach scenes in the 1967 movie Hombre. Elmore Leonard wrote the novel on which the film is based with this place in mind (and set about the same time Juan López lived here) – the flat desert plain to the west, the abandoned mining sites on the slopes, the mixture of Mexican, Indian and Anglo cultures, the steep climb to the top, the Apache Reservation to the north, the prickly pear, mesquite, agave and catclaw, the constant worry for water. The mountain scenes were filmed very near to this spot, which still fits the part – dusty, isolated, steep, beautiful (for those who love the desert). To a young Mexican searching for a place to build a life, willing to face some hardship, and with a good head for business, it had attractions.

Hombre pits the bad guys against the others, some good and some not so good. John Russell (a white orphan raised by Apaches, played by Paul Newman) is leading the others through the desert on foot, with the bad guys in pursuit. He is such a loner that the others are not sure he is trustworthy. At the top of this Santa Rita Ridge, in the shade of an oak tree, Jessie (a boarding house operator, played by Diane Cilento) asks John, “Then will you tell me why we keep trotting after you?” “Because I can cut it, lady,” he answers. In Elmore Leonard’s words, Juan López could “cut it.” He came as an illegal immigrant to a wild frontier, to a mountain range named for Santa Rita de Cascia, Patron Saint of the Impossible. He was successful at both the physical and the business challenges, at raising cattle on a desert mountainside, at keeping a family solvent and together in a peripheral mining camp, at sinking his roots deep enough into the rocky ground that his name appears on maps 100 years later, and at selling his holdings before the copper boom ended. Dos Aguas is sorry we didn’t know him.

[+]Santa Rita Precipitation…

Although the Santa Ritas look much the same, a lot has changed at Rosemont from the time of Juan López to ours. The mountain springs are fewer, and with reduced flow. The groundwater level is lower. The mining scars have been disguised by new growth and weathering. There is more mesquite. At the moment it is quieter – on many days not another soul is visible from the top of the Santa Rita Ridge. The quiet may not continue – there are plans for a large mine on this mountainside to extract copper that the miners of 1900 couldn’t have touched, using machines and methods Juan López would not recognize. Perhaps in another hundred years this next mine will be quiet again, weathered, with new growth…

López Pass from below the homestead (Rick Bowman)

López Pass from below the homestead (Rick Bowman)

In 1979, Ruperto López’s wife, from her house on Tucson’s south side, remembered back to the years on one Santa Rita ranch or another, to her husband’s father, Juan, and to her own parents. “Well it was hard, a life,” she said, “but do you know people were happier in those days…. They were happier than now-a-days.”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>