B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
THE CASTLE DOME Mining District ranks among the oldest official mining regions in Arizona, but extracting minerals from this rugged country was already a time-worn practice when the district was established in 1862.
When Col. Snively H. Ehrenberg organized the district during the middle of the Civil War, he and his partners noticed large, slow-growing desert vegetation on the old mine workings, Stanton Keith writes in the Arizona Geological Survey Bulletin 192, Index Of Mining Properties In Yuma County, Arizona.
Obviously these hills had already been worked for many years. Who mined them for their lead and silver and made the trails from here to the Colorado River remains a mystery. But from 1862 to the present, mining activities have maintained a constant presence.
The Castle Dome Mountains tower over the countryside 20 miles east of the Colorado River in southwestern Arizona. But it was not the breathtaking mountain scenery that drew men to this parched stretch of desert. It was the valuable ore.
Where you find mines (especially abandoned ones) you'll find rock hounds. The geologic equivalent of lampreys to sharks, mineral collectors scavenge from the cast-asides of mining operations. So naturally the Society of Earth Science students and their own lamprey, Out There Guy, found their way here after exploring Palm Canyon in the Kofa Mountains ("Bighorn Hangout," Tucson Weekly, November 22).
When scouring old tailings piles and dumps for minerals, you have to keep a number of things in mind. Most important is knowing on whose property you're treading and whether they permit surface collectors. Best to stay away from any mine posted as "Private Property," "Keep Off," "Dangerous Mine--Do Not Enter," "Go Away--My Rocks!" or equivalents thereof. Most miners, especially those who eke out a living from some tiny mine in the middle of nowhere, don't look kindly on claim jumpers. In fact, they generally look at them down the barrel of a gun, so be respectful.
Second on the list in threat to life and limb are the mines themselves. These mines weren't safe 100 years ago when excavated, and they sure didn't build them to last. Supports, ladders and ceilings are subject to collapse at any moment.
Lastly, of course, are the hazards of the desert itself. Highway 95 is fairly close to the Castle Dome area, but otherwise the region is incredibly remote. Don't wander off ill-prepared for the desert climate. Many unsuspecting visitors have met their demise prematurely, as the October incident of an Oklahoma City man who died from exposure south of here in Mexico's Pinacate Biological Reserve reminds us.
But if you have a zeal for translucent purple fluorite, the Castle Dome Mining District may hold more appeal than alarm. The miners here seek lead and silver ore. The beautiful fluorite and calcite crystals are a by-product and litter the desert surrounding the abandoned mines.
After an afternoon of collecting and traipsing around, we retire to camp. One of the best items for any Arizona outing is Marshall Trimble's Roadside History of Arizona. Not only does the book provide a superb historical anchor for the general area you visit, it comes complete with ghost stories. For instance, take the Palm Canyon Murders of 1978.
Trimble unfurls the tale of Gary Tison, whose three sons broke him out of the Arizona State Prison in Florence. Fleeing westward, the gang stopped in Tyson Wash, west of Highway 95 and not far from tonight's camp. There they murdered four people, including one person also named Tyson. Eventually one son was killed in a shoot-out and the rest of the gang captured--except for Gary Tison, who escaped only to die from exposure in the desert.
With a slight omission (escaped and was presumed to have died in the desert), you're guaranteed to have the full attention of your audience. As the night proceeds, any strange noise becomes the sound of Tison prowling. Any missing object now resides in Tison's hands.
Like any good theatrical undertaking, a well-placed prop comes in handy. I brought along a foam skull I keep around for Halloween and just this kind of occasion. Placing it on the water jug at the edge of the firelight, the already realistic noggin takes on a sepulchral appearance. As successive members of our little band yield to the dryness in their mouths, muffled gasps, double-takes and grins mark the initiated. But everyone keeps quiet, joining in the frightful conspiracy. Eventually, only one person remains unaware of our little friend's presence. The anticipation among the group grows almost painful each time she moves toward the water jug. But like all good things, it's worth the wait.
After the last spook we all retire, to choose between dreams of finding flawless fluorite crystals in the morning or prayers that the Tison clan wanders elsewhere this night.
GETTING THERETake Interstate 8 west to Wellton. Here you can either wind your way through the maze of farm roads to the west (the faster but more confusing way) until you reach Highway 95; or continue west to Yuma and then north on Highway 95. In either case, follow Highway 95 to milepost 55, where Castle Dome Mine Road heads off to the east. Follow that about eight miles to some large clearings and nearby mine workings. The entire area is pocketed with mine workings and fine Sonoran desert habitat.
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