B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
THE DEATH OF a man in 1905 saved the eastern side of the Santa Rita mountains.
When California mining engineer James Stetson came to Arizona, he wanted to bring with him a method of mining that devoured mountains. Stetson hoped to install three water "monitors," or pipes that throw pressurized water onto hillsides. These blasts of water wash away vast amounts of material, allowing miners to sort through the slurry for gold. The result is profitable for mining companies, and certain doom for mountainsides.
But before Stetson could launch his destructive project, he ended up face-down on a Tucson street after a disputed tumble from a third-story hotel window.
Hydraulic mining is considered so effective at creating "moonscapes" and causing such environmental damage downstream that it was outlawed in the early part of the century.
But in 1905 it was perfectly legal. Stetson and his principal financial backer, George McAneny, formed the Santa Rita Mining and Water Company with the objective of working the area near Kentucky Gulch in the Santa Rita Mountains. The nearby Greaterville Mining District had proven to be one of the most productive districts in southern Arizona. Stetson and McAneny hoped to make a name for their workings as well.
In preparation for the proposed operation, they built an eight-and-a-half mile long water delivery system and five substantial adobe buildings. The buildings had running water, wooden floors, painted walls and telephones--with underground phone lines! Most mining operations at that time were fly-by-night affairs. For a company to invest this much effort in its camp was unusual.
Four of the five buildings are still standing. The non-profit volunteer organization, The Friends of Kentucky Camp, is working in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the camp to its 1905 appearance.
In 1905, when the original camp was just finished, Stetson and McAneny had already turned some profit from their fledgling operation. They were hoping to go into full production when Stetson returned from a stockholders meeting in Tucson. Stetson left with $3,000 worth of sample gold to prove the mine's potential fruitfulness. But the day before the meeting, Stetson suffered his fatal fall.
Back then $3,000 was a pretty substantial sum, and Tucson was still a rough-and-tumble frontier town. Whether Stetson fell or was propelled remains a mystery, but we can all be grateful for his demise.
Arnold Franks, the volunteer caretaker of Kentucky Camp, spends much of his free time looking into the camp's history. Franks says Stetson was a reserved, married man on the cusp of realizing a lifelong dream that could've made him rich--not the kind of man likely to commit suicide. Neither was Stetson prone to sit drunk on the window sill of a hotel, Franks says.
Franks, who continues to dig for information, lets visitors draw their own conclusions concerning Stetson's passing. But one thing is for sure, his death, and the death of McAneny four years later, shut down the Santa Rita Mining and Water Company once and for all.
After mining ceased, the camp was used by assorted ranching families and companies until 1967. From 1967 to 1989, when the Forest Service acquired the property, the camp was basically abandoned and open to looters. It was during this time that a lot of the original artifacts were destroyed or stolen. Today, living in his little trailer with a big U.S. flag planted in front, Franks stands vigil over the old buildings and gives tours.
Franks retired from the Air National Guard in Tucson in 1992 and has been spending most of his time out here since.
"It's a lot of fun, but you have to have a lot of interest in history," he says.
In 1991 the Forest Service put new roofs on the old buildings (using many of the original timbers) in order to stop the deterioration of the adobe. That work kicked off the restoration effort. The Forest Service "Passport in Time" volunteer programs have built some walls and done some other large projects, but the week-to-week labor is performed by the Friends of Kentucky Camp.
The 50-some members of the group come out on the weekends, but materials are in short supply. Therefore restoration has been tough going.
Franks is hoping to get one room in the main ranch house finished in order to display some historical information.
"We're working under a heck of a strict budget," he says. "We're trying to get $300 to get some doors so we don't ruin the floors. We get some small support from donations, maybe enough to buy a pound of nails. That might sound like nothing to somebody else, but when you're working under such a tight budget, a pound of nails means a lot."
Financial obstacles aside, the project is making headway.
"Stabilization and restoration is going hand in hand," says an optimistic Franks. "In three years, I've seen it come a long way."
Next to the main ranch house, some iris bulbs peek out of the ground. Franks discovered they were planted there by Floss Fenter, the wife of ranch hand Wick Fenter, more than 50 years ago. Each spring the white flowers bloom, a faint echo of the day-to-day life was Kentucky Camp. Franks hopes it won't be long before the restoration efforts make the entire camp seem as alive as those spring buds.
GETTING THERETake Interstate-10 east to Highway 83, continuing south toward Sonoita. After 21 miles look for Gardner Canyon Road on your right. Follow Gardner Canyon Road for about a mile until you come to Forest Service Road 163 heading into Fish Canyon. Follow 163 (the main road). After climbing over a hill, veer left of a small corral. Shortly after that there will be a steep, rugged road off to the left. Stay straight on the main road. After a little more than six miles from the highway, you'll climb up a hill and see a locked, green gate. Park there and walk through the gate a quarter-mile down the road to Kentucky Camp.
BEING THEREThe Friends of Kentucky Camp are always looking for new members to come out and help with restoration. The next work day at the camp starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, January 13. Be sure to bring your lunch and work clothes. Memberships are $10 for individuals or $15 for families. Call the group's president, Billee Hoornbeek, at 648-5793; or call Arnold Franks on Wednesdays at 294-9783 for more information.
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