Wild and Rustic

After years of decay and neglect, this old mining town is again open

Ruby was once a gem in Southern Arizona's mining town showcase, but it lost its sparkle many years ago when the mine closed, and residents departed. Now the ghost town is back in action, ready to entertain the adventurous soul who is willing to brave the heat, the drive and the elements to explore a bit of history.

The uninitiated traveler may get lulled into tranquility during the first part of the ride south on Interstate 19 from Tucson (about 20 miles). Take the Arivaca exit and enjoy the scenic cruise to and through the town; turn left at the T-junction of old Ruby Road. Back off on the gas pedal, because the paved road will soon become a dusty track (or a muddy trail should a monsoon rain have fallen). Arizona Highway 289 will take you to your ghost-town destination along what is euphemistically referred to as a winding mountain road. Nearly a dozen miles of this kind of travel, part of it through Coronado National Forest property, will bring you to the once-bustling, but now eerily quiet, town which was formerly known as Montana Camp.

The sign "Ruby: Population 1" is no joke. Once you spot the sign, you will soon meet Sundog, aka Perro del Sol, the solitary caretaker of what used to be a town of 1,200 people, mostly miners digging for gold, silver, lead and zinc. In fact, the Montana Mine during this period produced more lead and zinc than any other mine in Arizona.

Ruby was founded sometime in the late 1800s, however the mines in the area played out after about 50 years, and settlers didn't stick around long when there was no way to make a living. Ruby became a padlocked ghost town with prohibitions against entry until the early 1990s, when new ownership felt it was again time to put out the welcome mat.

Sundog handles visitation details, from collecting an entry fee to providing a map and some narrative about the property and its past. He knows the land well after living in one of its tin-roofed clapboard buildings for the last two years. "Spartan" doesn't begin to describe his lifestyle, which doesn't include some of life's basic domestic necessities (like electricity and running water)--to say nothing about lifestyle amenities.

"We do have two well-kept outhouses on the property," he says.

Although there are several roadways, Ruby is best appreciated as a walking town. Cars are generally parked to minimize the noise they make and the dust they generate. ATVs are not allowed.

There are picnic sites around the upper lake. (Yes, depending on drought cycles, there are two lakes that contain bass, catfish and bluegill. Fishing with small boats powered by oars or electric trolling motors is allowed.) The lakes, former reservoirs for the old mine's milling operations, also act as impromptu swimmin' holes during really hot days.

Do not expect a bright and shiny touristy-type ghost town here, as what you see has been on site, the unprotected victim of sun and rain, for decades. There are some houses, a schoolhouse and remnants of a jail. Lots of weathered timbers, rusted tools, mine shafts and evidence of mine cave-ins act as reminders of just how bustling this place once was. It retains its wild and rustic elements.

"If you see wild animals like skunks, bats or bobcats, leave them alone. There are rattlers. They are residents. Please let them pass unharmed," Sundog suggests quietly based on his first-person experiences with buzztails.

In the book, Ruby, Arizona: Mining, Mayhem and Murder, authors Bob Ring, Al Ring and Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon (who lived in Ruby as a youngster in the 1930s), write: "The future of Ruby is anything but certain. Over the years, there has been talk among the owners about creating a Ruby historical site by restoring the old mining camp and turning it into a collection of museums." Co-owner Howard Frederick says plans aren't quite that grandiose.

"These buildings have taken a lot of wear and tear, and our restoration goal is to maintain those that are salvageable. The warehouse, the school and the jail are indestructible, and the houses on the hill are worth trying to restore, but it's a never-ending battle."

His wife, Pat, adds, "I'd personally like to do more restoration but would literally have to win the lottery in order to accomplish that. Nature's way ahead of us down here." For now, the town stands as it did more than 100 years ago. "The value of Ruby is what it is historically, environmentally and aesthetically," Frederick says. "Part of the town's attraction is its remoteness and rustic beauty. Since the mine closed in the 1940s, Ruby has changed very little, and that's the charm and allure--the way it is now is the way it was then."