Filler Dust To Dust

A Crumbling Adobe Wall Marks The Ghost Town Of Helvetia.
By Kevin Franklin

BULLET WOUNDS SCAR the single adobe wall. The rest of the building--perhaps once a saloon, perhaps a Chinese laundry--is gone, returning to the ground it rose from a century ago.

Out There A light wind rolls over this bluff and the mesquite and palo verde trees move lazily. Aside from a lizard running for cover into a cactus thicket, nothing makes a sound out here in the desert 30 miles southeast of Tucson.

But 100 years ago, this place was a bustling boom town mining tons of copper out of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. They called it Helvetia.

In 1875, a couple of entrepreneurs by the names of Pinckney Randolph Tully and Estevan Ochoa showed up in Tucson with 5,000 pounds of copper ore from the northern end of the Santa Rita Mountains, writes Lin Feil in his Journal of Arizona History story, "Helvetia: Boom Town of the Santa Ritas." With Tully and Ochoa's find, the rush was on as a number of miners began staking claims in the area.

As Feil tells the story, one of these miners, Ben Hefti, was the principal force in creating the Helvetia Mining District, named after his native Switzerland.

But when copper prices dipped in 1883, the two mining companies operating here shut down. Helvetia fell on hard times.

The ornery town's hopes brightened a decade later. Thomas Edison's newfangled light bulb created a new demand for copper wiring; and by the early 1890s, Helvetia rose again, men filling its mines to answer the call for copper.

By 1899, the Helvetia Copper Company of New Jersey was operating the largest mining camp in Pima County. The mines' general manager, James B. Seager, had 500 men swinging picks and hauling ore. Four saloons, a hotel, post office, school, Chinese laundry, shoemaker and butcher shop all sprang up out of the dirt, serving a wild gang of men who often exploded into pay-day brawls.

Image "These scrapes sometimes consisted," writes Feil, "of nothing more than a fist fight or perhaps a friendly joust with knives, but upon occasion they reached riot proportions.... For a day and a half, shots rang out and numerous knife fights took place. When the smoke had cleared, two lay dead and six more were wounded."

Sounds like a planning and zoning meeting.

The ease of reaching this place has resulted in almost all of its historical artifacts either being destroyed or carried away.

But you can still see pictures of it. In 1966 Paul Newman and Richard Boone filmed Hombre here, writes Betty Leavengood in Hiker's Guide to the Santa Rita Mountains. Back then, many of the wooden structures still stood and the adobe buildings were in much better shape.

Newspaper accounts claim the district extracted $400,000 in ore, including 17 million pounds of copper. The dunes of rock debris seem to support the claim. A maze of mine roads wind through here, explaining its appeal to motor-cross enthusiasts. The mine shafts, tailings and other workings are still here, but the wreckage of the town is gone. Surprisingly, a few decent specimens of chrysocolla can be found among the miners's discards.

At the town's height, many folks moved their families and businesses from Tucson to here, thinking things would last. But disaster struck when, a year after the mine smelter was completed, a mass of slag ran onto the wooden floor of the building, burning it to the ground. Feil says the accident struck a crushing blow to the Helvetia Copper Company. Although they rebuilt the smelter, another economic depression in 1902 toppled the company.

A year later, the Michigan and Arizona Development Company bought the mining claims and built yet another smelter. But 1907 brought another depression that shut down the smelter. The company limped along when copper prices rose again, but by 1911 it gave up the ghost.

By 1923 there were only 10 students left in the local school, and the city fathers decided to close up shop. The few remaining families moved on, leaving Helvetia to vandals and ghost town junkies.


Head south on I-19 to exit 75, pass through Sahuarita, cross the tracks and turn right on Santa Rita Road. Continue for about 12 miles to two consecutive forks in the road. Stay to the left for both. This is now Forest Service Road 505. The Helvetia Cemetery is a quarter mile past the intersection, on the left. Follow the road (about one mile past the intersection), taking a right at (away from) the Specialty Minerals Inc. sign. A half-mile past this make a left to find the adobe ruins, downtown Helvetia. TW

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