Postcards of Arizona:
Narrow gauge Porter locomotive on the railway trestle
at the Copper Creek Mine.
Photographic postcard, Collection of the Author.
Copyright 2001 Jeremy Rowe, All Rights Reserved
a period of several years I have been able to acquire a small group of individual
postcards of the Copper Creek mine. As they were assembled, they raised
questions about the small railway at the mine, And how it happened to appear
in the middle of the rugged mountains of Pinal County. What I found to be
a fascinating story emerged about an amazing overland treck by wagons loaded
down with the little locomotive and the lives of those who made this remote
outpost their home.
Copper Creek, its mines and town are located in the Galiuro mountains in the South East corner of Pinal County near Arivaipa Valley. This area produced silver as early as 1863, when ore was hauled to Yuma and shipped to Wales for reduction. Despite the relatively rich ore, factors including the remoteness of the area, the cost of transporting the ore, and the threat of Indians combined to limit mining activity in Copper Creek.
By 1880, in the wake of the silver strikes at Tombstone and in the Bradshaw Mountains outside of Prescott, interest in mining in Arizona was at its peak. The rich claims of Silver King and Silver Queen claims focused much activity in Pinal County in South-Central Arizona. As interest grew, men began to once again explore remote areas such as Copper Creek in their search for silver and gold. A group of prospectors, William N. Miller, Theodore H. Peters, and Ely H. McDaniels entered the area early in 1880 and formed the Copper Creek Mining District and staked several claims including the Blue Bird, General Lee, and Superior mining claims) while they were camped to avoid Apache Indians in the area.
In May 1880, McDaniels and his group returned to Tombstone. The claims were filed and soon bonding was secured from Wade Hayes to equip and develop the mining properties in Copper Creek. Three shafts were sunk and the ore was initially carried by horseback to Benson fro refining. Due to the death of Mr. Hayes and squabbling between his heirs and McDaniels and the other owners of the claim, no further development of the area occurred until over 20 years later.
The cost of transporting ore overland from Copper Creek to smelters for refining was prohibitive and limited mining activity in the area. But as interest in extending railroads to other mines and towns in eastern Pinal County brought the potential of carrying ore by rail, interest in Copper Creek rose once again. Proposed routes from Tucson through the San Pedro Valley, the Arizona Narrow Gauge Railroad project, and the Phoenix Eastern from Phoenix to Benson each generated new interest in the Copper Creek area. In 1901, Col. Frank J. Sibley of Atwood and Sibley purchased the Consolidated Arizona Mill at Arivaca (sic) about 20 miles north and East of the Copper Creek area.
Apparently as a result
of interest in the area, Sibley was involved in finding investors and
organized the Copper Creek Mining Company in Chicago in 1903. By 1905,
49,000 pounds of copper had been produced by the 90 men who worked at
The following year, on March 6, 1906, a Post Office was established in Copper Creek, Pinal County, Arizona with Belle E. Sibley (wife of Rupert Sibley) as the postmistress. The settlement of Copper Creek continued to grow slowly, first appearing in Bradstreet's Book of Commercial Ratings in 1908, where it is listed in Graham County. The first commercial listing did not appear until the Copper Creek Mining Company, incorporated in 1910 with Sibley as General Manager.
As other companies, such as the Calumet & Arizona Mining, Tharsis Sulfur& Copper, and Minnesota-Arizona Copper (in which Sibley was also involved) became interested in the area, plans for a railway were again revived. But a railroad to connect Copper Creek to the outside world was never to become a reality. However, as the scale of mining expanded there was an increasing need for local transportation of materials and ore around Copper Creek.
By March of 1912,
ore was still being hauled overland to Winkleman for processing, but the
local concentrator was being expanded, and a dam on the creek was under
construction to provide power for a milling operation for the mines. In
April, construction started to build a narrow gauge railroad within Copper
Creek Canyon to link the town, mines, and mill.
The rail route that
had been constructed was short, but it traversed some incredibly rugged
terrain. The railway operated for about a year linking the town, mines
and mill together via a series of switchbacks and steep hillside roadbed.
The postcards illustrating life at Copper Creek were taken during construction
of the railway, transport of the locomotive, and early in the history
of its operation. The Ray Consolidated Copper Company logo is still on
the tender and the image of the locomotive on the trestle shows the proud
engineer leaning out of the cab of his new locomotive towards the camera.
It soon became clear that the ore was not rich enough to support operations, and the Calumet and Copper Creek Copper Company went bankrupt in 1914. Several attempts were made to reopen the mines in the area. The Calumet & Arizona Mining Company tried in 1914, and the Copper State Mining Company tried again in 1915 without success. In 1933 interest in a new mineral, molybdenum, generated renewed interest in the mines at Copper Creek. The Arizona Molybdenum Corporation purchased the claims in Copper Creek Canyon and successfully operated the mines until 1939 when the mining operations were discontinued and the facilities were dismantled.
Today, little remains of Copper Creek and the men who worked there but the postcards that tell the story of the rise and fall if this remote mining camp.