Gold Rush – Times Publications, March 2011
The sweltering summer sun loomed high above the desert floor as Jacob Snively and his fellow prospectors trekked across the Gila Valley, about 20 miles east of Yuma.
The rocky terrain was bordered by an ominous mountain range, dotted with jagged boulders and thick brush. Cutting through the Valley coursed the westward bend of the Gila River.
The year was 1858 and Snively, a pioneer and former colonel in the Texas Revolution, was on a historic mission—one that would ultimately change the course of history for Arizona.About 20 miles beyond the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers, Snively began his search, prospecting in the river bed, sifting through the soil. As the soot and water flowed out of his pan, Snively looked down to see a few gold nuggets shimmering in the sunlight. The strike would spur Arizona’s first boomtown of Gila City.
“Before you knew it, 1,200 miners rushed up to that isolated spot,” says Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble. “They found gold all over the place in the river there, and Gila City rapidly established itself as the West’s most wide-open town.”
It was the beginning of Arizona’s gold rush. Practically overnight, tens of thousands of enterprising men descended in wagonloads, transforming the dusty plains. Gold mines popped up across the state as prospectors panned in the creeks, rivers, hills and mountains. For the next century, more than 13 million ounces of gold would be discovered, making Arizona one of the leading gold-producers in the country.
More than 150 years later, there’s still gold in them there hills, and many modern-day Arizonans have caught their own case of gold fever. In the midst of the slumping economy, with gold prices soaring to historic highs, Arizona is experiencing a second gold rush of sorts. But while the chance of striking it rich is luring more and more would-be fortune finders, most are discovering that a career in prospecting rarely pans out.
Phoenix resident George King loads his shovel full of gravel from the creek bed near Lynx Lake at the base of the Bradshaw Mountains, a 40-mile long mountain range outside of Prescott.
King pours the soil into a tall bucket topped with a makeshift screen. For a few minutes he sifts carefully through the rocks and gravel, studying the contents intently. Suddenly, he tosses the soil behind him and takes a labored breath.
“No luck,” he mutters quietly.
Luck has not been too kind to King for quite some time now. He was laid off from his job at a construction company 14 months ago and soon afterward watched his house get taken back in a bank foreclosure.
At the age of 44, he is broke and living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment.
Putting a frustrating job search on hold, King turned to a more unconventional line of work when he traded his hammer for a pan and tried his hand at gold prospecting.
“I got kinda tired of sitting in front of the computer, filling out job applications and getting rejection letters all day long,” he says. “I figured I may as well be out here in the fresh air and do something I can hopefully make some money at.”
So far, however, he has yet to find his fortune. He has uncovered a few gold flakes here and there, but the value has yet to even make up for what he has invested on his gold-panning equipment.
“I haven’t hit the jackpot yet,” King says. “But I know it takes patience and a lot of time, which I have plenty of right now.”
King isn’t the only Valley resident to suddenly catch gold fever. In March 2008, when the price of gold began its historic climb—eclipsing $1,000 an ounce—an interest in prospecting was suddenly rekindled. As investors have once again sought the precious metal as a safe haven, the price of gold has continued to rise, hovering at around the $1,400 an ounce. That increase has spawned a rash of weekend gold diggers headed for the hills with pans, picks and metal detectors in tow.
“There is certainly an increased public interest in gold prospecting and mining with the economic downturn,” says Rod Fitzhugh, a Valley prospector who has spent the past 20 years panning for gold across the state. “Unfortunately, most of the increase is from people who turn to gold prospecting as a source of income.”
Panning for profit can often leave would-be wealthy prospectors in far worse financial shape than when they started, says Fitzhugh. Quality equipment is pricey, and it takes years of field experience to become a proficient miner.
“There can be money made, but it’s always a gamble, even with considerable experience. Without experience, it’s a one-way ticket to poverty,” says Fitzhugh. “Make no mistake, finding gold is hard work, and finding enough to make a modern living is nearly impossible once you factor in the real costs of doing it.”
During the gold rush of the 1800s, Arizona was home to some of America’s richest gold mines. Most of those mines, however, were either mined dry or flooded by underground streams. Modern-day prospectors are left to sift through the wreckage, and it’s difficult, dirty work. Prospectors are often lucky to find just a few gold flecks in a shovelful of dirt.
Still, for those who don’t take it too seriously, it can be an enjoyable and potentially profitable pastime, says Fredrick Horn, president of the Roadrunner Prospector’s Club.
“It’s really a hobby. I can’t say that you can make a great income doing this. Most people don’t make money from this,” Horn says. “But if you want to work every day and go out mining, you can make some money.”
With over 1,200 members and 200 gold-producing claims to its credit, the Roadrunner Prospector’s Club is the state’s largest gold prospecting club, attracting a variety of treasure seekers—from educated working professionals to the traditional cowboy miners. While most don’t strike it rich, there are at least a few stories of hunters who have uncovered nuggets worth thousands.
Gold can be found in at least 10 of Arizona’s 15 counties, mostly in the northwestern and southern parts of the state. Some prospectors work the drainage systems and hillsides in the Tonto Basin in the northwestern corner of Gila County. Others mine the stream beds in the Lynx Creek area, a few miles south of Prescott in Yavapai County. The Bradshaw Mountains, outside Prescott, is currently the heart of Arizona’s modern gold country.
“There’s a lot of gold out there,” Horn says. “It’s just spread out across the state, across thousands and thousands of acres. You just have to find it.”
It was October 25, 1891, and 83-year-old Jacob Waltz was on his death bed.
A German immigrant and part-time prospector, Waltz operated a 160-acre farm near the Salt River, in an area later to be swallowed up by the East Valley’s urban sprawl. Months prior, Arizona’s worst flood in history caused the Salt to overflow, destroying Waltz’s modest adobe home. Waltz had contracted pneumonia, and as the illness took its toll, three of his caretakers gathered by his bedside.
There, in the early morning hours of October 25, Waltz told a story that would become the legend of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine and the obsession of many a prospector for generations to come. As the legend has it, in his last few breaths, Waltz revealed the location of a mine he had discovered in the Superstition Mountains.
“There was enough gold in the mine,” Waltz told them, “to make millionaires out of 20 men.”
Beneath his bed, the caretakers discovered a wooden candle box filled with nuggets of rich gold ore—evidence, Waltz claimed, of the mine.
The trio of caretakers would spend the rest of their lives in a fruitless search for the fortune, and more than a century later the treasure remains undiscovered but the legend lives on.“The story has kind of taken on a life of its own, and that’s what happened with the Dutchman,” says Trimble. “It’s really hard to separate truth from fiction now, especially after all these years.”
The Dutchman’s Curse
Razor-sharp rocks, twisting canyons and steep cliffs make up the unforgiving landscape of the Superstition Mountains, a wilderness area 40 miles east of Phoenix. Mountain lions and coyotes prowl the treacherous terrain, along with a slew of other potentially dangerous critters. Hidden somewhere deep within its 5,000-foot-tall shadows is the purported location of the Lost Dutchman’s gold.
The fabled fortune continues to draw treasure seekers from all over the world, occasionally resulting in fatal outcomes. Since the late 1800s dozens of treasure hunters have perished while in search of the gold.
“It’s just the lure of this place. It’s the most famous lost mine of them all,” says Trimble. “The Pima Indians had a word for these mysterious mountains, translated as ‘Superstition.’ In their lore, anyone who went into those mountains would not come out alive.”
In 1931, Adolph Ruth, a retired 78-year-old veterinarian and avid treasure hunter, began a trek through the Superstitions, carrying with him a map to the supposed location of the Dutchman’s mine. A search for his body commenced when he failed to return two weeks after having been escorted to his camp site. Months later his remains were discovered with what appeared to be two bullet holes in his skull.
Prospector James A. Cravey made a much-publicized trip into the Superstitions’ canyons by helicopter in 1947. The following February, his headless skeleton was found just yards from his camp.
Fortune hunters Stanley Hernandez and Benjamin Ferreira thought they had discovered the elusive mine during their trek into the mountains in 1959. Whether out of greed or perhaps some kind of dispute over how they would handle their newfound wealth, Hernandez killed Ferreira. Hernandez later learned that what the friends had thought was the motherload was actually pyrite, better known as Fool’s Gold.
In 1984, Walt Gassler, a prospector who had been searching for the Lost Dutchman’s mine for most of his life, was also found dead in the mountains. In a mysterious twist, a bit of gold ore was discovered in his pack, which was found to be identical to the gold located under the Dutchman’s bed.
And just last summer three Utah men, Curtis Merworth, 49, Ardean Charles, 66, and Malcolm Meeks, 41, went missing while searching for the Dutchman’s treasure. The trio, who were described by family members as “gold crazy,” had been rescued from the same area after a failed treasure hunt just one year prior.
In January, a fellow treasure hunter stumbled upon the remains of Charles and Meeks. A week later Superstition Search and Rescue located the skeletal remains of Merworth about a half mile away, resting under a tree. The medical examiner has yet to determine the cause of death, but it is widely speculated that the trio succumbed to the elements in the searing July heat.
“It’s not a park; it’s wilderness,” says Robert Barrientos, team leader of the Superstition Search and Rescue of the Superstition terrain. “There are things out there that want to eat you. There are things out there that want to bite you, sting you, prick you.”
Each year the non-profit, volunteer organization receives about 200 calls reporting lost hikers and hunters. Often those rescued turn out to be Lost Dutchman treasure seekers who have underestimated the perilous terrain.
“Most of the trails are blocked by boulders. They’re rocky, they’re covered with shale,” Barrientos says. “There are mountain lions in the area and bobcats. It can be dangerous.”
German immigrant Henry Wickenburg was a penniless farmer when he arrived in Arizona in 1862. After a year of prospecting, he wound up discovering the legendary Vulture Mine, the richest gold mine in Arizona history, where over $30 million in gold was found.
For four years Wickenburg prospected alone. Because he didn’t have the resourced to continue extracting the gold, he sold the mine and used the proceeds to purchase a ranch, now the town that bears his name.
While the Vulture Mine prospered, Henry Wickenburg, himself, did not. Flood waters destroyed his crops, and his livelihood, and legend has it that he was swindled out of his payout on the mine after the new owners claimed he didn’t have clear title on the property.
In 1905, 51 years to the day after the first ore from the Vulture Mine had been crushed, Henry Wickenburg tragically committed suicide. About 40 years later, the Vulture Mine was shuttered and today serves as a tourist attraction.
“He got ripped off, he got swindled,” says Trimble. “He never got his money and eventually committed suicide.”
The modern-day gold prospector bears little resemblance to Henry Wickenburg, Jacob Snively or any of the famed fortune hunters of the past. Today’s prospectors, however, still toil in the same mines and creeks and still possess that same pioneering spirit, says Trimble.“There’s an attitude of the miners,” he says. “Those guys, today and yesterday, are the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. They are just sure the rainbow’s end is just over the next hill.”
Retired Scottsdale engineer Robert Wierzal has been panning for gold in his spare time for more than 30 years. Although he has yet to find any formidable fortune, he says it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps him searching.
“The biggest piece I ever found was about half the size of your little fingernail,” says Wierzal, a board member of the Roadrunner Prospector’s Club. “That was pretty exciting. You pan it out. You see the black sand wash away and this piece of gold remains behind. It’s pretty neat.”
Although he hasn’t hit the jackpot, for Wierzal there’s something unique about prospecting on the same land, using the same methods as Arizona’s early miners over a century ago.
“People came here originally for mining, for the chance to strike it rich,” he says. “That’s what built Arizona. That’s our history.”