In the early 1850s, American prospectors found the ruins of old Mexican mining camps in what became the Oro Blanco (“white gold”) Mining District in southernmost central Arizona. In the early years, Apache attacks were frequent and deadly, continuing until Geronimo’s surrender in 1886.
The Montana, the district’s longest active and most profitable mine, opened in April 1877. Its miners depleted surface gold lodes by the mid-1880s, but deeper silver-zinc-lead deposits kept the mine in operation.
Production wasn’t easy. The hard rhyolite rock resisted processing, and an 1885–87 drought drained the reservoirs that supplied steam-powered ore crushers. In May 1887 an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale sheared huge rock slabs from Montana Peak, as the crest above the mine had come to be called.
In 1912, the year Arizona achieved statehood, the federal government granted the Montana mining camp a post office, conferring upon it official town status. Management and workers adopted Ruby— the maiden name of the first postmaster’s wife—as the official town name. The population that year was nearly 1,200.
In 1917 the Montana—buoyed by a change in management and America’s entry into World War I—shifted to lead and zinc production. The new owners had to pump out the tunnels and regrade 24 miles of road across the mountains to meet the rail line. They also constructed a new dam to hold water for the mills. Heavy September rains and truck traffic soon ruined the road. Ironically, after work on the dam finished in October, there wasn’t enough rainfall to build adequate stores. By February the new investors had halted operations.
In 1915 Phil Clarke built an adobe mercantile store in Ruby. It did well, and Clarke later added a post office annex for extra income. He sold the business in February 1920 to pursue cattle ranching.
The new storeowners, brothers Alexander and John Fraser, were veterans of the Oro Blanco mines. On February 27, weeks after moving in, shots rang out while Alexander was tending store. John rushed to the front to find Alexander on the floor and two bandits rifling the cash register. They forced John to open the safe. After clearing it out, they shot John in the eye and fled. A customer found the victims a little later. Alexander was dead, but John regained consciousness long enough to identify their assassins, Mexicans Ezequiel Lara and Manuel Garcia. John Fraser died three days later in Nogales.
Lara and Garcia slipped across the Mexican border just four miles south of Ruby. In October Garcia crossed back into Arizona and was killed in a gunfight with two Pima County deputy sheriffs. Mexican authorities imprisoned Lara the following year for a murder he committed in Mexico.
Within a month of the Fraser murders, Frank Pearson and his wife, Myrtle, bought the mercantile store, living in the back as the brothers had. On August 26, 1921, seven Mexican bandits arrived and brutally shot and killed both Frank and Myrtle. The bandits also shot Mrs. Pearson’s visiting sister, Elizabeth, but she survived by deflecting the bullet with her upraised hand. Mr. Pearson’s visiting sister, Irene, grabbed the Pearsons’ 4-year-old daughter, Margaret, and hid in a bunkhouse. The bandits stole an unknown amount of money, two rifles and a revolver, clothing, tobacco, groceries and Myrtle’s gold teeth, which they knocked from her mouth with a rifle butt.
Authorities captured two of the gang’s ringleaders. One, Manuel Martinez, was sentenced to death and hanged by the state two years later. The other, Placido Silvas, was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1928 he escaped from a work detail and vanished.
Despite the violence, the Eagle-Picher Lead Co. bought the stagnant mine in 1927. In 1930 workers completed a 16- mile pipeline to ensure a constant water supply, just in time for the Great Depression. Falling ore prices forced temporary closure. In 1934 prices again improved, and for the next few years the Montana was Arizona’s top lead and zinc producer.
In 1940 the Montana’s production peaked. Four years later, large-scale mining ceased in Ruby. Residents demolished many existing buildings for materials. Harsh Arizona weather and vandals brought further deterioration.
A consortium of interested Tucsonans bought the decaying town site in 1961. By 1975 their preservation efforts had earned the town a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today Ruby is open to the public for tours, fishing and camping. A caretaker protects the grounds, which remain private property.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.