Gold miners first drove picks in Arizona Territory along the Colorado River north of Fort Yuma, afterward fanning out north and east and entering the Hassayampa River valley. In November 1863 German immigrant Henry Wickenburg set out south along the Hassayampa from his central Arizona Territory ranch with E.A. Van Bibber and Theodore Rusk to search for rumored gold in the Harquahala Mountains. They found none, but on the return trip Wickenburg noted a white quartz ledge in a ridge west of the Hassayampa.
Returning alone to the ridge a month later, Wickenburg brought back goldflecked samples to his compatriots, and the three posted a location notice (though not a formal claim), calling the site the Vulture. In an 1897 Arizona Republican interview Wickenburg claimed, “I always liked short names, and it just came into my head to call it the Vulture.”
Van Bibber and Rusk moved on, so in May 1864Wickenburg returned with four new partners and filed a proper claim with territorial officials in Prescott. The men organized the Wickenburg Mining District and built an arrastra (grinding tub) nine miles away on the Hassayampa. Wickenburg had others work the claim, charging them $15 per ton of ore removed.
By June 1865 some 40 mule-powered arrastras and a new five-stamp mill were crushing ore on the Hassayampa. The scattered miners eventually coalesced around the mill, at Martinez Wash, and around Wickenburg’s home, a mile south. Businesses and a post office opened, and the town of Wickenburg was born.
Later that year Wickenburg sold his interest in the mine and mill for $25,000 to a group of New Yorkers, who incorporated the Vulture Mining Co. In 1866 the company replaced the five-stamp mill with a modern 20-stamp processor, and by 1870 the mine was producing half of all gold coming out of the territory.
At its height the company employed some 150 men and paid wages of $70 a week (workers at Virginia City’s rich Comstock Lode averaged only $4 a day). “We made money right from the start,” boasted blacksmith D.S. Chamberlain.“Ten loaded [mule] teams would leave the mine daily for the mill….Money was plentiful, wages high, and all seemed good spenders.”
Yavapai raids proved costly. The warring tribe forced the company to employ armed men to escort all supply trains and parties coming to or from the mines. In 1868 one digger complained to the Arizona Miner: “The Indians can come here at night and kill us.We cannot watch them at night, as every man works during the day and needs rest at night.”
More financial woes loomed. In 1872 the company hit water at the 300-foot level, flooded the mine and had to suspend operations. The financial panic of 1873 struck before it could reopen the main shaft, and Maricopa County seized the property for failure to pay taxes.What mining remained shifted to the reprocessing of low-grade tailings and discarded gold quartz.
In 1878, with arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad 50 miles to the south, Seymour, Hunt & Co. bought the mine and formed the Central Arizona Mining Co. To cut costs, it decided to process ore at the Vulture itself, using discarded ore to construct an office building, boardinghouse and assay room, as well as a state-of-the-art 80- stamp mill. In 1879–80 work crews built a 12-mile pipeline and steam-powered pump station to drive water uphill from the Hassayampa to the new mill.
A new town, Vulture, formed at the mine, comprising a few stores, a Wells Fargo office, a post office, a school and even a free reading hall. But even after grossing $210,000 in 1883, the Central Arizona remained in the red due to its costly mill and pumping system. The mine closed again the following year.
In 1887 silver baron Horace Tabor purchased the Vulture as a speculative venture for $265,000. By 1896 Tabor had resorted to extracting ore from discarded tailings via a new cyanide process. He even tore down the office building and boardinghouse to process their walls. But the Vulture was played out, and in 1897 the bankrupt mine sold at a sheriff’s auction. An obsessed Tabor fought in vain to regain the property until his death in 1899.
From its founding through the turn of the century the Vulture made between $4 million and $6 million. Miners managed one final spurt from 1908 to 1917, after which major operations ceased.
In 2011 Wickenburg resident Michael Smith purchased the mine. He plans to restart operations and told The Wickenburg Sun, “My group is working with the preservation group [www.savevulture mine.org] … and I think we can preserve a vast amount of the structures.” Thus the Vulture’s fortunes wax once again.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.