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Small Mine in the Chiricahua Mountains

Last Updated: 25th Oct 2015

By Rolf Luetcke

Small Mine in the Chiricahua Mountains
By Rolf Luetcke

Back in 1970 I was working for the Southwestern Research Station, a field station of the American Museum of Natural History. I was studying biology and rattlesnake behavior at the time but was very much interested in photographing all aspects of natural history.
There is a dirt road that crosses the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeastern Arizona and is the access to the higher parts of the mountains. With wonderful camping available I took my days off to explore the mountains. At the place where the road crosses a saddle, called Onion Saddle, there is a road that goes NW and over to the Chiricahua National Monument. This canyon is called Pinery Canyon and is a wonderful drive.
At Onion Saddle is a small dirt road that gives access to a nice meadow for camping and the dirt road continues for 4x4 vehicles to another saddle farther up the mountains. The roads split here but driving from here is nearly impossible so I did a lot of hiking from where I parked. At this small saddle was a big fire ring where people had made fires while camping. At the edge of the small meadow was a large pile of broken up rock. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, I was a biologist and not a mineral collector, yet.
I had hiked down one of the roads leading off from this meadow and it went down at a very steep angle into a small canyon. Big trees had fallen over the years and blocked any road driving but the road continued. I wondered where this road went and it went nearly half way down to Pinery Canyon where the dirt road went down the West side. The little dirt road I was on suddenly ended at a small diggings. The “mine” was certainly not large by any means and there was only a section of the rock at the side of the canyon that had been scooped out. There were maybe two tons of rock that had been moved. Much was lying by the small canyon and the rest had apparently been carried up the road to the piles in the meadow above. Since the piles of rock were in a small drainage I was certain much of it had washed down the canyon over the years since this prospect has been dug. The location was hard to find in the literature. I later pinned the location down to unnamed Cu-Zn-Pb-Ag prospect, California District, Chiricahua Mts. Cochise Co. Arizona. There was no information as to what date this prospect was worked but there is not much left of the road and nothing that was left at the mine in the way of human artifacts. Sometimes a property can be dated by cans or bottles left by the workers but there was nothing here.
My life went on for about 30 years and now a mineral collector I took my wife to the pile of ore at the little meadow. The material there had spots of blue and green and since my interest lay in copper species I picked up a couple of flats of the material. I took a few pieces to a friend and he identified the blue as Linarite, not the Azurite I had thought. We never did walk down the steep road to the small prospect at the bottom of the steep road.
I studied the material from the piles a bit more and found several minerals I couldn’t identify. I ended up leaving those with a friend who had someone that worked at a lab and eventually the specimens came back to me with lab identified species. The species were really interesting, Linarite, Brochantite, Serpierite, Devilline and more. Now my interest was really peaked and I made a special trip with Mary to go back to the small prospect. I had been there last in 1970 and she wondered if my memory was good enough to be able to find the mine again. I was lucky to have one of those memory storage files where the places I have been to are still quite vivid in my mind. I told Mary about the parts of the road and which way they went. Then, after she was about to turn back I said it was only another few hundred yards ahead and even to my surprise, there it was. We saw that very little digging had been done into the side of the hill and the ore pinched out rather quickly. One could see a bit of copper staining in the side of the scooped out part so there had been the possibility of finding an ore body. Unfortunately, like at many an old prospect, the vein pinched out quickly and nothing more was done. I wondered with new techniques if more ore could be found inside the mountain or if it had really played out. The dumps had little showing as well but in scouring the areas that were quite overgrown with brush I came across one football size piece with plenty of the colors I had been looking for. That piece proved to be the prize for me. When I got it home it had very nice, although microscopic crystals of most of the species I was looking for.
This prospect will never produce anything for a cabinet but for a micromount collector it was a very nice spot to revisit after so many years.
For some reason this small prospect had the right mineralization to crystalize some uncommon species I was happy to self collect.
From the prospect where we had collected we could look West and North. To the West across Pinery Canyon and I never was able to spot it visually but there was the El Tigre Mine, a place I had visited often and found some wonderful specimens.
There are other mines not too far from this little prospect, the Hilltop is the most famous of the mines in the area. The Pine Zinc mine is another mine that is supposed to be here. I have spent days hiking to try and find the Pine Zinc mine but have never been able to actually discover the tunnels that were listed in the literature.
The access to most of these mines is now by hiking or maybe ATV but the Forest Service, not maintaining any of the side roads in the mountains has let them go back to being nearly impassable.
Hiking in this area is wonderful in summer since it is in the mountains and has a very pleasant temperature. The scenery here is about as nice as one can have in Southeastern Arizona and I recommend taking the road up Pinery Canyon to Onion Saddle and down the other side to Portal as a day trip or camping at the various campgrounds in the area. The campground at Rustler Park is beautiful and I have visited there often.
When I wrote this above article it had not burned in the Chiricahua Mountains in a long time. Since then a huge fire before the rainy season came burned much of the upper Chiricahua Mountains. There are still areas that look pristine but Rustler Park has completely burned all the wonderful trees that made that such a nice campground. Fortunately the fire was spotty, taking out whole slopes and leaving others alone.
A trip to a small mine above the Hilltop Mine showed me something I had not seen before. That area had burned hot and hard and when I picked up a couple of bags of ore from the dumps and looked at them at home, the heat and fire had totally altered the outsides of the stones. There was a lot of melted rock now and much of what had been there was altered by the fire. The insides of the larger stones were still fairly pristine but the outsides were completely altered by the burn.
I have not been back to the small prospect with the interesting copper species to see if that area burned.
The area of Pinery Canyon was fortunately spared to a great extent by the huge fire. The places I have gone back to were not burned in that fire.

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Another great experience for you and to share it with readers. Hope we can one day get together to visit some of these sites. Brander

Brander Robinson
2nd Nov 2015 4:57am

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