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Total Wreck Mine, Pima Co. Arizona

Last Updated: 16th Jun 2017

By Rolf Luetcke

Total Wreck Mine, Pima County, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

A number of years ago a friend asked if I had ever been to the Total Wreck Mine and I said no. He said he and a second vehicle were going and I was welcome to come along. This was back in the 1980's and no mindat to check on things. I had several local county mines books and looked up the mine to get a bit of an idea what was there. The guys said the main thing that comes from the mine and what they were going after was wulfenite.
The Total Wreck Mine was worked for lead, silver, copper, molybdenum, gold, manganese and vanadium. It was discovered in 1879 and was worked until about 1940. The name came from the side of the limestone mountain, which was a jumble of rocks and boulders that made the whole hill look like it was a total wreck. At least that is one of the two or more stories that had been in circulation about the origin of the name. The various workings amounted to about 5,000 feet of tunnels, shafts and more. Some 14,000 tons of ore were produced during the active operation of the mine. Total Wreck was established as a town after the mine began working and got a post office in 1881, which stayed open until 1890. In 1883 the town was listed as having 200 residents with numerous stores, saloons, laundries and more. Ore was shipped by wagon through the Empire Ranch to the railroad at Vail.
The road to the Total Wreck is a long and horrible dirt road starting from highway 83 between the freeway, I 10 East of Tucson to Sonoita. The dirt road called S. Hilton Ranch Road leads East from the highway and at first passes a number of small homes and ranches. The view is toward a very steep ridge and the road soon climbs steeply up the mountain. In one place it was paved and only one lane since the steepness always eroded out the dirt road they paved a short section. The road suddenly hits the top and then you are up on the higher range and it is relatively level up there.
Many side roads led off from the main dirt road and it was later I found these also went to small mines. There are about 25 small mines in this part of the mountains. I visited some of those in later years. This trip we were on the way to the Total Wreck and the guys knew the way. I was amazed how bad the dirt road was and it was only possible to make the road with a high clearance vehicle. Four wheel drive was not a must but certainly helped. I remember one section that was virtually all rock and climbed up a small hill. We came to a number of forks and I wondered if I would be able to find my way again if I wanted to go back. Luckily I had a decent memory of roads I had driven but in this case I was a passenger so was not so sure I could find the place again.
When we took the last fork of the road to the right it was from up on the higher upper part of the mountains and through a gate to the left the road dipped steeply to the lower parts of the mountains. The scene to the East was miles and miles of wild and open country. The road that went down I learned from one friend that he had tried to take that road back to the Freeway I 10 again but the road was even more difficult than the way we drove in. On that way apparently there were several steep drops into canyons and then up again so steep that four wheel drive was needed here. I never did go that way and stayed with the road I knew. On the internet there are guided direction to the Total Wreck and it goes this route from I 10 and gives precise milages and turns to take.
When we turned right at the last fork it was along the side of a hill the road traversed. It was not far to the mine and just before getting to the mine was a widening to the West where there was an open area and a large stone wall of a building that had once stood here. It was a spot I used to tell people I had told about the mine was just before you actually got to the mine and if you didn't come across this one wall, you had taken the wrong road. As you passed this spot the road again split and here is where we parked. One road went up to the right and up a steep hill. The road went up a hill and then split again, the left going along the hill toward the remnants of Total Wreck town and the other went right up so steep a vehicle had trouble going up or couldn't go up at all. At one time there had been a building at the top of this hill and the road had been usable. The lower road, where we parked, went past a steep dump below to the left and then around to the right and it opened up into a small valley. This is where the town of Total Wreck had been and one could see many old foundations where buildings had once stood. I never did much exploring of the old town since I was here for minerals. On the internet there are a number of photos of the old town at the time it was active and later photos of some of the remnants of equipment that had been found there.
Right where we had parked was a small foot trail that went up the hill and almost back the way we had driven in and a number of yards up the hill was a mine tunnel. There was not a big dump here so the mine was not easy to spot. The one friend said this is the tunnel he used to gain access to the mine. Another friend said that the dump that went down steeply a bit farther on past where we parked was the one he climbed down and found an opening and that is where he went in. From others I had heard there were several entrances to the Total Wreck but I only took that one horizontal tunnel we first went into. I had lights along and collecting equipment and a five gallon bucket for carrying things I collected. The tunnel went in horizontally and every so often a tunnel went down to the left at a steep angle. There were several of these and after the third of fourth one a big shaft angled down at a steep angle deep into the mine. It was much larger than the other shafts and was mostly solid rock and you could climb down carefully using the rock protrusions that were on the tunnel floor. The other shafts also went down to the lower levels but were all loose debris and it was very hard to go down or up these other tunnels. A friend said that clambering around underground in the Total Wreck was the dirtiest mine he had ever collected in. Maybe that is why in the days the town thrived that the Chinese laundry businesses outnumbered all the other businesses. I also found the manganese and iron host rock was extremely dirty.
This is the way we went into the mine and found a number of places from the second level down that had tunnels leading in many directions. We took the one to the left after descending the steep shaft. The tunnel on this level snaked its way here and there and in several places one saw sparkle of crystals. Most of these turned out to be either calcite or quartz but they sparkled in the light. We found several places that had wulfenite in the walls and worked some of them. There are other places in the underground where the mottramite in dark brown to black crystals was collected. I never looked for this area since I had a number of nice pieces I got from a friend in our collection already.
On this first trip to the mine the guys were after the wulfenite and I collected a number of different looking materials. We took out a load each and when we got back out to the open one friend had a big football size chunk he said was heavy but once he got it out to the open light it didn't look like anything. Since he had carried it out from the depths of the mine but didn't want to take it home he offered it to me. I love odd stuff and when I got this piece home it turned out to be altered galena to anglesite with a number of open pockets of crystals and still the nicest specimen I have brought home from the mine. Now I wish I had asked where he had picked up the piece since it had great material in it.
As I went into the tunnel I had looked around a lot and at around the third shaft spot that angled down the tunnel was a bit more open and had a ceiling that was about 7 feet high. It had a blue seam about 4 or 5 inches wide running at an angle across the ceiling. It was the only copper color I had seen and I saw it was chrysocolla and wanted some of it. I had a bucket along to carry samples and stood on top of the bucket full of specimens and managed to work out a few pieces of the seam to examine at home.
I didn't get back to the mine for many years and wanted to get back up there but didn't have the vehicle that would make the trip. Then a friend asked if I wanted to go up with him and his two ATV's. Sure and we parked our vehicle with the trailer down below near the highway and rode the ATV's all the way to the Total Wreck. I was amazed at how much easier it was to get to the mine with the ATV than an SUV or 4x4. Since I was actually riding my own vehicle I made a mental map of the way to the mine and which forks of the roads to take. We got to the mine in much less time and this time we went back to the chrysocolla seam in the ceiling and I worked out more material standing on the upturned bucket. Again the friend was more interested in the wulfenite and mottramite in the mine and we again went down the tunnel to the next level down. On this trip he had me follow him down the upper horizontal tunnel and said it was not far and the tunnel went out the other side of the mountain. We worked our way a bit and sure enough saw light ahead. That tunnel went straight through the mountain and must have allowed access from two different sides. It was the only time I ever went all the way through to the other side. This time I vowed to come back myself sometime and work that ceiling more. In the meantime another friend was going to the mine and asked if there was anything I wanted and I said more chrysocolla from that ceiling spot. When he returned he said he couldn't find the place. So, if I wanted more I had to go back myself.
When I got my own ATV and decided to go back with the one friend with his ATV I took the tools I needed to work on the ceiling. I took a step ladder about 4 feet high and an old bed sheet and a long chisel and bigger sledge. I spread the sheet on the floor and then set up the ladder and started working the seam. Fortunately I had clear safety glasses to keep debris out since I was working above my head. The ceiling was in good shape and no loose rock that could fall while working out the seam. It was not easy since the surrounding rock was tough limestone and working out only the chrysocolla was not as easy as I had hoped. I did get a nice amount of the material to study when home.
I ended up working for nearly an hour there until my arms no longer had any strength left and then gathered all the material on the sheet and sorted it into size and kept the small stuff also. It turned out this seam had what I loved collecting, the lead-copper associated minerals with a number of other things for interest. This seam had at least ten different mineral species. The same opening with the chrysocolla also dropped off into the deeper levels with a steep and slippery debris covered slope. It was not easy going down this and climbing out on such a steep slope with everything loose was even harder. I went down a bit to see what was there but found it difficult and there was not much to be seen so I worked my way back up. I found one ceiling spot just as the tunnel dropped off had sparkly crystals. I got some of this material as well and that turned out to be wulfenite but in poorly developed crystals. They looked like they had been etched or looked melted and were not like the normal bladed wulfenite.
In all I took 4 or 5 trips to the Total Wreck Mine and pretty much used the same entrance to access the mine. Other said they found things in different tunnels but I only went into this one.
On the first trip with the two vehicles we were on our way back down from underground to the cars when one of the guys saw something next to some bushes. Seems someone had been collecting and either had filled up all they could take or some other thing had happened but they left two flats under a bush. When the friend opened up the flats they were full of wulfenite specimens. He took the flats along and thanked whoever had collected them for saving him lots of work. The other guys on the trip wanted some of the wulfenite but the fellow who found them was not letting anyone take any. His only words were "finders-keepers" and we realized he was not one to share any finds he made.
Since the last trip I have not been back in about ten years. Several other friends have gone up and they had trouble finding the places I described to them. One went back twice and never did find the tunnel that was large and easy to access the lower levels. He thought it must have caved in but I remember it as being very solid and think it more likely that he just never saw that tunnel for what it was. I doubt whether it would have caved in since it was quite solid when I was there. A different friend had seen this tunnel but didn't want to go down into the mine since he was by himself.
Mindat lists 20 mineral species from the Total Wreck Mine and I have found 17 different minerals and a few were not on the mindat list. The following is what I have found in the mine : anglesite,aragonite, calcite, cerussite, chlorargyrite, chrysocolla, galena, gypsum, hematite, limonite, malachite, mimetite, mottramite, pyrite, quartz, willemite and wulfenite. There are still a few mystery minerals.
One story involves the chrysocolla seam and a green, tiny, platy minerals I found there. When I first found it I thought I had found fornacite but it was not listed and on research I found the mottramite can be bright green like the fornacite. I never did have the material tested but made the assumption that since the mottramite can be the green, tabular crystals it must be the mottramite I had found.
In 2016 there were fires in the mountains and much of the upper part of the area burned. I have not been back to the mine since that time but fires have been in that area more than once. The Total Wreck mine is an interesting place to go but I would suggest anyone wanting to go to the mine to be sure not to go with just one vehicle and be prepared for some rough country but very pretty views. Most people visit the mine in Winter since Summer temperatures can be brutal.

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I'd like to see that anglesite next time I visit you! :)
David K Joyce

David K. Joyce
17th Jun 2017 1:55pm

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