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The El Tigre Mine, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Last Updated: 4th Feb 2018

By Rolf Luetcke

The El Tigre Mine, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

Back in the early 1970's I was exploring the dirt roads of the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. I worked as a volunteer at the Southwestern Research Station, a field station of the American Museum of Natural History. I would reach Pinery Canyon from the east side most of the time but most people came from the northwest side. From the exit on interstate 10 at Willcox and then south to Dos Cabezas, an old ghost town at the foot of the Dos Cabezas Mountains and beyond to the turn off for the Chiricahua National Monument. It is well posted along the route to the Monument and just follow those signs. I drove highway 181, which went to the Chiricahua National Monument, also known as the Wonderland of Rocks to the foothills of the Chiricahuas. The area of the Chiricahua Mountains here were sacred to the Apache Indians and a formation named Cochise Head was a sacred rock. The area was also a maze of rocks, easy to escape from the cavalry chasing them. Just before you got to the entrance of the monument a dirt road went off to the right and up Pinery Canyon road or forest road number 42. The Pinery Canyon road winds along the open plains near the mountains and then follows the canyon for a number of miles, up into the mountains and eventually to a pass called Onion Saddle and down the other side. It is the only road that crosses the main part of the mountains . This is a wonderful area to see wildlife and we rarely drove this road without seeing deer, squirrels and numerous birds. Sometimes we would see javalinas, the local wild pigs, coatimundies, ringtails and more and even the occasional mountain lion or black bear. The main dirt road goes up and up to Onion Saddle, where one can access the higher camping areas of the mountains or go down the other side to Portal and Paradise Arizona. It is a drive we make once or twice a year to enjoy the beauty of the mountains. In winter the road is closed, due to snow or landslides blocking the road. The cross over road is not for anyone towing a trailer or larger vehicles but can be driven in summer with a passenger car but an SUV or pickup is recommended.
A few miles up the Pinery Canyon road there is a dirt road that goes east from the main road, forest road number 356 and goes to the well known Hilltop Mine. A friend tried to go up there in 2017 and a locked gate was blocking the road. The forest service said they were trying to get the road reopened but it would take time. From this road there is a branch that winds through Hands Pass and into Whitetail Canyon and to the road leading east called West Hilltop Road. The approach to Whitetail Canyon can also be made from the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains from the Portal and Paradise side using West Hilltop Road. This side road number 256 was drivable to the pass and then diverged again. The left branch leading into Whitetail is virtually impassable to vehicles now. From Hands Pass a road went to the right and up to a small mine near the top of the mountain called the Lead Lily Shaft, above the Hilltop Mine. I took an ATV to this mine only a year or so ago and it was barely passable even with the ATV. The old mine had at one time had a wooden structure over the shaft, in 1970 when I first visited here and there was a narrow gage rail into the mine but this has all been removed and the entrance covered with dirt. The track from the mine went out about 25 feet over a very steep drop into the valley below and on my first visit was stable so that I sat on the end and had my lunch. The hill below the track to dump overburden was so steep that collecting vas nearly impossible without sliding down the mountain. The scenery from this spot is still one of the most majestic from any mine I have visited. You can see Cochise Head clearly and see far into New Mexico from this mine. A few years ago a big wildfire went through this area and even roasted much of the tailing piles at the Lead Lily Shaft. I took some home and the outer quarter inch was completely altered by the heat of the fire. Most of the ore from the Hilltop Mine was taken out via the Whitetail Canyon side. Early on the ore was worked from both sides of the mountain but a tunnel was bored all the way through from the west side to the town of Hilltop in Whitetail canyon to make it easier to get the ore to processing plants. Taking the ore down through Hands Pass was time consuming and expensive. There were small habitations on both sides of the Hilltop Mine with families living on both sides and children were taken to the school in Whitetail Canyon on ore cars through the mine. On the way up the forest service road 356, to the Hilltop Mine, is a side road that leads to the Silver Prince Mine. The Silver Prince was a silver, lead and zinc mine back around 1949 and there are still minerals in the overburden of this mine. Lead and zinc is to be found and some of the galena is bright blue due to the high silver content of the ores. The main tunnel is filled with water. A small dirt road goes past this tunnel and up to the slope above, where there are more workings visible. There was a nice cabin at the open area below the mine and old furniture was still inside the old cabin. A few years ago this cabin burned down and is now gone.
Farther up Pinery Canyon is a side road, forest road number 357 and this leads to a church summer camp for children called Pine Canyon Camp and Retreat Center. The road past the camp used to go all the way up to Barfoot meadow, near the top of the Chiricahuas but this road has become impassable. From Barfoot Park one could drive over to the Rustler Park road and then down to Onion Saddle and back down the mountain on either side. There was also another divergence from this road that went west again for many miles and back to the paved highway. It was not marked and one had to have four wheel drive to take this road. Just past forest road 357 on Pinery Canyon road is an open area on the left side of the road and a small dirt road gives access to this open area. When parking here to explore the area I noticed the remains of buildings. The only thing left now was a cement foundation and some crudely built steps and the remains of some small cement walls. Around the back side of the open area were small piles of mine material. I looked around and found lead-zinc ores that had been left here. Most of the richer ores are gone now but in the piles were samples of the ore that had been processed here and shipped out. At the time I had no idea where the ore had come from. I later also discovered that the material found here is often nicely fluorescent. I had stopped here every visit to the mountains to bring home some of the material at this spot and found nice galena, sphalerite, chalcopyrite and many other minerals.
Driving farther up the Pinery Canyon road several miles there was a side road that went up a very steep hill to the right side of the road. At the time I was using my VW bus and was able to drive up the road to the mine. The road was steep, narrow and the trees had branches hanging into the road. I parked at the mine dump and explored the area a bit. Years later I parked at the bottom of the road and hiked up the road and after about a quarter mile the road ended at the small mine area. There was an open area of dumps that was level and a good place to park and then several old tunnels that went into the mountain. A small road circled around the hill and went to the upper areas of the mine and a couple more workings. I was not collecting minerals when I first found the area in 1970 so I didn't collect any of the samples lying around. At later times I drove my jeep to the mine and an ATV also, both easily took the road.
I discovered the mine was called the El Tigre Mine. This time I had been looking for ores to use in mineral sample collections I was making. The lower area where the cement foundation was had nice lead and zinc ores lying about. I was able to collect a decent quantity of ore there that I used in the sample collections. At the upper part of the open area was a slightly different ore type, containing spots of chalcopyrite in a host rock that was different than the lower material. The rock was actually quite pretty with the spots of golden chalcopyrite scattered through it. This material made for decorative yard rock. I found out that many of the mines of Pinery Canyon had been claimed by one man and presumably mined by him as well between 1947 and 1950.
The El Tigre mine itself didn't have much of the old ore still lying there and had mostly white quartz. As I explored the old mine dumps I found a few pieces of the white quartz that contained purple color. This was amethyst and it was a nice purple color. I looked around and there was actually a fair amount of the amethyst in the white quartz. I collected enough to use in my sample collections. I found that in the road to the mine there were places that the amethyst was lying right in the old road and I picked up what I could. It even seemed that some may have been in veins that went into the ground. At the lower part of the road there was also one area a quartz vein was right at the surface of the road and this also contained a bit of the purple amethyst. One walking trip up the road I looked alongside the road where the hill went into the forest and found a spot where a seam of quartz went into the side of the hill. At this visit I dug into the side of the hill and found the quartz was in place here and had not been part of the mine workings and just dumped here. The vein of quartz was light colored purple but was here in nice plates of crystal points. I dug a few boxes of this material out and after I finished digging I covered my diggings up and hoped I could come back and dig some more at a later time. Over time I sold most of the light amethyst from this find and had not kept any of the larger pieces because I always intended to return and dig some more.
When a number of years later I did return to the El Tigre Mine and looked for the place I had been digging the vein quartz, I couldn't find the spot again. I searched the side of the hill but all the material looked alike and the weather and time in the mountains had completely covered any of the digging I had done years before. Nature has a way of reclaiming disturbed areas and I never thought to mark the spot in any kind of way. Thinking back now I know a marker of some kind would have been wise but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I know there is a seam of quartz going into the hill somewhere along the road but I never was able to relocate it. The small canyon the El Tigre Mine is in drains on one side of the dirt road to the mine and going down this drainage I also was able to find more of the white quartz with veins of the amethyst color. I always wondered if the vein of light color would improve with a little depth since amethyst is sensitive to color loss when exposed to sunlight over time.
The El Tigre Mine has several entrances and I did a bit of exploring to see if they went to any remaining ore in the walls. The mine was not very stable looking and much of the timbering had rotted away and I found it not safe enough to explore very far in. The mine was also full of bats and in going a bit into the old mine I disturbed them and I decided not to explore any further. There were two open tunnel entrances and a few small entrances that had mostly collapsed.
Since I found practically no lead-zinc material at the El Tigre dumps I was a bit unsure of the origin of the ores found at the open area a few miles below the mine. I researched the other mines in the canyon and had visited all the ones I found on the maps except one. Most of the mining in this part of Pinery Canyon had been done in only a two to three year period. The other mines I reached in Pinery Canyon didn't have ore that resembled the material lying at the open spot. Every mine I visited had different looking host rock and ore. The mines of the area are the Hilltop Mine, Pine-Zinc Mine, Silver Prince Mine, Lead Lily Shaft and a few prospects with no names. None had ore that exactly matched the material at the open space.
In the records I found on mindat the one mine that had a significant amount of ore that had been mined was the Pine-Zinc Mine. This mine was way back into the hills and had no visible road going to it so I climbed the hills in trying to locate this mine. I had used the satellite images but none showed any mine in the area the Pine-Zinc was supposed to be, no mine and no dumps visible. The hills were extremely steep and covered in cat-claw bushes that made travel much harder and often painful. I never found any evidence of the mine in my two hikes in an attempt to find them and a friend said he did finally locate the mine and said the dumps that were there were actually quite small and contained no sign or mineralization. With the tonnage listed I wondered if there had been a mistake in the original reporting or had they been referring to another mine that produced this amount of ore. There is also the possibility that the friend who said he found the mine actually found one of the small prospects instead. Unfortunately the searches I have done in hiking the area and in going through literature of the mines have actually brought more questions than answers. The Pine-Zinc Mine produced ore between 1947 and 1949. None of the mines I visited had much of the original ores still lying about. Whether this was because of the hand picking and sorting at the time left little lying around or another reason, I couldn't tell.
In talking with folks who had a little knowledge of the area they said the open area with the cement foundation was the staging area of the El Tigre Mine and that the ore from that mine had been taken down to this area to sort and load for shipping out of the mountains. Records for the actual mines of the area are very hard to find. The Hilltop Mine has the best records of the mines of the area but most of the ore from the Hilltop was shipped out through Whitetail Canyon, on the other side of the mountain from Pinery Canyon. Records of the very early days of mining in this part of the Chiricahua Mountains is not recorded anywhere I can find. I do know that much of the early ore was handpicked from the mines and then taken out of the mountains.
Just recently a friend had asked about the amethyst of the El Tigre Mine. He had been there several times and never found any. I took him to a pile of the material I had out in my yard and there were the bands of purple in the matrix. I let him pick a piece to take along and I also took a handful to the house to clean and get photos of. After this I took them into my microscope and looked at them a bit more closely. I was quite surprised to find a number of minerals in what looked like barren quartz. In the chunks with the quartz were pyrite, chalcopyrite, chrysocolla, goethite, hematite, limonite, calcite, azurite, malachite, manganese dendrites, feldspar and a couple of mica varieties. All the minerals were minute and only a few visible to the naked eye. So, this closer examination gave me a bit more hope that the El Tigre mine had more to offer than what is first seen on the dumps.
There were a few other early prospects but when I found those I never did see any material that resembled the ore left at the open area. So, the actual origin of this material is still a bit of a mystery. In all the exploration I have done the El Tigre Mine came to be the most likely source of the ore.
The Chiricahua Mountains in Pinery Canyon are quite rugged and it is possible there are other old mines that have been lost to the mountains. In all the years of exploring the mountains I have spent a lot of time in the Pinery Canyon area and still make yearly trips here to enjoy the mountains and do a bit more exploring.

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