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Fairbank, Cochise County, Arizona

Last Updated: 1st Jun 2018

By Rolf Luetcke

Fairbank, Cochise County, Arizona
By Rolf Luetcke

Fairbank Arizona is a town that is along the banks of the San Pedro River in Southeastern Arizona, between Benson and Sierra Vista. The history of Fairbank predates the first settlers and was originally a Native American settlement named Santa Cruz in the 1700’s. Fairbank was first settled in 1881 as a railroad town along the early track between Bisbee and Benson, where the ores from the Bisbee Mines were being transported. The first railroad station was built in 1882 to give service to the growing town of Tombstone where it was the closest location to the town and the approximate 12 miles between Fairbank and Tombstone was mostly level. A post office was established in 1883 and the town grew.
In 1885 the town also got a stage station and the population rose to about a hundred people. The town grew steadily and at its height reached a population of about 478 people. The mines in Tombstone transported its ore to the processing plants at Charleston and Contention by wagon and since it was expensive shipping for the mines they decided to build a railroad between Tombstone and Fairbank. The railroad was started in the late 1880’s by using the overburden from the early Bisbee mines since the excess rock from Bisbee was readily available and in the way in the narrow canyon. The 11 mile railroad bed was built but the drop in silver prices brought the project to a halt until the actual laying of the rail was finished in 1902. The line was later abandoned after the ores of Tombstone became too expensive to mine and the track was removed for other uses. The old raised bed lay abandoned in the desert and was virtually lost to time.
Fairbank steadily lost residents but a few held on until the post office closed in the 1970’s and the town was abandoned. I remember stopping in the early 1970’s and seeing the remnants of the old buildings close to the highway. Now it has had a resurgance with the formation of the San Pedro Riparian preserve and buildings have been rebuilt and there is a riparian headquarters there now and a few occupied buildings. Fairbank is now a destination for birders and hikers who want to spend time along the San Pedro River. As I have heard they have hikes, horse rides and birding tours that take off from Fairbank.
My wife Mary and I discovered the old railroad bed by accident back in the 1980’s. We drove State highway 82 just north of Tombstone and drove west toward Fairbank about 4 miles. There was a side dirt road toward the south with a gate and the State Trust land sign. We have permits for State Trust land so we entered. The dirt road diverges a few times and we took the first fork to the left, toward Tombstone. About a mile down there was a water catchment for wildlife and we drove just past that and down a small hill. We got out to look at the flowers in the wet spring and in the distance I saw a “rusty” roadbed. It reminded me of the pyrite stain from the ores around Bisbee, where I had lived for 15 years and I walked over to have a look. Sure enough, when I got up to the old road it was all full of rusty pyrite and iron ores. I called Mary over and we looked down the length of the road in both directions. It looked like an old road but we soon found it was actually a railroad bed.
The dirt roads continue in several directions and the one to the northeast ends up in Tombstone. In the other westerly direction the dirt road goes down a steep hill into the Walnut wash and you can drive the wide wash with the right kind of vehicle. Just as you drop down the steep hill toward the wash is a small side road that goes back up to the railroad bed but this whole section is quite rough and pretty much only for something like an ATV. We took our ATV along this stretch and at a few places the bridges are gone on the old rail bed and one has to go back down the steep side to the rough dirt road that parallels the track.
We came back several times and eventually explored the old railroad bed from Tombstone all the way to Fairbank. Much of the railroad bed was not drivable anymore and it was not until we got an ATV that I was able to ride along almost all the rail bed. Some sections were rich in common minerals and many were completely barren of mineralization.
I wrote about this railroad bed in another article so won’t go into as much detail here. We did walk nearly the whole length of the railroad bed and in many places the company used local soil to build the raised bed but in many places the bed was tall, maybe 20 feet or more high and there they needed lots of material. The ealy overburden from the Copper Queen and Denn mines were readily available and those were used to build the bed here. Years ago in Bisbee I had hiked up Dubacher Canyon and found giant boulders of hematite that had the tarnish called turgite. One huge piece was about the size of a big car. I found a small piece I carried home back in the 1970’s and still have that piece.
Along the railroad bed we found one spot closer to Tombstone that had a decent size wash and the company had used big hematite boulders at the sides of the wash under the bridge. The bridge is gone now but the boulders remain. I removed some with 12 pound sledge hammer but even with heavy tools it was hard to get much off of the boulders. The material was identical to the big boulders I had seen up Dubacher Canyon, across from the Lavender Pit in Bisbee. So, besides seeing the tell tale pyrite the big hematite clinched the location this material had come from. It took me many years to piece it all together and figure out just where the material had come from and when.
Many places along the old track were barren of collectable material but a few places were quite good for minerals. One spot near another old missing bridge had good mineralization and I found hemimorphite, calcite, chalcopyrite, siderite, hematite, limonite and many other decent pieces and even one small piece that had native gold.
Pyrite is quite abundant along the old track, actually the most common mineral out there. One big piece of pyrite even had bornite coating the pyrite. My brother in law found one great fist size piece of the Campbellite, a cutting grade material from Bisbee that contained a mix of copper minerals. He didn’t know what it was and brought it over to ask and I told him what it was. He had me cut the piece in half and gave me one half. I still have the piece and posted the piece, in this case with blue azurite for a nice change, on the campbellite page on mindat.
I found one 120 pound chunk of solid chalcopyrite and had fun carrying it up the steep rail bed side to the vehicle. I broke it up later for managable size pieces. One fellow that had stopped in our store back then had brought the piece I had sitting on a shelf over to my wife and asked her if it was what he thought it was. My wife had to disappoint him by saying it was not a chunk of gold, not for $15.
We have not been out along the old Fairbank railroad bed in four years now but know where the good spots are to find old Bisbee ore. There are a few other things along the old railroad bed also and we have found a few old pieces of metal and glass that date from the late 1800’s.
My brother in law had gone out collecting along the track with a borrowed pick up truck and I got a call that he had gotten the truck hopelessly stuck. I got my gear and my old VW bus and drove out to a house about 6 miles or so from Fairbank, where he and his young nephew and friend had walked to use a phone. When we got to where he had gotten stuck I was a bit surprised since I thought it would be soft sand but it was not at all. There was an old track from the big wash to the railroad bed he had taken and one ten foot dip in the road was nothing but fist size and larger stream smoothed rock. It was behaving just like sand and the tires only slipped on the smooth rocks and he was completely stuck. We extracted him and stayed close to him on his way out to make sure he didn’t get stuck again. My VW was ideal for this kind of country but the pick up was not since the back end is so light the tires would spin in sand or in this case rock. He had piled about a half ton of rock into the the back of the truck to try and get traction but it had failed. He left the rock in the truck at my request for use as borders along a nature trail we had at our place. It was my payment for extracting him from his situation.
The area of the Fairbank Railroad bed is quite open and views are nice. Best to go out in winter since the summers can be over a hundred degrees and that sun is unforgiving. Always take plenty of water if you do go venturing out along the old railroad bed.
This short piece of railroad bed seems to have mostly been lost to time. If we had not been out there for something else we never would have come across it. Only a couple of people we have talked to have ever heard of this area and it has now been partly included in the San Pedro Riparian area. The areas near Tombstone are still on public land. The land that is in the Riparian area is off limits to collecting.
For us it is as much fun to think back to what the land was like when Tombstone was first discovered and the Apaches still roamed the land. Not an easy place to live back then. The route was probably just as often used by the cowboys and bandits of the time as by the Apaches.
The few buildings of Fairbank are easily missed when driving by on the highway and the railroad bed is not visible from the roadway unless you know it is there and you probably wouldn’t see it as a place to collect minerals but to find 1880’s Bisbee minerals is quite an adventure. All the dumps that the material originally came from were long ago removed and none of those old dumps still exist.
I wanted to add the list of minerals to the Fairbank page but ran into a bit of a problem, since the minerals didn't actually come from Fairbank. So, I will list the minerals I have found on the railroad bed here in the article since they are actually from Bisbee. Here is the list of species I have found at the track : azurite, bornite, braunite, brochantite, calcite, campbellite, chalcophanite, chalcopyrite, copper, cuprite, dolomite, goethite, gold, grossular, gypsum, hematite, hemimorphite, jarosite, limonite, malachite, muscovite, pyrite, quartz, rosasite, scheelite and siderite. There are probably more minerals but they are somewhere in our collection and not nice enough to take any photographs of. I am certain there are more things if one really looked. I have the minerals I found posted on my page and to see them on my photos just put Fairbank in the keyword and they are all there.

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