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Vulture Mine, Arizona’s most productive gold mine

The Vulture Mine produced two hundred million dollars of gold over its time.
The Vulture Mine produced two hundred million dollars of gold over its time.(Eric Zotcavage)
Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 8:33 PM MST
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VULTURE MINE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - This is the story of Arizona’s most productive gold mine, the Vulture Mine, and the community that grew up around the operation, Vulture City. The mine gave reason for the founding of the town of Wickenburg and its existence led to the development of central Arizona’s agricultural communities, including Phoenix.

The site is located approximately 14 miles south of Wickenburg along Vulture Mine road. The year is 1863, the nation was in the midst of the Civil war. Out west, in the newly designated Arizona Territory, Henry Wickenburg is searching the desert for a bird he just shot, a vulture, in a rugged area 12 miles south of the Hassayampa River. As the story goes, he’s looking for his downed bird when he spots a ridge line containing a quartz outcropping. When he takes a closer look, finds a vein of gold that ends up becoming the most productive gold mine in Arizona history, the Vulture Mine.

That’s one version of how the mine was discovered. A more likely case is that Wickenburg simply discovered the site and noticed vultures flying overhead in the area, hence the name. What is clear is that the Vulture mine contained vast amounts of gold embedded in quartz that had to be milled in order to extract the precious minerals from the rock. The milling operation and a means to power it, water, was found along the Hassayampa River, 14 miles north.

Soon, a community developed around the mine, it became known as Vulture City. An encampment also sprang up near the milling operation along the Hassayampa River. It grew into a small community and was named after the owner of the Vulture mine, Wickenburg.

So the mine named Vulture was producing ore which Wickenburg sold for $15 a ton. The community was growing with the successful mine Vulture City soon had an assay office, miners’ dormitories, a saloon, a brothel, a school, a post office, a store, and in later years a gas station. Over the next 30 years or so, Vulture City grew to a population of just under 5000 people during its heyday.

The mine produced two hundred million dollars of gold over its time. That is what records indicate, but perhaps almost as much disappeared into the pockets of miners, supervisors, and freighters. The locals say that 18 men met their end dangling from a rope under the Ironwood tree that grows next to Henry Wickenburg’s former home. Justice served up with a noose for high-grading ore, a fancy name for stealing gold from the mine. Although there are no records of such hangings, the Ironwood tree is still there, as are the remains of Henry Wickenburg’s home.

A well-known Arizona character, Jacob Waltz, better known as the “Lost Dutchman,” worked at the Vulture Mine for several years. Some historians say his famous find actually originated from the common practice of stealing the Vulture’s rich resources. The Dutchman’s gold has never been found but many still search for the fabled cache.

Another notable person who spent time working at the mine was the founder of Phoenix, Jack Swilling. The former confederate officer was a visionary as he seized the chance to clear out the irrigation canals the Hohokam had dug generations ago in the open desert near the Salt river valley. Swilling raised money to start the ‘Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company’ in the fall of 1867.

‘Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company,’ started the small farming community that grew into Phoenix. In fact, Grand Avenue takes direct aim at Vulture City because of the agricultural trade exchanged between the two areas. Quite simply, Phoenix grew up around the agricultural center spawned by the needs of the Vulture Mine.

Tragedy struck in 1923 when 7 men died along with their pack animals deep in an area in the mine. The miners were in an area where most of the high-grade ore was mined out, save for the support pillars that held up the earth above. Over time miners had chipped away at the pillars to get to the high-grade ore contained within the support columns. On this day, a fatal whack at the rock holding up the ceiling caused the support to fail. The collapse buried them where they stood, entombed to this day in the apply named depression the collapse left, “The Glory Hole,”  coined because the victims were “sent on to glory” during the incident. The second world war forced the operators of the mine to close in 1942.  The city soon fell into a ghost town mode, but even though the mine closed, interested prospector types still poked around the site looking for something of worth to pull from the ground.

The area where Vulture City once thrived was recently purchased this past spring by private owners who are working on restoration efforts of the old buildings to maintain a resemblance to the old city. It is one of the most intact remains of an Arizona ghost town.

Project manager, Dave Echeverria, says work is continuing at the 21-acre ghost town to prepare it for visitors in the coming months. “There’s a lot of history here,” says Echeverria, He says the former town site will be open for limited tours around October 15. Information is available on the Vulture Mine Tours website. It’s an easy drive out of Wickenburg to the Vulture Mine. Simply take Vulture Mine road south out of Wickenburg. Vulture city is located between milepost 14 and milepost 15.

Nearby, the mining operation is also under new ownership. The buzz of activity around the old mine is impressive, but they were tight-lipped about the operation, perhaps they don’t want to attract the attention of any high-graders!