Centuries-old sycamore trees tower over the dry riverbed of Harshaw Creek, in the Patagonia Mountains of southern Arizona. Where houses once stood, flat barren earth stretches to the base of nearby low oak-covered hills. A crumbling wooden building, relic of a mining supervisor's home, and a cemetery are all that remain of what once was one of the West’s richest mining towns.
Now a ghost town, Harshaw was one of nine mining camps in the area that saw waves of prospectors come and go in the 19th century. It held some of the Arizona Territory’s highest-grade silver, lead and gold ore, so when the U.S. government passed the General Mining Act in 1872, giving prospectors the right to claim mineral deposits on public land for no more than $5 per acre, investors poured in. A patchwork of mining claims soon covered the region, with 40 operations in Harshaw alone. Within three decades, the Patagonia Mountains had produced 79% of all the ore processed in the territory, with a total value exceeding $2.5 trillion yearly in today’s currency.
With the mines came thousands of workers and their families, most of them Mexican Americans and Latinos. For nearly a century, they drilled and transported ore through tunnels for $2 a day — half of what their Anglo counterparts earned. But in 1925, and again in the 1950s, the combination of collapsing metal prices and exhausted mineral veins sent the mining companies looking elsewhere, leaving tons of untreated mineral waste behind and no future for the workers who’d powered the industry. Now, more than half a century later, mining is coming back to Harshaw: South32, an Australia-based polymetallic mining company, estimates that there are still at least 155 million tons of high-grade metals hidden deep underground. It is currently doing exploratory drilling half a mile away from the ghost town, acquiring permits and gearing up to operate in the near future. But whether modern mining — with its much greater profits and the promise of better environmental safeguards — will leave a better legacy this time around remains to be seen.
This story traces the experiences of FRANK, HENRY, MIKE AND JUAN SOTO grew up in Harshaw in the 1940s and ’50s with their parents and three sisters.
Migoya, C. (2020, September 28). Ghost town. Always a home town. High Country News. Retrieved from https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.11/south-mining-once-a-boom-town-now-a-ghost-town-always-a-hometown