Column No. 2

The First American Gold Mine in Oro Blanco

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Let’s begin our trip along the Ruby Road with a little mining history and the story of the first American gold mine in the Oro Blanco area. We’re talking about a place a few miles south of Arivaca, just north of the Mexican border.

Except for Spanish Conquistadors, who roamed the southwest in the 1500’s looking for seven cities of gold, Europeans first came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691 in the person of Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino. Over the next few years, as a part of Spanish missionary expansion from Mexico, Father Kino established missions along the Santa Cruz River at Tumacácori, Guevavi, and San Xavier.

Local mining history began in 1736, when prospectors made a fantastic silver strike at Arizonac, just southwest of present day Nogales. This discovery attracted thousands of European fortune seekers, some of whom drifted northward, along the Santa Cruz River.

A few of these unsuccessful miners from the south, and a few missionaries looking to add to their meager income, were the first people to explore mining in the Oro Blanco area, probably around 1740. And they named the region Oro Blanco (white gold), because the gold they found in streambeds had a high silver content, giving the ore a whitish color.

The Oro Blanco area became Mexico’s responsibility, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. Finally, Oro Blanco became United States property, with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.

American mining in Oro Blanco started soon after, but constant Apache raids and the absence of the protective military during the Civil War, made the area a very dangerous place to live and work. After the Civil War, with the return of the military, mining in Oro Blanco resumed in relative safety.

Just in time for serious mining in the south-central Arizona Territory, the U. S. Congress passed the Mining Law of 1872. This law provided for mining districts and set official guidelines for “locating” and recording mining claims. For example, the law limited the size of each mining claim to 1,500 feet by 600 feet.

Legally, “locating” a mining claim was fairly easy. The location required official recording of the name of the mine, location date, name of locator, size, boundary markings, and home mining district.

But locating a mine established mineral rights only. If the mine owner didn’t perform at least $100 worth of labor and/or improvements on the mine each year, the location lapsed, and others could locate the same “hole in the ground.” (This is why mining claims changed hands so much.)

To get title to the land itself, the mine owner had to “patent” the mine, a process that took up to a year and cost the miner some money. Not surprisingly patenting occurred only when the mine owner had convincingly proven value of the mining claim. (And this is why mines owners patented so few mines.)

A man from Tucson, Robert Leatherwood, located the Oro Blanco area’s first American gold mine on March 20, 1873. Leatherwood fittingly named the mine, the Oro Blanco. He found evidence that the Spanish worked his gold mine as early as the 1700’s. There were large oak trees growing in old trenches dug in the ground.

At the time, Leatherwood wasn’t sure that his mine was actually in Arizona. So he surveyed the mine site and determined that his mine was indeed in U. S. Territory, in fact just two and half miles north of the border. (Along today’s Forest Road 217, about three miles south of Ruby)

Robert Leatherwood became a well known Arizona pioneer and colorful character. He was only five feet five inches in height and weighed a scant 130 pounds. He compensated for his small stature with a feisty attitude, often demonstrated fearlessness, and a readiness to fight if required.

Leatherwood was born in North Carolina in 1844. He was a scout for the Confederate army and proudly wore the Confederate uniform at important functions all his life. He was even buried in it.

Leatherwood came to Tucson in 1869 and started out in the livery stable business. While operating the Oro Blanco mine (and 14 other local gold mines), Leatherwood also began a long political career in Tucson. He served as mayor of Tucson in 1880, was a three-term representative to the Arizona Territorial Legislature, and was Sheriff of Pima County from 1894 to 1898.

According to local legend, while Leatherwood was mayor of Tucson in 1880, right after the completion of the southern route of the transcontinental railroad in Tucson, he sent off telegrams to a large number of U. S. dignitaries, including President Hayes, and to the Pope in Rome, announcing the completion of the railroad and inviting them to the celebration in Tucson. At a big banquet to celebrate the new railroad, the emcee read the supposed reply from the Pope (printed in Arizoniana, 1960, by Mable Forseth Below):

His Holiness the Pope acknowledges with appreciation receipt of your telegram informing him that the ancient city of Tucson has at last been connected to the outside world and sends his benediction, but for his own satisfaction would ask, where the hell is Tucson?

The original Oro Blanco gold mine was to enjoy a long, if only intermittently successful, history. But that’s another story. (Hint: The Oro Blanco gold mine was never patented.)

(Sources: James Brand Tenney, History of Mining in Arizona; Tucson Citizen; Arizona Daily Star; 1872 Congressional Mining Law, Arizoniana, Arizona Historical Society Clip Books)

Photo of Oro Blanco mill

This 1905 photo shows the ore-processing mill of the Oro Blanco gold mine. Eastern capital financed the rebuilding of the mill in 1903 during a mining rebirth in the district. (Ring family private collection)

NEXT TIME: ALONG THE RUBY ROAD  The Birth of the Oro Blanco Mining District

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