Column No. 12

The Montana Mine Transitions from Gold and Silver to Lead and Zinc

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

In 1917 and 1918, Ruby’s Montana mine successfully, although painfully, transitioned from producing silver and gold to producing mostly lead and zinc. Meanwhile the other mines in the Oro Blanco Mining District, mostly gold mines, really struggled.

There was an increasing market for lead and zinc. Bullets and paint contained lead, and rust-resistant galvanized iron and calcimine coatings used zinc. Increased use of these products and U. S. preparations for World War I drove up prices and made large-scale mining of lead and zinc more cost effective.

Merchandizing leader Louis Zeckendorf, owner of the Montana mine since the late 1880s, had been trying to sell the mine for years. When lead and zinc mining became more attractive, he hired Tucson lawyer Francis Henry Hereford to be his selling agent. Zeckendorf made Hereford’s job harder by constantly raising the asking price. With one eye on the increasing price of zinc, over a period of only a few months, Zeckendorf raised his price for the Montana from $100,000 to $125,000 to $150,000 to $160,000.

Finally on February 17, 1917, Hereford negotiated a lease agreement with an option to buy the mine for $140,000 with the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company (GCMC).

George Wingfield ran the GCMC. According to the Nevada State Journal, Wingfield was “the most powerful financial and political figure in Nevada during the first half of the 20th century.” Wingfield’s mining activity started in the early days of the Tonopah Nevada gold boom in 1903, when as a banker, he helped finance the fabulously rich mining area that became known as Goldfield.

The GCMC formed a subsidiary, the Montana Mines Company, to work the Montana mine. The Company’s first job was to pump water out of some of the long-inactive tunnels and remove the muck that had accumulated over several years of limited activity. Since lead and zinc were deeper underground than the gold and silver mined previously, the company worked hard to extend the main shaft to 200 feet depth. They built a heavy-duty concentration mill with a capacity for handling 150 tons of ore daily. The Company also constructed a large storehouse, a bunkhouse, a staff office, and an assay office.

Mining operations started off at a good pace.

Five immense 5 ½-ton Mack trucks, with chain-drive rear wheels and solid tires, hauled ore concentrates from the mine to the distant railroad that ran north-south along the Santa Cruz River. At first the Company shipped the ore concentrates over the longer road to Arivaca and on to a station at Amado. But, by early September 1917, workers completed improvements on the shorter road over the Atascosa Mountains to newly built Plomo station at the Pesqueira Bridge, a few miles north of Nogales.

The trucks operated 24 hours a day. On the return trip to the mine, the trucks hauled oil and other supplies.

The Montana Mines Company shipped an average of four boxcars weekly of lead and zinc concentrate to smelters in Texas.

By October 1917, there were 100 men “employed in the mine and mill, both night and day.”

During this active time, there was usually work for everyone. Residents of that period built most of the adobe buildings that stand today in ruins. They finished the schoolhouse on October 1, 1917. A boarding house helped accommodate the mining family and visitors. And a new general store built in 1915 (see our next column), served both Ruby and the surrounding area.

At the same time, the Montana Mines Company built a new telephone line to connect Ruby to Nogales. Engineers installed a telephone in the Ruby general store. A six-times-a-week mail service by automobile now operated between Nogales and the Ruby Post Office (in the same general store).

But operations didn’t go as planned for long at the Montana mine. Throughout the fall and early winter of 1917, problems plagued the mine: the milling operation was not working properly, there were equipment problems, and problems with the new freighting trucks.

Severe rains in early September made the road to Amado impassable. After they started using the improved shorter road over the mountains, they found that the round the clock operations of the monstrous trucks started wearing away the road, especially the mountain curves. They had to assign a dedicated crew to keep the road repaired.

In early October, the Montana Mines Company completed a new dam to store water to power the steam engines in the mill, but “as luck would have it,” there was no rain for weeks after the dam was completed.

In an internal GCMC memo, dated January 7, 1918, a company executive, summarizing GCMC’s generally positive overall western state operations, says of the Montana mine: “I might state that the Montana mine which we have been working on in Arizona for the Goldfield Consolidated is a failure.”

So what had begun so promisingly only a year earlier, ended badly. On February 23, 1918, the GCMC announced the suspension of operations at the Montana mine.

According to Arizona Bureau of Mines records, during the Montana Mines Company operation, the Montana mine produced 1,250,000 pounds of lead, 1,300,000 pounds of zinc, and a small amount of silver and gold. The value of the lead and zinc ore produced was $202,000.

This level of production, over eight months during World War I, might be regarded as a success. But the Montana Mines Company spent $300,000 developing the mine before producing the first concentrates, and by February 1918, had paid $75,000 in option payments to Louis Zeckendorf (who retained ownership of the Montana mine). So, measured against expenses, the GCMC operation of the Montana mine was not a profitable operation.

It was however, an important step towards lead and zinc mining, for which Ruby would be known in the 1930s.

(Sources: Francis Henry Hereford files, Arizona Historical Society; Nogales Oasis; Nogales Border Vidette; George Wingfield Collection, Nevada Historical Society; D. E. Andrus, U. S. Bureau of Mines Circular 6497, 1931; George M. Fowler, AIM&ME paper, “Montana Mine, Ruby,” 1938)

Ruby school

In 1935, Ruby residents added a lumber classroom to the original one-room adobe schoolhouse built in 1917. The school still stands today in the ghost town of Ruby. (Photo from Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon private collection, circa 1935)

Montana Dam

This photo shows the new Montana dam after the rains finally came to fill the reservoir behind it. (Photo from Fraser family private collection, circa 1917)

NEXT TIME: ALONG THE RUBY ROAD Phil Clarke and the Ruby Mercantile

Back to List of Columns