Column No. 24

More Water, but the Great Depression Hits Ruby

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

In 1927 the Eagle-Picher Company bought Ruby’s Montana mine from merchandiser Louis Zeckendorf and began immediately to develop the property for large-scale mining of lead and zinc. Mining operations were in full swing by 1929. The only apparent problem was lack of a dependable water supply.

For years the Montana mine had depended on rainfall collected in reservoirs behind four dams to supply water to the mine’s milling operation. As a hedge against undependable rainfall and to provide drinking water for the growing number of Ruby residents, Eagle-Picher in 1928 began planning for a pipeline to carry water from the Santa Cruz River across the Atascosa Mountains to Ruby.

Eagle-Picher put mining engineer Walter Pfrimmer (columnist Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon’s father) in charge of this critical water supply project. Pfrimmer came to Ruby in 1926, driving his gray Model A Ford Coupe. At the time he was 36 years old and engaged to Natalia Allison 35, a Tucson native. Pfrimmer was born in the southern Indiana farming community of Corydon. He graduated from the Colorado School of Mines and before coming to Ruby, worked for several years in the western United States and Mexico.

The Company selected a well site, La Noria, near the town of Calabasas on the Santa Cruz River for the location of the pumping station. (Calabasas disappeared long ago; the site is on the southern edge of the Rio Rico development.) From the pumping station, the pipeline went through Peck Canyon, through Hell’s Gate Canyon in Corral Nuevo, and ended in Ruby, a total distance of 16 miles.

The construction of the pipeline was a challenge! Twenty-foot lengths of four-inch pipe purchased from the Texas oil fields arrived on flatbed railroad cars at Amado, Arizona. From there trucks brought the pipe south and then west as far as the narrow canyons and rough roads allowed. Pack burros then carried the pipe the remainder of the way to the work sites.

The pipeline snaked along canyon walls instead of the bottom of the canyon where rushing water from summer storms might destroy the line. The workers constructed trestles to carry the line across deep canyons where necessary. Heavy cables, sometimes suspended from trees, helped secure the pipeline.

The Santa Cruz River pumping station used a 120 horsepower Worthington diesel engine. The water pressure as it left the pump house at La Noria was 750 pounds per square inch. The lift was 1,500 feet through the Atascosa Mountains. After the 16-mile trip, the water deposited in a 5,000 gallon tank south of the Montana mill.

Pfrimmer and his team completed the project early in the year 1930 at a cost of $100,000.

Just as engineers completed the water pipeline, the price of metals, including lead and zinc, started to decline. The Great Depression had reached the southern Arizona mining community. Times were so difficult and prices so low, that Eagle-Picher closed down the Montana mine’s production in April 1930.

By May 1930, Eagle-Picher had laid off 100 men. The population of Ruby began to decline rapidly. A small Eagle-Picher crew remained in Ruby to work on deepening the mine shaft and enlarging the ore concentrator to process 400 tons of ore per day, “preparatory to resumption at a later date.” That date turned out to be four years later in April 1934.

Not counting the small Eagle-Picher workforce, “From 1930 until April 1934 the mine and town of Ruby were deserted except for a few Mexican families that continued to live there.”

Even the rain gods acted against the Montana mine. In early August 1931, heavy rains in the Ruby district washed out the upper dam (Eagle Lake) of the Montana mine. The flood released when the dam went out, carried down a great quantity of tailings that deposited in the reservoirs behind the dam.

Soon after taking over the Montana mine in 1927, and continuing through the depression with production stopped, Eagle-Picher steadily expanded their mining claim holdings. The company relocated nearby “lapsed” claims that looked promising for the future. These included three mining claims that were formerly part of the Gold Boulder Mining Group, positioned immediately south of the Montana mine. These relocations continued into late 1930.

Realizing the future value of their claims and wanting to protect their investments, Eagle-Picher decided that owning just the mineral rights was not enough. The Company applied for complete ownership (title) of the nine new mining claims by patenting them.

The patents became effective on February 3, 1933. The additions brought the total of patented mines in the Montana Group to 19. Louis Zeckendorf had patented the original group of 10 mines in 1907.

The 19-patented mining claims covered a total of 362 acres. The northern Montana Group, of 16 contiguous claims, covered 302 acres. The southern Gold Boulder Group, of three contiguous claims, covered 60 acres.

The Montana Mine Group’s 19 patented mining claims represent 37% (19 of 52) of all mines ever patented in the Oro Blanco Mining District (OBMD), an indication of their relative value.

So with remarkable foresight, Eagle-Picher accomplished the necessary tasks to be ready for renewed production when the financial climate improved. As the United States pulled out of the Great Depression, the Montana mine was now poised to become the OBMD’s first and only large-scale mining operation.

(Sources: Discussions with local historian Fred Noon; George M. Fowler, “Some Arizona Ore Deposits,” U. of A. Bulletin No. 145, 1938; Border Vidette; Arizona Daily Star; Nogales International; Santa Cruz County Assessors Office; Santa Cruz County Recorders Office; Pima County Recorders Office)

Walter Pfrimmer with Pipeline Joint
Mining engineer Walter Pfrimmer, shown here next to a connection joint, led the project to build a water pipeline from the Santa Cruz River to Ruby. Circa 1929 (Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon private collection)
Laying the Pipeline
Walter Pfrimmer completed the 16-mile long, 4-inch water pipeline in early 1930 at a cost of $100,000. (Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon private collection)

Next time: Ruby’s Montana Mine Becomes the Largest Producer of Lead and Zinc in Arizona

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