Column No. 3

The Birth of the Oro Blanco Mining District

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Last time we talked about Robert Leatherwood and the first gold mine in the Oro Blanco area. Now let’s talk about the Yellow Jacket gold mine, a couple of very colorful miners, and the official formation of the Oro Blanco Mining District (OBMD).

Thomas Roddick first located (mineral rights claimed) the Yellow Jacket gold mine on July 31, 1874. The mine was situated 2 ½ miles north and 4 ½ miles west of Ruby, about 1 ½ miles west of the Ruby Road. Roddick’s partners were Robert Leatherwood, locator of the original Oro Blanco gold mine a little more than a year earlier; John Bartlett; and Dr. John Handy.

John “Yank” Bartlett was one of the most popular and generally liked of the old pioneers. He was born in Vermont in 1828. He came to Arizona with General Crook in 1872 to serve in the campaign against the Apache. Bartlett acted as a scout and drove large mule trains with supplies for the army.

After Crook left Arizona, Bartlett retired from government service and moved to the Oro Blanco area to become a storekeeper, a mine owner, and cattleman. In the early 1870’s, with the strong encouragement of Pete Kitchen, pioneering Nogales area rancher, Bartlett started a horse and cattle ranch in Bear Valley, about five miles north of the Mexican border.

In a future story, we’ll tell you how Bartlett escaped death from raiding Apaches in 1886. Ironically, Bartlett died in 1905, at age 77, while driving a heavily laden wagon to deliver supplies to local mines. Careening down a steep hill, the wagon hit a big boulder, throwing Bartlett under the wagon and crushing him.

Dr. John Handy owned the Yellow Jacket mine from 1881 to 1889, with Leatherwood and Bartlett as partners. Dr. Handy was a curious mix of compassion and anger. From 1871 to 1891, he practiced medicine in Tucson. Local residents regarded him highly as a physician and for his willing service to poor Tucsonans and Apaches.

But Handy also had a dark side. Some people thought he was a dangerous man. While serving as interpreter of the Apache language for the U.S. Army in 1870, he shot and killed a man in an argument.

When the original owner of the Yellow Jacket mine, Thomas Roddick, died in 1879, the doctor who attended him and Dr. Handy had a falling out over what had killed him. At a hearing to determine the cause of death, the two doctors got into a brawl and had to be restrained.

In a final irony in 1891, Handy’s morphine-addicted wife’s divorce lawyer shot and killed Handy, after Handy had literally attacked him.

But, let’s get back to mining. How did the early miners actually get their hands on the precious gold?

The first method of gold retrieval in Oro Blanco was “placer” mining to extract gold from stream sediments, i.e., panning for gold.

But some of the richer ores deposited in hard rock. For “lode” mining, first you had to find the vein or ore body, then remove the overburden, break out the pieces of the richer ore, crush the ore to the size of coarse sand, and finally, apply a chemical process to extract the gold from the crushed ore.

Early miners accomplished lode mining literally by hand, with pick, shovel, and hammer.

Arrastras were an improvement. An arrastra is a circular pit dug in the ground, with the floor lined with flat stones. Miners set a heavy upright pole in the center of the pit and attached horizontal crossbars. Then they tied huge rocks to the spoke-like crossbars and used burros or mules to drag the rocks over chunks of ore placed in the pit. This ground the chunks into small pieces.

In 1875, the Ostrich mill, which processed ore from the Yellow Jacket mine, became the first Oro Blanco mill to utilize another important improvement in the mining process – a stamp mill - to crush the ore. A stamp was nothing more than a heavy pestle (think mortar and pestle). A bin fed ore to a mortar containing several stamps and some water. Steam power controlled the crushing action of the stamps. The crushed ore-pulp passed through a strainer, then into a trough below, and finally flowed into settling pans.

One early gold recovery method involved adding mercury to the ore-water mixture to “amalgamate” (alloy) with the gold or silver. Then the miners retorted or boiled away the mercury to recover the precious metal.

A second recovery method was gravity separation by flotation, where the small mineral particles suspended in water separated out according to their specific gravities.

Like the Oro Blanco mine, productive work at the Yellow Jacket occurred only intermittently over the years, with long periods of inactivity. But would you believe that the Yellow Jacket is on the market today? You can pick it up for (only) 40 million dollars! No kidding. (See

The Oro Blanco and Yellow Jacket mines were two of more than 100 mining claims located in the area by the end of 1877.

And by that time, the OBMD had been organized, over an area roughly 10 miles square. The district extends from about four miles south of Arivaca to the international border. Cobre Ridge forms the western boundary. Mule Ridge and Sycamore Canyon form the boundary on the east.

The stage was now set for the location of the Montana Silver and Gold mine and the birth of Montana Camp, forerunner of Ruby.

(Sources: State of Arizona, Department of Libraries, Archives, and Public Records; Pima County Recorders Office; Arizona Daily Star; Weekly Arizona Miner; Dictionary of Mining, Mineral, and Related Terms; Arizona Historical Society files)

Photo of arrastra

Prior to the use of steam-powered ore-crushing machines, arrastras like this one crushed ore at the early Oro Blanco gold mines. (Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon private collection)

NEXT TIME: ALONG THE RUBY ROAD The Location of the Montana Silver and Gold Mine

Back to List of Columns