Column No. 54

Arizona Territorial Geologist William Blake

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Think of the tiny Oro Blanco Mining District, south of Arivaca along the border with Mexico, as a doughnut hole. From the beginning of Spanish mining in the 1700s in the surrounding “doughnut,” the principal ore had been silver. But the doughnut hole was different; the principal ore was gold, alloyed with silver, giving the ore a white color, hence the name Oro Blanco.

In 1893 the U.S. Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act that supported the government’s purchase of silver to back up treasury notes. Silver prices dropped rapidly. This was disastrous for Arizona silver mines, many of which closed down. Ironically for the Oro Blanco district, lower prices for silver stimulated gold mining. So in 1893 several of the old gold mines reopened with new mills, beginning a period of relative prosperity.

Silver mining suffered another blow in 1900 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gold Standard Act, fixing gold as the single standard (no longer was silver part of a “bimetallic” standard with gold) to back up U.S. currency. The Treasury was required to maintain a minimum of $150 million in gold reserves. Once again silver prices dropped. This enhanced gold’s position as the precious metal of choice for mining in Oro Blanco.

During these renewed good times for gold mining, William Phipps Blake, an important U.S. and international geologist, traveled all over the southern Arizona Territory, assessing mining prospects. Incredibly active for a man in his 70s, Blake made several long trips between 1895 and 1903 to inspect all of the mines in the Oro Blanco Mining District, including the Old Oro Blanco, Montana, Warsaw, and Old Glory.

Blake’s handwritten diaries are a fabulous record of his travels and research. In fascinating detail, he describes not only the mineralogy and geology of the each mine, but also the condition of the roads, the weather (he noted the temperature each day), the housing, the stores, the local Indians, and included many recollections of his interactions with the people he met along the way.

In 1901 Blake, then Professor of Geology and Mining, and Director of the School of Mines at the University of Arizona in Tucson, wrote of the Oro Blanco district:

“The returns are small, but the miners manage to get their living, especially when they can get water. Not only gold, but silver, lead, copper and iron ores are found in different portions. Gold is, however, the most generally diffused metal.”

Also in 1901, Blake published his important analysis of the Oro Blanco mines, Sketch of the Mineral Wealth of the Region Adjacent to the Santa Cruz Valley, Arizona. According a review of the work, it turned out to be “one of the most popular publications brought out in the Territory.”

One of Blake’s diary entries from the summer of 1903 recounts his dealings with a Yaqui Indian craftsman who made him a fine bridle and spurs, “He has a small shop but does beautiful work. … Must send him some Mexican dollars.”

On that same summer 1903 trip, Bob Leatherwood, who located the first American gold mine in Ore Blanco in 1873, and later became both sheriff and mayor of Tucson, accompanied Blake. Blake recounts his meetings and dealings with such important Oro Blanco personages as mining pioneer (Montana mine) James Kirkpatrick; miner, storekeeper, and freighter John Bartlett; miner and cattleman Johnny Bogan; and “the Father of Oro Blanco” Dr. Adolphus Noon.

Blake was born in New York City on June 21, 1826 and attended private schools in New York. In 1852 he received an advanced degree in the Chemical Course with the first graduating class of Yale University’s Sheffield School.

Blake had a long and distinguished career in both U.S. and international mineralogy. His important jobs included mineralogist and geologist of the U. S Pacific Railroad Survey in the 1850s, mining engineer to the Japanese Government in 1861-63, reports in 1863 of Alaskan geology that reportedly influenced the U.S. purchase of Alaska, Commissioner for California to the Paris Exposition in 1867, Chief of Scientific Corps of the U.S. expedition to San Domingo in 1871, and collection and installation support of mineral resources exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution in the 1870s.

From 1878 to 1895 Blake worked as an economic geologist, exploring districts and examining mines in the Western U.S.

In 1895, at the age of 69, he was appointed Professor of Geology and Mining, and Director of the School of Mines, at the University of Arizona. Blake retired in 1905 and became Professor Emeritus.

In 1898, both in recognition of his past achievements and recognizing his continuing studies, Arizona’s governor appointed Blake to the position of Arizona Territorial mineralogist and geologist. Blake served in this capacity for the rest of his life.

For his long distinguished service as an international geologist, Professor Blake received honorary degrees from Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Arizona. Blake’s peers also recognized him. Six times he was elected vice president of the American Institute of Mining Engineers. He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of the American philosophical Society, and the Geological Societies of America, London, and Edinburgh. He was also named Chevalier of France’s Legion of Honon.

In 1910 he received an honorary degree from the University of California. Unfortunately, Professor Blake contracted pneumonia while in Berkley to accept the honor and died there on May 22, 1910 at age 84.

David B. Dill, Jr., writing in the Journal of Arizona History, wrote this eloquent eulogy, “Blake’s real mark on history … was … his pioneer role as one of America’s first professional geologists in the opening of the Great West. Few of his contemporaries could match his superb capacity for applying scientific methods in investigating the geology and mineral resources of unexplored tracts, and then publishing far-reaching conclusions in peerless prose. Here was one of the great pioneering scientists of the Far West.”

Blake left to the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson his 326 handwritten diary books, documenting his worldwide geological trips from 1847 to 1910. Sixty of the diary books cover his explorations in Arizona, including the Castle Dome area near Yuma, the Ehrenberg-La Paz freighting road, the Vulture mine near Wickenburg, the Tumacácori and San Xavier missions, and Ajo, Tombstone, and Tucson, circa 1879-1910.

Photo of Blake

William Blake wrote detailed diaries of his mining exploration trips to the Oro Blanco region. (Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society)

(Sources: William Phipps Blake Diaries, MS0078, Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, Arizona; Pauline Sandhold, “William Phipps Blake – A Chronology;” David B. Dill, Jr., “William Phipps Blake: Yankee Gentleman and Pioneer Geologist of the Far West,” The Journal of Arizona History, 1991; Bob Cunningham, “Arizona’s Territorial Geologist, U of A’s Professor William Phipps Blake,” The Smoke Signal, 1991)

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