Column No. 8

Early Development of the Montana Mine

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

It took a man named George Cheyney and an earthquake to “kick start” the development of the Montana Silver and Gold mine. If it weren’t for George Cheyney, there may never have been a Ruby, Arizona.

George Cheyney was born in Philadelphia in 1854. He came to Arizona in 1881 to work with his father during Tombstone’s silver mining boom. For five years Cheyney was superintendent of the Tombstone Mill and Mining Company, the largest milling operation in the Tombstone area.

In late 1886, in addition to his duties in Tombstone, Cheyney began developing the Montana mine in the Oro Blanco Mining District. Geronomo had recently surrendered (see December 26th column) and Cheyney thought that Oro Blanco was finally safe for mining.

However, just a few months after starting work, on May 3, 1887, an earthquake shocked the Montana mine area. The Richter-scale-magnitude-7.2 earthquake lasted about 40 seconds, caused the ground around the Montana mine to quiver and roll, and broke large slabs of rock off Montana Peak. The quake effectively reshaped Montana Peak to its present configuration as the most recognizable landmark in the Oro Blanco area. (This earthquake also broke huge pieces of rock off the walls of Sabino Canyon in Tucson.)

Not scared off by the earthquake, Cheyney continued development of the Montana mine.

He found that the largely manual methods of ore reduction were inefficient and not profitable, and that water was scarce.

So in 1894, Cheyney took apart his 10-stamp Tombstone mill, including a 120-horsepower steam engine, and transported the equipment to the Montana mine. The new Montana mill could process 20-35 tons of ore per day.

To supply water for the steam engine to mill the ore, Cheyney built a dam in a narrow place in the canyon, northeast of the Montana mill. The dam was solid masonry, 36 feet high from the bedrock, and 130 feet long. The dam collected the watershed from local rains and formed a lake (later called Ruby Lake) a mile long and 32 feet deep.

So where did Cheyney get the money to develop the Montana mine? Starting in the late 1880s, Arizona territorial period merchandising magnate Louis Zeckendorf financed Cheyney’s Montana mine operations.

Zeckendorf was born in Germany in 1838 and came to New Mexico with his two brothers in 1854 to start a small general merchandise business. In 1866, the brothers opened a second store in Tucson. By 1889, their Tucson business was the largest retail and wholesale merchandising business in the Arizona Territory. The Zeckendorfs quickly expanded to farming and cattle ranching. They also invested heavily in mining, beginning in 1882 with the famous Copper Queen Mining Company in Bisbee.

Zeckendorf and Cheyney began leasing the Montana mine to various operators. Cheyney was the local manager, while Zeckendorf, living mostly in New York City, purchased goods for his Tucson merchandizing business.

In 1889, after a period of inactivity at the mine, George Cheyney relocated (reclaimed mineral rights) the original Montana Silver and Gold mine and renamed it the Philadelphia, probably after his home town. By 1894, Cheyney had located two additional contiguous mines to form the core of what later became known as the Montana Group of mines, but called collectively the Montana.

The main revenue during this period was from silver, then gold. There was plenty of lead and zinc, but at that time, the lead only paid for mining and milling the silver and gold ore. (This situation would be reversed in the 1930s.)

After 1894, the Montana was able to take advantage of a new wagon road that extended 28 miles southeast from the nearby Old Glory gold mine to Calabasas on the railroad. The road dramatically cut freighting costs over the usual 70-mile northern trek through Arivaca to Tucson. (This was the beginning of the southeastern part of today’s Ruby Road.)

In 1896, Cheyney updated his mill with a new “cyaniding” process to better extract gold from low-grade ores. But he was disappointed in the results. Also, the price of silver had been dropping ever since the repeal of the U.S Congress Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.

So in the late 1890s, Cheyney quit the Montana, but not before he had paved the way for future development by improving the local roads and water sources, and putting the Montana on the map.

Following his work developing the Montana, Cheyney moved his family to Tucson and went on to an active career in southern Arizona politics. He was appointed Postmaster of Tucson in 1898 and elected Probate Judge in Pima County in 1902. Unfortunately Cheyney died in 1903, at the relatively young age of forty-eight. So Cheyney didn’t live to see the beautiful home that his wife Annie built in Tucson in 1905. (The old home has recently been restored in Tucson’s historic district.)

In 1898 and 1899, Louis Zeckendorf expanded the Montana Group by adding seven more contiguous mining claims. This brought the total number of mines in the Montana Group to ten.

In 1907, recognizing his long-term interests and appreciating the mines’ development value (even though not a whole lot had been produced so far), Louis Zeckendorf patented each of the ten mines in the Montana Group. This meant that Zeckendorf now held official title to the mines and he need not worry in the future about his locations lapsing. (The Montana Group of patented mining claims grew to 19 mines by 1933.)

Zeckendorf’s ownership of this Montana Group was to continue for two decades, until 1927.

(Sources: James Brand Tenney, History of Mining in Arizona; Portrait and Biographical Record of Arizona; Fred Noon, The Connection; Arizona Daily Citizen)


Figure 1: Photo of Montana Peak
An earthquake in 1887 broke slabs of rock off Montana Peak to give the 5,370-foot mountain its distinctive profile. (Photo by Bob Ring, 2001)
Figure 2: Photo of Montana mill and lake - 1917
Caption 2: A new Montana mill can be seen across Ruby Lake in this photo of Ruby, circa 1917. The Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company has just finished replacing the old mill and repairing the original dam that George Cheyney built almost a quarter of century earlier. (Photo from Fraser family private collection)

NEXT TIME:  ALONG THE RUBY ROAD A Difficult Life in the Early Oro Blanco Mining Camps

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