Column No. 9

A Difficult Life in the Early Oro Blanco Mining Camps

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

In the 1870s and 1880s, despite the danger from Indians and the hardships of the environment, the Oro Blanco hills filled with mines, camps, and people. There were far more Mexicans than Americans and probably more miners than farmers and ranchers.

As mentioned in an earlier column, the small village of Oro Blanco emerged in the mid 1870s to support the increasing number of people. (Oro Blanco village was along today’s Ruby Road, about four miles northwest of Ruby.)

By the early 1880s, over 200 miners lived in the village of Oro Blanco. Buildings of wood and adobe began going up. One enthusiastic writer described the village in the October 11, 1880 edition of Tucson’s Daily Arizona Citizen:

Oro Blanco is a quiet little town, inhabited by a superior class of miners and workmen, and all are opposed to sharps, tramps, and jumpers. They are an intelligent class generally, and are determined to keep a model mining camp, free from loafers, rowdies and reckless characters. The mining claims are numerous, and show prospects that will soon bring capital among them.

The Montana mine also attracted a significant number of miners by the mid 1880s. A small mining camp, named Montana Camp (forerunner of Ruby), started growing at the foot of Montana Peak.

By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the larger mining camps – including Montana, Oro Blanco, Yellow Jacket, Austerlitz, Warsaw, and Old Glory – had populations of up to 50 people. And there were familiar (though crude) hallmarks of civilization, like stores, post offices, schools and cemeteries. Virtually every mining camp had at least one saloon. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no evidence of churches.

Housing ranged from a few adobe buildings, to frame buildings, to wooden shacks, tents, and even caves. A few mining camps had crude boarding houses. Warsaw Camp boasted about the “El Warsaw” hotel (Tucson newspaper ads exaggerated its accommodations). Bob and Al Ring’s paternal grandparents, Ambrose and Grace Ring, lived in the “El Warsaw” for several months in 1905/06. (See the   photographs and our next column for their story.)

The mining camps were a true melting pot of humanity. Anglos, who typically ran the mines, were relatively few in number. To keep costs low, Mexicans did most of the underground mining. A few Chinese worked as cooks or housekeepers and a group of Japanese grew vegetables to sell to the mining camps.

Life in the mining camps during Arizona’s territorial years was harsh, but people came and worked hard, drawn by visions of wealth and the challenge of the mining. They came from Mexico, France, Ireland, England, Japan, China, and of course the U.S. Some of these people were prominent pioneers of early Arizona. The list includes soldiers, Indian fighters, doctors, bankers, cattlemen, teamsters, sheriffs of Pima County, mayors of Tucson, and governors of Arizona. Others, including Ambrose and Grace Ring, came not seeking riches, but just to work at the mines. They were not well known people, but worked just as hard under very difficult conditions.

Travel to the Oro Blanco mining camps at the turn of the 20th century was certainly an adventure! Regular stagecoach service from Tucson to the Oro Blanco mines began soon after the completion of the transcontinental railroad through Tucson in 1880. The stagecoach trip was 70 miles over rough dirt roads.

A stagecoach schedule from 1905 shows a buckboard stagecoach leaving Tucson three days a week for Arivaca, Oro Blanco village, and the mining camps. The stage departed at 6:00 a.m., traveled south to Arivaca Junction (passing right through today’s Green Valley), and then west to reach Arivaca by 2:00 p.m. The mines were two additional hours to the south. The horse or mule teams that pulled the stagecoach had to be changed seven times to keep up a gallop or fast trot pace.

There is evidence of active social life in the mining camps. The Weekly Arizona Enterprise described an 1891 Christmas party at Oro Blanco, with 100 people attending from Arivaca and the nearby mining camps. The party included supper and dancing, and lasted all night.

Arizona Historical Society photographs document well-attended picnics held in the 1890s, with people from Arivaca and the Oro Blanco district.

If life was tough in the camps for the miners, think of the women. If a wife joined her husband in the camps, she had to accept the wild untamed surroundings with little or nothing to set up a home. Clean water was hard to find and there was no sewage system. The hardships of poverty, drought, fire, and Indian attacks were real. Finally, a wife had to be ready to pack up and leave when the ore played out and her husband moved on to the next mining camp.

The women who endured these hardships had an important positive impact on the mining camps. They organized and ran the schools and social events. Women established livable conditions to provide as many refinements as the environment allowed.

Yes, life in the Oro Blanco mining camps at the end of Arizona’s territorial years in 1912, was certainly difficult. Talking about Montana Camp, but equally valid for its neighboring camps, author Carol Clarke Meyer wrote:

A few of the men of the neighborhood had their own diggings, but many worked for others. Wages were small and money was scarce. Some families lived in adobe huts, but many had only tents or even occupied caves. Everybody worked hard but there was little to relieve the grimness of the struggle.

(Sources: Carol Clarke Meyer, “The Rise and Fall of Ruby,” The Journal of Arizona History, 1974; Phil Clarke “Recollections of Life in Arivaca and Ruby, 1906-1926,” Arizona Historical Society; Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1884; Daily Arizona Citizen; Weekly Arizona Enterprise; Anna Domitrovic, “A Woman’s Place,” History of Mining in Arizona)

Figure 1: Photo of Warsaw Camp - El Warsaw Hotel and Store
Warsaw Camp’s “El Warsaw” hotel was up the hill from the general store. This ramshackle frame building contained four guest rooms, approximately 10 x 15 feet in size. Ambrose Ring called the place the “shack.” (Ring family private collection, 1906)

Figure 2: Room inside El Warsaw Hotel - 1
Ambrose and Grace Ring tried to dress up their small room in the “El Warsaw” hotel with family mementos. (Ring family private collection, 1906)
Figure 3: Room inside El Warsaw Hotel - 2
Ambrose and Grace Ring tried to dress up their small room in the “El Warsaw” hotel with family mementos. (Ring family private collection, 1906)


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