Vulture Mine Tour
Text and Photos by Carrie M. Miner
The legendary Vulture Mine offers visitors a glimpse of a vanished world, the chance to meet some ghosts, and an object lesson in the grim cost of striking it rich. Although the Vulture was the largest producing gold mine in Arizona, it never paid off for its investors or its discoverer, Henry Wickenburg. The mine changed hands several times due to theft (better known as "highgrading"), the lack of a reliable water supply, and a series of financial scandals and setbacks. It shut down for good in 1942. Now, it is a popular tourist attraction, luring visitors from nearby Wickenburg, the town named for the hapless Henry.
The Vulture Mine’s self-guided tour begins at the Vulture’s Roost, a wood-framed building housing a collection of mining memorabilia and ore samples from the mine and surrounding area. Visitors pay their admission, and they are given a "treasure map" of the town, once known as Vulture City.
The first stop on the main street is the assay office and manager's headquarters, one of the most complete buildings in the ghost town. The structure’s walls, built from low-grade ore, contain an estimated six hundred thousand dollars in gold and silver. Visitors cannot enter the assay office itself, but they can wander through the other sections of the building, including the bullion storage room where gold and silver bars were stored in an underground vault.
The ground floor of the living quarters is scattered with remnants from long ago, including an old Brunswick turntable, a Singer sewing machine, table and chairs, and even an assortment of tattered clothes and shoes. Antique bottles sit in an open window, festooned with cobwebs and glittering with reflected sunlight. Those who brave the steep flight of wooden stairs find themselves in the bedroom, where an old metal cot lies in need of a mattress. The buckling of metal in the wind and the creaking floor discourage the wary from lingering.
The tour trail loops around to the stamp mill and the headframe, which loom over the remains of the white quartz butte that first attracted Henry Wickenburg to the area in 1863. Although Wickenburg held the original claim to the rich mine, he ended his life on the bank of the Hassayampa River with a bullet in his head and pennies in his pocket.
The tour continues to the Glory Hole, a pit that originated in 1923 when some miners chipping ore out of the rock walls cut into support pillars and brought down one hundred feet of rock on their heads. Other miners dubbed the resulting depression the "Glory Hole" because seven of their companions and twelve burros were "sent on to glory" in the incident.
Not far from the Glory Hole, the main shaft of the Vulture Mine drops to a depth of two thousand one hundred feet at a perfect thirty five percent incline. A concrete slab at the entrance marks the place where Henry Wickenburg first made his strike. Miners eventually removed two hundred million dollars of gold from the bonanza and perhaps as much disappeared into the pockets of miners, supervisors and freighters. Jacob Waltz, better known as the "Lost Dutchman," worked at the Vulture Mine for several years, and some stories hold that his famous find actually originated from the common practice stealing the Vulture’s rich resources.
The wooden headframe still towers over the entrance of the main shaft. The opening is partially boarded up to protect visitors, but one can still peer into the dark tunnel where bats drop from the rafters to flutter uneasily at the echo of human voices. The blacksmith shop sits next to the main shaft as if waiting for operations to resume.
South of the blacksmith shop, a road leads visitors to the ball mill where steel balls crushed rubble and low grade ore for the cyanide leaching process used in the later years of the mine’s production. The cyanide storage room, with its heavily barred windows, and the ball mill sit at the far end of town overlooking the white-encrusted leaching pits.
From there, the trail loops back to its beginning past the mine’s tailings, Henry Wickenburg’s original home, and the infamous Hanging Tree, where eighteen residents ended their lives for the crimes of rape, murder and highgrading.
Another group of buildings served as bunkhouses, a jail, whorehouses, hotels and even apartments. Visitors also can tour the old mess hall with its cast iron stove and wooden ice chest and the odd assortments of pans, dishes and canisters.
Although it is not shown on the map, the original schoolhouse, on the other side of town, is open to the public. A second schoolhouse, built to accommodate the city’s growing needs, is used for storage. Outside the schoolhouses, wooden picnic tables, the remains of two wooden teeter-totters, and a dilapidated slide and swing set entertain the imagination.
At its peak, Vulture City reached a population of five thousand, but it now mainly houses rattlesnakes, lizards and an occasional ghost. Speculation holds that the Vulture’s doors will once again open to a flow of gold, as local lore hints that most of the mine’s rich resources still lie untouched. Overhead, vultures soar in the thermals as a grim reminder.
To reach the Vulture Mine, take Route 60 west two and one half miles out of Wickenburg to the Vulture Mine Road. Turn south on the road and travel twelve miles to the mine. For more information, call 1-602-859-2743.
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