Crown King, Arizona
Ghost Town - Old Gold Mine
Text and photos by Gordon Burhop
Crown King, Arizona, a hamlet at about 5900 feet elevation in the pine forest of the Bradshaw Mountains, attracts people from nearby Phoenix and the Sonoran Desert like a magnet during the summer. They come now to cool off, but once, they came to get rich.
Saloon photo: By Jonathan Boeke
How Not to Get Rich
In the early 1870s, prospectors discovered gold and began staking claims in the southern Bradshaw Mountains, one of the most heavily mineralized ranges in the world. During the 1880’s, Orrin F. Place, Noah Shekels, and George P. Harrington emerged as major operators, and opened several mines, including the Crown King mine. It was the largest in the Bradshaw range, according to Bruce M. Wilson in his book Crown King and the Southern Bradshaws: A Complete History. They built a mill nearby to process the ore and a road to connect the Crown King Mine and the mill. They used 50 mules to haul the ore. Crown King, the community, grew up along the road, with a saloon as one of its first enterprises.
While they anticipated high profits, Place, Shekels and Harrington ran into difficult problems transporting equipment and ore over rough mountain roads. They ran short of water to operate their mill. They got hit with a natural calamity in February, 1890, when a storm damaged facilities and washed away valuable ore concentrates. They faced problems hauling processed ore down the steep mountain slopes to the marketplace. Harrington lost a buckboard carriage full of bullion when he tried to cross a rain-swollen creek. The three owners got into a bitter and expensive dispute which led to litigation and violence. Operations finally collapsed about the turn of the century, although some miners continued to operate in the area intermittently during the next 50 years. Altogether, operators took some $2,000,000 in gold from the Crown King Mine alone over the years, but no one ever got really wealthy.
Today, Crown King, the community, nestles in the mountains as a quaint and historic old mining town, with a growing number of summer homes in the pine forest and a full calendar of events during the year.
How to Get There
You can reach Crown King over a good gravel road which begins at the Bumble Bee exit off Interstate 17, about 65 miles north of downtown Phoenix. Usually open even after a snow, this route will take you through the near-ghost-town communities of Bumble Bee and Cleator to Crown Point, following an abandoned railroad bed for most of the final leg of the drive.
At Bumble Bee, originally a way station on the stage coach route between Prescott and Phoenix, promoters built a movie-set-style old west town to attract tourism, although without much success in the end. They left intact some of the town’s original buildings, which are still standing (just barely). A few people still live in the area.
Cleator was originally an ore train terminus and a transfer and smelting center in the foothills, some 15 miles up the gravel road from Bumble Bee. James P. Cleator bought out all the property in 1905, and his descendants still own the entire town. They have left much of it essentially frozen in time, with many of the original buildings still standing. Locals assemble at the original saloon on those occasions when it is open, and they share good tales about Cleator with visitors who happen to be passing through.
Along the 10-mile route from Cleator to Crown King lies a torturous switch-back circuit which climbs several thousand feet up the mountain side. Railroad tycoon Frank Murphy had the audacity to lay a track there at the turn of the century, which was known as "Murphy’s Impossible Railroad, for ore trains to use in hauling loads to the transfer and smelting facilities. He designed the track as a series of ascending zigzag segments, each roughly a mile long. At the intersections between segments, he constructed a switch and a rail extension.
Leaving Cleator, an engineer drove his train forward over the first segment to the first intersection, traveling beyond the switch to the end of the rail extension, where he stopped. A crew man threw the rail switch. The engineer then backed his train onto the next segment, following it to the next intersection, again traveling beyond the switch to the end of the rail extension, where he stopped. Again, a crew man threw the rail switch. The engineer drove his train forward on the next segment, repeating the process segment by segment until he reached Crown King. He reversed the entire procedure during the descent to Cleator.
During the construction, which lasted for some three years, Murphy had to pay his workers especially well. Otherwise, he would lose them every time they heard of a new strike because they would quit their jobs on the spot to go prospecting, sometimes right beside the railroad bed. When the mines played out, the railroad company ripped up the tracks, making way for today’s gravel road up the mountain side from Cleator into Crown King.
You can take the switchback up or you can reach Crown King by driving north up U. S. Forest Service roads from Lake Pleasant, located off State Highway 74, about 35 miles north northwest of downtown Phoenix. If you choose to take this route, which is my favorite, you must have a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, good rough-country driving skills and a Prescott National Forest Map. You will have to be prepared to spend perhaps five hours to make the 35-mile drive, which is spectacular in scenery and abundant in wildlife.
Along the way, you’ll pass several abandoned mines, collapsing cabins and ghost towns. One of the most intriguing locations is Oro Belle. (Oro is the Spanish word for "gold." Belle is the French word for "beautiful.") A collapsed head frame and rusting equipment mark the Oro Belle Mine, which gave the community its name. Leaning walls are all the remain of an old boarding house. When the mine closed, an entrepreneur dismantled the Oro Belle saloon and hauled it by mule, board by board, to Crown King, where he reassembled it and reopened it for business. Now called the Crown King Saloon, it is locally famous for its jalapeno hamburgers.
You can drive another scenic route to Crown King by traveling south on Senator "Highway," which is, in fact, another rough dirt road, nearly 40 miles in length, which also requires a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, rough-country driving skills, and a Prescott National Forest Map.
Missouri Pacific Lines map, Public Domain.
Whichever route you choose, you will be rewarded in Crown King with a look back into the world of a late 19th and early 20th century mining town, with weathered timber cabins, abandoned mines, deserted equipment, a fading cemetery, a living old-time general store and saloon, and, with good luck, a thousand tales about the good old days.
Crown King and the Southern Bradshaws: A Complete History by Bruce M. Wilson
Arizona’s Best Ghost Towns by Philip Varney
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