Stories From The East Verde River, Part 9



Come along as we continue our flight down the winding course of the East Verde River. We begin to understand why the native peoples called it "The Crooked Water."

Having left the East Verde Estates we are venturing into some extremely rugged canyon lands where the river cuts its way through a high mesa called Buckhead Mesa. The origin of this name seems to be lost, but reason dictates some early prospectors found the head of a buck deer and gave the mesa that identification.


The Crackerjack Mine shafts, on Buckhead Mesa, are among the several mines near and along the East Verde River as it cuts through the mesa.

As the river cut its way in a southwesterly direction, veins of gold ore were exposed and early in the settlement period prospectors found them and staked their claims. Some obscure and difficult Jeep trails make it possible to drive part of the way, far enough to find the remnants of several ancient arrastras along the river.

The "arrastra" is of direct Spanish and Mexican origin, an idea brought to the New World by the conquistadors. It was a crude device used by miners to break the precious metal from its captive rock.

It was usually fashioned from material at hand -- a low circular rock wall with a center post for a pivot-point buried in a pile of rocks. Often the post was an axle or spindle from a wagon or mining equipment. Attached to it was a pole, 15 to 20 feet in length, and to this, heavy chains were attached. A burro or horse was hitched to the free end of the pole, and as the animals walked around the arrastra, the large stones were dragged over a floor of smooth, hard rock. The gold-bearing quartz was in this way ground to a powder.

A small trickle of water was directed into the arrastra and the powdered ore turned into a thin soup. This washed out through an opening at a low point in the pit and into a sluice box fitted with riffles. The gold particles settled behind the riffles and could be retrieved.

For the next five or six miles the river cuts a fickle, winding way before reaching the Doll Baby Ranch and the demarcation of the Mazatzal Wilderness area. At least six mining claims have been filed along this stretch of the East Verde, and almost that many again can be found on the surrounding hillsides. If one is hiking in this area, great care needs to be taken to avoid open mine shafts, although the Forest Service has seen to it that most of them have been covered.

We encounter two claims in connection with these mines. The first is the Liberty Mine, a claim granted in 1890. Hearsay has it that a good amount of gold was taken from this mine. However, we want to move on down the river almost a mile to the Gowan mines.

David Gowan was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in the Rim country around 1874 and became a sometime rancher in Gisela and then at the Tonto Natural Bridge.

However, his main passion was prospecting for gold, and in this location around 1880, he discovered a vein of gold-bearing ore from four to 12 feet thick dipping at a 32-degree angle to the northeast. The mine is on the west side of the river. It would become the most famous mine in the district, producing more than any other of the Payson area mines over the next 50 years.

A 1957 mining report advised further development of this property, and said, "incidentally, the old stopes (horizontal excavations off from the main shaft) are timbered with peeled cypress from local supply [Cypress Thicket] and these timbers are as solid and sound as the day they were put in, 42 years ago (that would be 1915)." Like other claims in this area, they had been worked for some years before they were officially granted by the government in 1890.

A hand written account of the area, unsigned, quoted Ralph Helm, whose family had owned these mines from the 1930s (later leased to others), "Ralph remembers in 1948 he drove a '46 Ford sedan to the American Mine and continued up to the Gowan ... Bulldozers were used regularly to maintain these roads. Back in the '30s the miners were being paid $5 per week. They mined using hand steel and they would make their own bits ..." The account goes on to identify four stone lookouts built by the miners to guard against potential Apache raids. They are on the surrounding ridges before the trails make their final descent to the mine.

"As a young boy in the 1930s one of the miners showed Ralph the lookouts and the spent cartridges that were laying on the ground ... There used to be a seven stamp mill 15 feet high. The tanks are cyanide tanks for leaching out the gold. The red rock stone cabin was the powder house for storing the dynamite ... The miners lived in stick-frame, canvas-covered dwellings, 12 to 15 miners covering two- to 10-hour shifts six days a week ... Until the '30s they used a hand-powered windlass or whim for raising or lowering the miners and the ore from the mine. Later they used compressed air power ..."

The 1957 mine report states that "just below the mine opening, and in the bank of the river, is located the old 10 stamp mill, built by the Pacific Iron Works in 1878 ... In this mill was treated all of the ore mined in the Gowan together with a large amount of ore from various other claims ..." This differs from the other report about a 7-stamp mill. Again, a 1939 report states, "The remains of an old 2-stamp mill are still standing on the property." These several reports indicate how the equipment varied over the decades. Many of these old machines and stamp mills have been taken by mining buffs over the years, some of which can be seen here and there in the Payson area as yard decorations.

About a half-mile south of the Gowan Mine, the American Gulch enters the East Verde River. A mining claim was filed there and given the name, The American Mine. Thus the wash that emptied there was called the American Gulch. That "gulch," or arroyo, is the drainage for the Payson area and can be followed back to where it parallels Payson's Main Street, creating the broad meadow that made this location ideal for settlers.

Note: The final chapter in Stories from the East Verde River will appear in The Rim Review Oct. 29.

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