South of Payson near the road to Phoenix lays an old mining area with many remnants of the past still around. It is the Sunflower area, which was once home to active mercury mines. The mine with the most impressive remnants remaining is the National/Sunflower Mine. Here’s a look at this mine.
The path to this old mine isn’t all that easy, though it is popular with Jeeps and of-road vehicles. The journey off of Highway 87 starts at the top of Slate Creek hill, turning down into Sunflower across from the Mount Ord road turnoff. Eventually you have to turn off onto dirt and that’s where the adventure begins. It’s not a particularly bad road, but it is narrow. Once you get to FR 25A though, it turns into a road only fit for ATVs.
The nice thing is that it’s a wonderful path to hike, with water and interesting rocks along the way.
There is a bridge that you cross, a bridge with a story. It’s a newer bridge, having been built with funds from the Arizona State Park Off-Highway Vehicle Fund. It replaced a bridge that the Viper Militia blew up in the 1990s while experimenting with explosives. Eventually you come to the turnoff, go up a hill, and then you see the mine area.
Refining mercury is quite a process, one that in some ways is similar to whiskey distillation. The June 6, 1965 Arizona Republic Arizona Days and Ways magazine had the following clip about how mercury is obtained.
“The ‘MUD,’ or ‘concentrate’ is hand-shoveled into the furnaces. When the temperature reaches 500 to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, the mud vaporizes. Extending from one side of the furnaces are lengths of pipe. As the mercury hits the cooling pipes, it condenses and the vapor turns to water. Both are caught in buckets and the water drained off. The mercury, being heavier, is on the bottom.”
That clip was a description of the Pine Mountain Mine setup that is a few miles away from the Sunflower Mine. The Sunflower Mine had a more extensive setup, and the remnants are very extensive and impressive. This mine was a major producer and had a lot of action going, though very little has happened there since the 1960s. Mercury is obtained from cinnabar and discovery of it here goes back to the 1910s when E.H. Bowman discovered it. He sold out for $10,000 to the Sunflower Cinnabar Mining Company in 1913 and a variety of companies had it after that.
Mercury, which is also known as quicksilver, is used in a variety of applications including thermometers and electrical switches. However, its toxicity has led to a decrease in its use in the past couple of decades and China supplies the world with almost 2/3 of the mercury that it uses. According to MineralPrices.com, a flask of mercury was going for $1,850 as of April 12.
The Sunflower Mine also has three shafts that are located further back in the canyon. It appears that ore was mined from these tunnels and then taken down to the processing equipment via rail. Some great views can be had in this area, and if you look closely you can see Highway 87 from the mine.
According to IronMiners.com, it wasn’t just mercury that was pulled out of this mine. According to that site, from 1913 to 1965 2,140 pounds of copper, 1,095 ounces of silver, and 764 ounces of gold were hauled out in addition to 3,973 flasks of mercury.
It should be noted that there were also mines around Mount Ord by where Highway 87 passes. Amongst the mines were the Rattlesnake and Ord Mines, which brought employment to many in the region.
If you know of anyone who worked in these mines or have pictures to share, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.