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Vignettes in Time: Bureau of Land Management Collections at the Arizona State Museum
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Silver Bell Complex

As part of a land exchange agreement between the BLM and American Smelting and Refining Company, Inc. (ASARCO), a mining company, archaeologists surveyed 2,177 acres of BLM land and 156 acres of ASARCO property in the Silver Bell Mountains in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This constituted the first systematic archaeological work in the area. A total of six sites were identified based on visible surface remains. The three historic sites discussed here were chosen for subsurface excavation because researchers expected to find additional evidence of life in an early mining community.

The Silver Bell complex of sites provides another example of how documentary and material evidence work together in historical archaeology. In addition to their investigation of the remains of structures and features and the objects found within them, researchers from Cultural and Environmental Systems, Inc. were able to draw upon a vast array of documents. Newspaper archives, maps, interviews, recorded oral histories, photographs, mining company records, personal correspondence, U.S. census data, files of the County Recorder, state incorporation records, and state business directories helped archaeologists understand the layout, population dynamics, and functioning of the broader community.

Archaeological research on the town of Silver Bell (also known historically as “Silverbell”) itself has demonstrated that this site also represents a fairly typical example of how mining communities developed into towns. After studying the historical trajectories of many mining areas, historian Duane Smith determined that these communities often began as encampments of temporary structures, usually canvas tents and a few wood frame structures. Over time, more permanent building materials such as stone, brick, and adobe were employed. Freight and passenger railroad service was established, and a business district with a post office, banks, hotels, law enforcement, schools, and churches developed. At that point, a camp had progressed into a full-fledged town. Nevertheless, many of these towns maintained “hell on wheels” reputations for varying degrees of lawlessness. This kind of disreputable, boom-and-bust atmosphere was commonly associated with short-term property value orientations and fluctuating prices for mineral resources.

AZ AA:10:20(ASM), Silver Bell ghost town.
AZ AA:10:20(ASM), Silver Bell ghost town. »Enlarge

Many of these elements were present at Silver Bell, not the least of which was its bad reputation—“the Hellhole of Arizona.” Still, Silver Bell (est. 1904) was probably never a town in the fullest sense, mainly because it was almost entirely company owned and operated. Moreover, it could not have sustained a really sizable population for more than a few years in that era, as it did not have a convenient source of potable water. The community soon dwindled to a ghost town after ASARCO ceased operations there around 1930.

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