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.
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.