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Silver Bell Complex

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The history of mining in the Silver Bell Mountains is fairly convoluted, largely due to the dynamic nature of the copper business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to geologists and researchers, the richest, most densely exploited area occupied a narrow zone along the southwest flank of the range. Although copper was of primary interest, some silver, lead, and gold were also mined.

The first documented prospecting began in the early 1870s under the leadership of Tucsonan Charles O. Brown. By mid-1874, he and his partners had opened the Mammoth Lode, the Young America Mine, and a smelter. Other claims and mines established in the latter quarter of the century included the Atlas, Old Boot, and Prospector Mines; each was exploited by various short-lived partnerships, companies, and lessees. At this time in the American West, it was common for miners working in proximity to form self-governing “mining districts” in the absence of strong territorial authority. Miners elected a leader and a recorder, and they formed committees to establish district rules and boundaries. In time the term “mining district” developed a less formal, more geographical meaning. In the 1890s, two English companies entered the Silver Bell Mining District: the Silver Bell Mining and Smelting Company, Ltd., and the Tucson Mining and Smelting Company, Ltd. Both had very limited success.

By the turn of the century, it must have become clear that consolidation was the best means of achieving profitability, and a partnership under Zeckendorf and Steinfeld managed to acquire a large group of claims in the district. This partnership held one of the most productive mines, the Old Boot. Another group of claims was developed by the Oxide Copper Company; this company retained another major mine, the Young America. In 1901, there was enough mining activity in the district—and enough of a family presence—that Pima County established a public school. It had seventy-five students that year. Two communities were included in the 1900 census: Pelton/Peltonville (est. 1881), with eighty inhabitants, and Atlas Camp, with fifty-nine.

In 1903 Zeckendorf and his partners sold approximately sixty claims to the Imperial Copper Company. Formed by Staunton, Gage, and Murphy in May of 1903, Imperial proceeded to systematically develop its operations in the district. By September of 1904, the Arizona Southern Railroad (AZ AA:10:19[ASM])—a fully owned subsidiary of Imperial—was established, built, and operating between Red Rock and Silver Bell. Imperial subsequently built a smelter at Sasco (again via a subsidiary, the Southern Arizona Smelting Company) in late 1907. More than twenty residential and commercial buildings were erected in this planned community. An electrical plant associated with the smelter supplied power to Sasco, the mines, and Silver Bell.

Although Imperial was the foremost mining operation in the Silver Bell Mining District between 1903 and 1911, the Oxhide Copper Company continued operations in the area intermittently until the early 1930s. A third company, the Cleveland-Arizona, organized around 1906. It was succeeded a year later by a company that eventually optioned its claims to Imperial, and ultimately ceased operations in 1919. A lessee continued on until about 1925.

Soon after its inception, Imperial Copper established the “town” of Silver Bell (a portion of which is designated AZ AA:10:20[ASM]) over the remains of a mining encampment that dated to the 1880s. Reaching a population of 1,000 people in 1905, the community included a post office (est. 1904), the offices of Imperial and the railroad, a Wells Fargo, the Imperial company store, a school, two saloons, a Chinese bakery, a barber, a doctor, a justice of the peace, and a deputy sheriff. By 1907 services expanded to include a company hotel, a cobbler, more barbers, and another bakery; a dairy and a notary public had arrived by 1909. E. Glen Baker, the most notable local entrepreneur, opened his saloon in 1909. His ventures soon encompassed general merchandise, a billiard parlor, and an auto stage.

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