May 24, 2020

Photo Essay: A Slice of Arizona's Longest Operating Mining District, Castle Dome

A little over two years ago, a group of us ventured out to Yuma, Arizona for some sightseeing. By then I'd already been wanting to visit the Yuma Territory Prison historic site for a while—but to be honest, the real draw for me for that particular trip was to visit the "Enchanted Cavern" at Castle Dome Mine Museum.

It's become a tourist attraction for sure, but it began as Hull Mine. Its naturally fluorescent mineral walls—sparkling with cobalt blue fluoride crystals—make it a good candidate for a psychedelic spectacle.

There was only one problem.

Our trip didn't overlap with the days of the week that the Enchanted Cavern is actually open. And the Castle Dome Mine Museum wouldn't bend the rules to let us in off-schedule.

The sentiment of the group was that we would just return to Yuma sooner rather than later to cross the Enchanted Cavern off all of our lists. But other sites (and sights) and adventures have taken precedence since 2018—and we haven't made it back yet.

Fortunately, the Castle Dome Mining District—which once encompassed 10 square miles and eventually 300 mines—had plenty to offer to keep us occupied for a few hours.

And as it's only fully open from October to April (call for hours the rest of the year), I'm glad we got there when we did.

In operation from 1864 to 1979 (the longest operating mining district in Arizona), Castle Dome began with 17th-century diggings from Spanish explorers—which eventually gave rise to the state's second patented mine, the Flora Temple Mine, in 1871.

Down there—150 feet deep—they found a half-mile-long vein of galena, an important source of silver (mixed with lead). Galena is formed along earthquake faults, where the earth fractures and is pushed up by seismic and volcanic action.

In fact, most of the mines at Castle Dome produced silver—though occasionally a pocket of gold would be uncovered.

There was enough mining activity at one point to warrant a population explosion of up to 3000 residents, living in cabins...

...and, eventually, bunkhouses (presumably for the bachelors without families).

By the year 1878, Castle Dome City was bigger than Yuma, having gotten 200,000 ounces of silver out of 5000 tons of silver galena ore.

But now it's a ghost town, its only permanent residents the bodies that are buried in the cemetery—including those who died by a knife wound or were beheaded—and those of four miners who got caught in a flash flood in 1887 and never escaped from the 450-foot-deep vertical hole.

Today, the Castle Dome Mining District attraction is a step back in time to an era of machine shops, mercantiles, a blacksmith shop, a saw shop (which sells, literally, saws), and more.

Among the 50+ buildings (seven of which are original to the town), there's a stone cabin, filled with artifacts (many unearthed from surrounding mine shafts)...

...and a church, situated against the backdrop of the Castle Dome Mountains (and the "dome" itself, actually a butte) and the surrounding Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

Preservation efforts have really benefitted from Castle Dome's remote location.

The church's bell in its tower still rings.

Owned by Pennsylvania-born 49-er Jacob Snively and his brother Connor, Castle Dome Mining District consisted of just a portion of mining claims along the Colorado River—which enabled the ore to be transported by (steam?)boat and ultimately shipped out for smelting.

But those who lived and worked at Castle Dome mostly never left—and the isolated boomtown was a boon for their most basic tendencies.

It was the Wild West, with all the trappings...

...including the town saloon.

A miner's life can be the pinnacle of the "work hard, play hard" ethos...

...and there was plenty of work to be dome at the bank, the assay office...

...the recorder's office...

...and even the barber shop.

The deepest they ever got was 700 feet. Given what a chore it was to separate the silver from the lead, it wasn't really worth it to dig any deeper.

And with the rise and fall in demand for silver over time. so did the success of Castle Dome fluctuate.

During both WWI and WWII, lead actually emerged as the more valuable mining yield—and with the involvement of Arizona Lead Company, bullets were made from millions of pounds of extracted lead.

Still, the war effort wasn't enough to keep the Castle Dome school from being shut down in 1950.

In 1979, the drop in silver prices was a death knell for Castle Dome's mining operations. When the separating process began to cost more than the value of the silver, it dealt a final, fatal blow to legitimate mining on the claim.

In the years that followed, scam artists showed up as scam artists are apt to do. In 1993/4, Allen Armstrong and his wife, Stephanie bought the land that sits atop three of the patented claims of the former mining district—and by 1998, they were able to open it as a museum.

The Hull Mine—the sparkly, colorful, "enchanted" one—is actually a recent acquisition, circa 2016. I hope it sticks around long enough for me to go back and see it in person.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bodie Ghost Town
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory
Photo Essay: Crossing Over Into Yuma

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