Ever since Jim and I have been traveling to and from Tombstone I have been curious about the Millville Ruins, stone structures outside of Tombstone about 8 miles. They sit on the side of a hill facing the San Pedro River to the west as it meanders northward.
My opportunity to hike there finally came this month when I was able to attend a scheduled history walk by the Friends of the San Pedro River. These folks and the BLM are the caretakers of many sites and venues along the San Pedro River Natural Conservation Area, SPRNCA for short.
We met our docents, Richard Bauer and Gabrielle Lafargue at 9 am on a Saturday morning in early April at the Millville parking lot. There is no official signage for Millville along Charleston Road between Tombstone and Sierra Vista, but it lies just east of the San Pedro River, which is unmistakable by its line of never-ending cottonwood trees marching up and down the San Pedro Valley. Note that these Cottonwood trees were not here in the 1880s. This area was quite barren of either cottonwood or mesquite. There were significantly fewer cottonwoods than there are today. According to folks who should know, the seeds of these non-native trees arrived here in the guts of Texas cattle.
Our tour today was going to be a short up and back, a two-mile tour of the Corbin and Gird Mills, and petroglyphs which were found not far from there.
The structures on the road, that you see from Charleston Road are the remains of two stamp mills built to process silver from the Tombstone mines.
Processing seemingly ordinary rocks into nearly pure silver and gold was a very expensive, as well as dangerous enterprise. It required a lot of labor and even more capital. Because the process required the use of gravity to move the ore from one stage to the next, stamp mills were always built on hillsides. Moreover, because 19th century stamp mills needed the power of steam to lift the heavy crushing stamps, they were all built close to a perennial source of water. In the case of the super-rich Tombstone mines, that permanent water source was the San Pedro River. Ore from the mines was dumped into the top level (1) where a “rock breaker” (2) reduced it to pebbles. At level (3) a battery of stamps pulverized the stone into powder. The dust was then mixed with water and this slurry was sent down via gravity to amalgamating pans where it was mixed with mercury. (Mill employees who worked with mercury had very short lives. No OSHA here.) At this stage the dust-mercury pulp dropped to the retort room (4) to be heated in furnaces to a temperature that caused the mercury to evaporate, leaving silver and gold as the residue. At the height of Tombstone’s boom years (1879 to 1885), these mills thundered around the clock belching much dust and smoke.
The mill you see from the road, and the closer one to the road is the Corbin Mill. Just a few hundred feet to its north stood the Gird Mill. Across the San Pedro River was the town of Charleston. Ms. Rosemary and I had taken the hike to Charleston last year with Richard Bauer, one of our docents this day. As a historian, Richard explained that contrary to Wikipedia’s claim to have been named after the postmaster, Charles Handy, Charleston was actually named after Charleston, South Carolina. Anticipating the need for housing, the land was purchased by Amos Stowe.
It grew because of its liberal lease laws and, according to our docent, the fact that Dick Gird, owner of the Gird Mill, did not allow alcohol in Millville. It is said that at one time, Charleston had a reputation of being rowdier than Tombstone. To support this claim, are the facts that Frank Stillwell owned a Saloon in Charleston, and that Charleston lay between the Clanton Ranch, of OK Corral fame, and Tombstone. This would have made it a bit more convenient for troublemaking than Tombstone another 8 miles away. John D. Rose has written a book about Charleston, AT after extensive research, Charleston and Millville, A.T. Hell on the San Pedro.
Gabrielle, our docent, shared many secrets of the landscape and plants of the area. The Soaptree Yucca and the Saltbush that was growing in the wash, as well as pointing out that the mesquite trees which were covering this area were not dead, only dormant, and would be leafing out soon.
We passed the Corbin Mill without much fanfare. The Corbin Mill was begun at the same time as the Gird Mill but was set back a year by bedrock which had to be blasted away to set the mill into the side of the hill.
Hiking a bit further we came across an information station discussing some of the more colorful characters around Charleston and Millville.
Here Richard Bauer spun a story of Judge Burnett and “Colonel” Greene, two very different people. To make a long and interesting story short, Judge Barnett was Charleston’s Justice of the “Peace” and informal “Dictator”; giving out sentences for crimes that to his imagination had been committed. Colonel Greene, on the other hand, was a likable man, a rich rancher and mine owner, who blamed Barnett for the accidental drowning of his daughter Ella. Ella is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Bisbee. In Going Back to Bisbee author Richard Shelton paints a picture of both Burnett and Green and the feud that endured until Burnett’s death by Greene’s hand.
Further on, we stopped at the Gird Residence, or what remains of it. It lies on the top tier of the mill, not 50 yards away. The noise, filth from the smelter must have been inescapable. These stamp mills ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Stamp Mills are necessarily built on the sides of hills as it is necessary to tier them on a downhill slope, each part of the process taking place on a lower level. Stamp mills are so-called because of the “Stamps” that are used to pulverize the ore stone into powder in order to extricate the silver. It was a hot, dirty, expensive, and poisonous process.
After living in the area for over 12 years now, the interwoven histories of people and towns in Cochise County are beginning to make some sense. A couple of John D. Rose’s books have helped. These books are extensively researched and annotated from the original sources.
Please join the Friends of the San Pedro River in caring for this important area, its history, and in the protection of one of the last perennial rivers in Arizona. Sign up for their newsletter. Many of the history walks are free to the public, but very few require membership.