Nearby Gila City boomed and died
Editor's Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Arizona Centennial celebrations, marking the area's history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
When Yuma was just a five-year infant, Gila City sprang into life 15 miles away. Located a few miles northeast of today's Arizona Western College campus, the town once looked like a giant compared to the struggling village called Arizona City across from Fort Yuma.
Seven years later, it had disappeared. What happened?
You probably guessed the answer. Gold was the attraction that brought men running to Gila City. When the gold was gone, so were they. Gila City became a ghost town. J. Ross Browne visited the site in 1864 and reported seeing only “three chimneys and a coyote.” Not a trace of the town can be seen today.
But the boom was big while it lasted. It began with a group of Texans bound for California in 1858. Their leader, Jacob Snively, had been Sam Houston's secretary in the Lone Star State.
One of the party, Henry Birch, picked up a nugget as they traveled along the Gila. His discovery encouraged his fellow travelers to examine the gravel banks near the river, and they were rewarded with similar finds.
The news of gold on the Gila set off the first gold rush in the lands where Arizona is now located. A California newspaper helped stir the excitement when it published a letter written at Fort Yuma on Oct. 21, 1858.
“Gold has been found for a distance of three miles on each side of the river, varying from a quarter to a half of a mile from the banks. No point has yet been prospected that has not yielded paying dirt. The Rev. Mr. Riddle of Texas ... stopped there some four weeks since; he has already cleared $600.”
The flood of gold seekers quickly created a town nearby. Ambitious businessmen were soon at the site with pool tables and barrels of whiskey in their wagons.
Tent stores sprang up overnight selling ready-made clothing and food supplies. Not to be left out were the gamblers who quickly erected monte-tables designed to lift gold dust from the pockets of miners.
Although it wasn't legally recognized by the government in Washington, Gila City was the county seat of what is now Yuma County for a time. Arizona's residents had been asking for separation from New Mexico Territory for several years. Santa Fe, the territorial capitol, was too far away to pay attention to the struggling pioneers in the western desert.
After several petitions to Congress brought no results, a convention in Tucson took matters into their own hands in April 1860 and established their own Arizona Territory. What is now Yuma County was named Castle Dome County, with Gila City as the county seat.
Not everyone in Arizona was thrilled by the news of the gold strike at Gila City. The mine owners around Tubac feared losing workers to the placer diggings. After the New York Daily Times reported that there were more than 600 men at Gila City who were earning from $100 to $150 a day, the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company tried to discredit the story. The company-owned newspaper announced that the Times report was “a tissue of humbuggery.”
The easy-to find nuggets close to the river banks were gone before long. As the digging moved away from the river, gold was most often found near bedrock. That meant digging pits to some depth to reach paydirt. Mines of the kind were called gopher holes.
For a time, it seemed there was no end to the gold along the Gila. San Francisco's Alta California newspaper published a letter from a correspondent in 1860 reporting that he had seen 152 ounces of gold dust from the Gila diggings deposited with the Wells Fargo agent. He expressed the belief that there was plenty more to be found.
Gila City wasn't the only camp that developed along the Gila River, but little is known of the two others that arose and died as quickly as Gila City. Las Flores was about three miles from McPhaul Bridge, the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Oroville is believed to have been two or three miles east of Gila City.
Placer mining might have continued for several more years had not another gold discovery been made north of Yuma. Paulino Weaver, a mountain man, found gold at La Paz, a few miles north of Ehrenberg in 1862.
By then, the placers at Gila City were barely paying living wages. Just as quickly as they had come, the miners deserted for the better paying placer diggings.
New technology revived Gila City briefly in the 1890s. Hydraulic placer mining, which involved spraying the gold-bearing gravel with water under high pressure, was proving successful. G.B. Kelley, a newspaper publisher from Missouri, formed the Gila City Placer Company to work the gravel along the river in 1890. So certain was he of success that he invited President Benjamin Harrison to visit his operation in April of 1891.
It is a good thing Harrison never honored the invitation. Although Gila City did spring to life again, its revival was short-lived. By October 1892, hydraulic placering had ceased, and families living at Gila City were destitute. Miss Eula Bixby, the teacher who had been hired to teach in Gila City, was begging her friends in California to donate clothing for her students.
With mining over, the residents of the second Gila City were soon gone. Arizona's first gold rush town never recovered and is now only a memory.