Saturday, April 23, 2016

Gillette: An Agua Fria Ghost Town




Ruins, Gillette, Arizona
(c) 2016 MJ Miller
By 1877, villages had sprouted up throughout the Bradshaw Mountains of Arizona Territory to support the numerous mining efforts within. One such mine, the Tip-Top, produced a great deal of ore that required freighting to Wickenburg for milling - an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Recognizing the need for a closer and more convenient stamp mill, the legendary Arizona pioneer Jack Swilling founded a new ranch and town on the banks of the Agua Fria where the Little Squaw Creek feeds in from the New River Mountains to the northeast.

Open shaft near Gillette
(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved
Already living nearby at their Black Canyon ranch, the Swillings were but five or six miles from the new townsite. Jack had been operating three mines in the region in addition to his ranching. Despite his then increasingly ill health, he claimed 160 acres at the new site to be his new ranch and soon began selling properties in the area.  By early 1878, he and his family had moved to the new site.

On October 15, 1878, John J. Hill was appointed postmaster at the new town. It was called "Gillette" after the superintendent of the Tip-Top mine, D. B. Gillette. Soon, Gillette would become the mill site for the Tip-Top ore.

Looking at the ruins of the townsite today, it's hard to imagine it as a once-bustling mining town, but bustle it did. Situated as it was on the Old Black Canyon Stagecoach Road from Prescott, Gillette was ideally positioned in the treacherous and unforgiving terrain for a stagecoach station. It would become the last station before travelers would reach New River Station, twelve miles south. Gillette and its sister settlements in the Bradshaws were quickly populated by a veritable litany of characters that would make any western movie proud. The 1880 census of the district - including Gillett (the "e" is fickle and is sometimes dropped in records of the time), Boulder Creek, Big Bug, Bumble Bee, and Black Canyon - includes gamblers, miners, packers, station keepers, and Chinese cooks. The area boasted an international cast of Swedes, Germans, Mexicans, Prussians, Irish, English, Chinese, and plenty of Americans. Names include the founder of Wickenburg, Prussian miner Henry Wickenburg; a stagecoach driver boarding in the area, W. Humphreys; a gambler from California, William Boond; a Hanoverian miner named John Tipp; and even a Cuban cigar maker.

Relics of Gillette's past life as a mining town have been gathered on a plywood sheet near the ruins.
Note the ox shoe towards the bottom, just right of center.
(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved
Mining towns were notoriously rough, attracting hard-working miners and the many opportunists who sought their share - earned or not - of the takings. Robberies along the Black Canyon Stagecoach Road were commonplace. In one of the more notorious incidents, in November 27, 1879, three Mexican bandits - Demetrio Dominguez, Gomecindo Moraga, and Fermin Tramblas - robbed a coach approaching Gillette from the north. Just two miles before its destination, the coach was stopped by the highwaymen. They fired at the driver, Bill Ayers, but missed him. They then attacked the passenger, William Thomas, who owned a claim at Tip-Top. Wounding him first with gunshot, they then brutally stabbed him until he was mortally wounded. The robbers then took anything of value before fleeing. The following January, based on Ayers' description, Demetrio Dominguez was located in Tucson. He still had upon him personal effects that had belonged to William Thomas. Dominguez was convicted and hanged for his part in the robbery in November, 1880, in the county courtyard in Phoenix.
Myself, standing before the ruins of a stone building at Gillette.
(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved

Today, although much of the Old Black Canyon Stagecoach Road has been incorporated into the I-17 freeway, the winding, oft-steep road through Gillette remains unpaved. The ruins of the town are west of the freeway. Finding the rocky dirt road we'd intended to take to Gillette closed, we opted to hike in along the Little Squaw Creek. The going was slow - in part because of my bad feet, but also because the creek bed is rocky most of the way. Where it is not rocky, it is thick with sand. Gorgeous craggy cliffs line much of the creek.

Little Squaw Creek
(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved
Occasionally, there's even a small, shallow pool of water to be found. (Our Arizona creeks are often on the dry side.) Behind me in the photo below, you can see some greenish water in the creek bed - and the scale of the rocks that slowed our hike.

Little Squaw Creek
(c) 2016 MJ Miller
As we approached the Agua Fria, beef cattle (a day-old calf among them) stared curiously. Giving the bull among them a wide berth, we rolled up our pants legs and forded the mighty river. Wet-footed and toting ample sand in our shoes, we had yet one more obstacle before reaching the ruins - a deep, slippery crevasse cut into the earth just past the river. 
An idyllic setting for an Arizona pastoral scene
(c) 2016 MJ Miller
The ruins are protected by wire fencing; perhaps to keep the cattle out, perhaps to protect what little is left from souvenir-hunters. Somewhere - I do not know where - are buried the bodies of many who died in this little town. In an altruistic endeavor that would spawn a series of events ultimately resulting in his own death, Jack Swilling reburied his friend Colonel Snively's body on his ranch in Gillette. Swilling himself did not receive such a posthumous privilege; his own remains are unmarked, somewhere in Yuma, undeserving of such anonymity.

(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved

The trek back, heading east
(c) 2016 MJ Miller * All rights reserved
Copyright (c) 2016 by Marcy J. Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without express permission of the author * Links, however, may be freely shared! * Thank you for linking, liking, forwarding, emailing, sending by passenger pigeon, or otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for visiting.

1 comment:

  1. The building partially still standing in Gillette is what is left pf the old Burfind Hotel. After Gillette "folded" the Burfind remained in business as a stage stop and later as a dude ranch for awhile.

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