By Robert Zucker

Iron Door Mine by Robert Zucker © 2014The legend of the Mine with the Iron Door in the Santa Catalina Mountains did not start with Harold Bell Wright’s book by the same name. The Iron Door Mine was already embedded in the local legend fifty years earlier [1] and could have been part of the oral tradition for many generations.   

The Mine with the Iron Door, called mina con a puerta de hierro in Spanish, became romanticized nationwide by Wright’s book in 1923. His story brought attention to the legend, although it was more about love and less about the treasure.

The old, Spanish mines were reportedly sealed with large doors, made of iron or wood, according to the tradition first published in 1880. [2] The Spaniards may have actually used a re-enforced wooden door, a “strong door.” When the white man came, it became corrupted to “Iron Door,” according to one prospector who explored the Catalina’s in the 1930s in search of the legendary lost Spanish mines. The legends are similar. They didn’t leave records of their tunnels when they left, so it is anybody’s guess.

The abundance of timber in the Catalinas would provide the means to build a sturdy wooden door. But, a tremendous amount of minerals would have to be mined, and smelted, to make a door of solid iron. Perhaps, the wooden door was just reinforced with iron bars.

From the 1880s on, numerous prospectors– including prominent Tucson businessmen and lawmen– claimed to have found an iron door, or remnants of one, which sealed off a remote abandoned mine. Some reportedly found treasures inside or quartz veins still streaked with precious minerals like gold and silver. Occasionally, local newspaper reporters would verify samples brought from the mountains.

This chapter follows the discoveries reported by early Tucson pioneers as they explored different parts of the Catalinas in pursuit of the local legend of the Iron Door Mine. Those expeditions led they way for an industry that extracted millions of dollars of wealth from the Catalinas.

The iron door image, however, still makes a nice story.

There are several other Iron Door Mines and stories elsewhere in the United States.



Iron Door Mines in the US

While there are hundreds of lost mines around the United States, there are only a few places called the Iron Door Mine. The most famous is the Mine with the Iron Door in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Two abandoned mines named Iron Door Mine are located in California, [3] [4] one in New Mexico, [5] Oklahoma and in Oregon. [6] In Arizona, Tombstone and Tumacacori, south of Tucson, have mines that share the Iron Door name. Some share a similar legend.

The Lost Cave With the Iron Door in the Wichita Mountains near Lawton, Oklahoma reportedly contained $11 million in Spanish gold ingots and doubloons. A heavy iron door closed off the entrance. The skeletons of 17 Indians guarded the treasure. A strange twist to the story involves outlaw Jesse James. He was reported to have stored two thousand dollars of loot in the cave. Other stories suggest that Belle Starr also stored $500,000 in the cave. [7] [8] The rumors drove so many prospectors to those mineral hills in 1897 that soldiers from nearby Fort Sill had to eject them. Even though the mountains are heavily guarded by Indians, “some day some one will strike it rich.” [9]

Tombstone, the “Town to Tough to Die,” had its own Iron Door Mine story in the nearby Cananea mountains. “When tradition fastened the iron door to the mine of fabulous riches,” stated a newspaper in 1886, “iron doors were more scarce than rich mines.” [10]

A large iron door prevented a Tucsonan from entering a mine near the Tumacacori mission in 1884. He said he found an old rusty antique key, but could not find the lock to insert it. The last word was that he went back to Tucson to look for backers to finance his search. [11]

The Iron Door Mine in the Santa Catalinas has the most colorful history– from the legends of its beginnings to the search by hundreds of prospectors.

Today, the Iron Door Mine adventure ride at Old Tucson Studios and the Iron Door Restaurant on top of Mt. Lemmon give a salute to the glory of the legend.



Footnotes:

[1] First account of “The Iron Door and the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalinas” was published Arizona Weekly Star, March 4, 1880.

[2] From the San Bernardino County Sun, December 29, 1932.

[3] “Iron Door Mine,” Sierra County, California, USA, “Commodities (Major) Gold),” mindat.org.

[4] “Iron Door Mine,” from “Lake Havasu Hikes,” by Lake Havasu City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Located near Bison Falls.

[5] “Lost Mines of Arizona and Sonora,” Arizona Silver Belt, December 3, 1892.

[6] “Iron Door Mine,” Rye Valley District (Morman Basin District), Oregon. Main commodity was gold. USGS Mineral Resource Data System.

[7] Interview with Roy Roush, treasure hunter author, from his treasure files. 2014.

[8] “Lost Cave With the Iron Door,” from “Classic American Ghost Stories: 200 Years of Ghost Lore from the Great Plains, New England, the South and the Pacific Northwest,” edited by Deborah L. Downer, August House, 1990. Page 85.

[9] “Ejecting Prospectors,” The Guthrie Daily Leader, Guthrie, Oklahoma. February 28, 1897.

[10] The Weekly Citizen, May 1, 1886.

[11] “Arizona Stories, Mysterious Iron Door,” (Tucson Star), published in the Daily Alta California, San Francisco. December 13, 1884.

Iron Door Mine graphic by Robert Zucker © 2014.


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