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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The town of Oracle, Arizona

By Robert Zucker

Tucked into the hills of the northern range of Santa Catalina Mountains is the town of Oracle. Originally, it started as an outpost for local prospectors and mining groups in the 1870s.

As more residents settled in Oracle, extensive mining operations were set up around the growing town to further explore and exploit the veins of minerals running through the mountains.

Some of the big producing mines in the Old Hat District near Oracle endured well into the 1900s. The one of the Oracle deposits developed into the mining town of San Manuel. The San Manuel copper mine, northeast of Oracle, became the largest underground producing copper and gold mine in the state. [1] One of the by-products of copper is gold. According to a U.S. report on the San Manuel Mine, in 1988, 35,000 ounces of gold and silver are produced each year through a filtering process. [2]

A view of Oracle looking northwest towards American Avenue. The Oracle Inn restaurant sign is on the upper left. This photo is taken from the top of one of the summit peaks.

Like most small towns, Oracle has its own history and legends. Oracle was built for the miners who worked nearby during the late 1870s. New mineral discoveries brought many enterprising miners to the hills tucked into the northern edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains.



Christmas In The Desert & The founding Of Oracle

Canadian prospector Albert Weldon made a trip to the deserts of southwestern United States around South America aboard his uncle’s ship the Oracle [3] in 1877. [4]

His journey brought him to Tucson where he joined up with James Lee, from Ireland, and Alexander McKay, from Scotland, to prospect for gold and silver on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. They found that– and more.

Shortly after his arrival, Weldon staked a claim for the Oracle mine in 1877. He named it after the ship that brought him around the Cape Horn to the U.S.

That next year, Weldon told McKay how to get out to the mine and the natural spring just above it. [5] [6] [7] Eventually, the Oracle would become name for the new community north of Tucson.

McKay ventured alone, in 1878, with two burros from Tucson into the northern slope of the Catalina Mountains and encountered Indians one morning. McKay said one Indian approached and called himself, “George, Eskiminzin’s man. [8] Eskimizin was the notorious Apache chief. He warned McKay that Eskimizin and other men were coming. They did show up, with women and children, and asked for flour. They camped nearby a nervous McKay that night. [9] One story relates that it was an Indian who told McKay about minerals in the area.

In May 1878, Lee and Charles Franklin made a discovery of free gold while Lee was building a road to the pine timber in the mountains. The ore is “full of free gold and is reported to be very plentiful– judged by the surface prospects.” [10] 

After some other prospecting, that November 1878, Albert Weldon sold 200 feet of his claim, the Exchequer mine to C.H. Wheeler and A.J. Doran for $100. [11]

The next month, Lee was still collecting “large quantities of decomposed quartz, gold predominating.” Tucson pioneer Samuel Hughes staked the Esperanza Mine nearby after assays from the ore were into the “thousands.” [12]

On Christmas Day 1878, Weldon, and his partner McKay, located some ore and made a claim to the Christmas gold mine. Then, one week later, on New Year’s Day 1879, they staked a claim for the New Years mine, just north of the Christmas. Both mines were located within the present day town of Oracle. [13]

Weldon began a bush mining camp nearby, called Weldon’s Camp, [14] which had an abundant supply of timber and water available, including a spring soon to be used as a grotto. [15] A tri-weekly stage brought mail from Tucson to the camp.

A year later, in November 1879, Lee and others discovered a ledge of mineralized rock. An assay of part of the stone returned $80.43 in silver and $201.50 in gold. [16] Along with the new residents, came stories of even greater riches hidden in the mountains.

McKay said he built the first house in Oracle, in 1879. It was a one-room adobe for Weldon and himself. [17] [18] Another account credits James Lee to constructing the first permanent house. [19]

The Oracle mining property, now owned by Lee and Mayor Robert Leatherwood, was on the same ledge and south of the Christmas mine. It had a 50-foot shaft but no work was being conducted. The purchasing parties forfeited their $40,000 bond. The nearby Christmas mine, owned by McKay, Weldon & Co., had a 60-foot shaft in a four-foot vein of gold quartz.

One report says that James Lee had “grubstaked” one of Weldon’s mines. Lee purchased the mines of Weldon & Co. in March 1880. [20] Both Weldon and Lee together struck a rich load in the Lee Mine, on the ledge near the Summit House, a month earlier. [21]

The Christmas Mine, owned by McKay, Weldon & Co., held a four-foot vein of gold quartz. But, they tapped into an underground stream and struck water at 40 feet deep and flooded the shaft. They abandoned the dig. Instead, McKay laid a four-and-a-half mile pipe down the mountainside and built a house on the mesa and started a sheep ranch. [22]

An excavation into solid rock about twelve by twenty feet, provided cold, clear water from the natural flowing spring at Weldon’s Grotto. U.S. Mineral Surveyor Solomon Allis and Mayor Leatherwood made a tour of the mines and camp. He noted seeing ruins on the southern summits of the Catarinas.  [23]

In a possible misprint, or confusion of spelling, the local newspaper reported that the ‘Oricle’ (sic) claim in the Santa Catarinas was sold in April 1880 by James Lee and Mayor Leatherwood. The newspaper may have meant the Oracle claim. The buyers, unnamed eastern capitalists, reportedly paid $100,000. The cropping were ten to forty feet wide and assays showed from $50 to $1,400 per ton. [24] Lee and Leatherwood owned the Oracle claim.

That summer, a successful Wily Box sold his mine of the same name– an extension of the Oracle claim– for several thousands of dollars. [25]

In February 1881, Peter Loss was appointed postmaster. James Bronson was appointed postmaster in Oracle. [26] [27]

By the fall of 1881, at least eight operating mining claims were operating in the area– the Oracle, Christmas, Merrimac, Valleco, [28] Tiger, Fashion, Gypsy and the Mexican. [29] The Richardson Mining Company of New York purchased the nearby American Flag mine, and the Oracle camp, in early 1881 for $100,000 and had forty men at work. [30] That year, Frank Shultz first located the nearby Mammoth Mine. [31]

Weldon eventually sold one-third of the Christmas mine and other Old Hat mines to McKay in May 1881 for $2,000. [32] [33]

A second shaft in the Oracle was sunk in August and the prospects looked promising, according to Prof. Cooke, the Superintendent of the Oracle and American Flag Mines.  [34] Another lucky strike in the Oracle was made in mid-October during the night shift. The soft chunky rock was estimated to contain $20 per ton in gold and silver. [35].

Besides the haul taken from the mines, smart miners bonded or sold their property while the values were still high.



[1] According to David Ridinger, former president of the San Manuel Mine in 1985, it was “by far the largest underground mine in the state.” From “Going for Gold: The history of Newmont Mining Company,” by Jack H. Morris. University of Alabama Press, 2010. Page 95.

[2] “Site Visit Report: San Manuel Facility Magma Copper Company,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste. 1992. Page 3-52.

[3] “Foreign,” “The ship Oracle, Captain Monison, from San Francisco, January 18th (1883), for Liverpool, was wrecked off Cape Horn and part of the crew drowned.” Arizona Weekly Citizen, April 21, 1883. Also, the Oracle was built in Bath, Maine and launched on October 3, 1876, from http://www.florenceaz.org/visitor/pinal.htm

[4] “Reminiscences of Alexander McKay as told to Mrs. George F. Kitt. Based on an interview with Alexander McKay and Mrs. Catherine Moss, March 14, 1936. Oracle Historical Society.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Description of Early History of Oracle,” http://www.oracletown.com/history.html

[7] “The History of The Lower San Pedro Valley in Arizona,” by Bernard W. Muffley. Thesis. Department of History, University of Arizona, 1938. Page 37.

[8] This Eskiminzin was the notorious Aravaipa Apache chief born in 1828 and died in 1894. Eskiminzin, the Aravaipa Apache chief, reportedly laid in wait and had wounded both Kennedy and Israel in 1870, among other offenses.

[9] “Reminiscences of Alexander McKay as told to Mrs. George F. Kitt, 1936.

[10] Arizona Weekly Citizen, May 17, 1878.

[11] “Real Estate Transfers,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, November 23, 1877.

[12] The Arizona Weekly Citizen, December 14, 1878.

[13] “The History of The Lower San Pedro Valley in Arizona,”  Page 37.

[14] Copper Corridor.

[15] “Old Hat District,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, January 21, 1880.

[16] “New Discovery,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, November 8, 1878.

[17] “Reminiscences of Alexander McKay as told to Mrs. George F. Kitt, 1936.

[18] “Tam Blake & Co.,” By Jim Hewitson. Page 90.

[19] “The History of The Lower San Pedro Valley in Arizona.” Page 37. It was located across the wash southwest of the present library building, according to Ms. Moss’ account.

[20] “Embryo Bonanzas,” The Arizona Weekly Citizen, March 27, 1880.

[21] “Old Hat District, Remarkably Good Prospects and Development in that Locality,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, February 28, 1880.

[22] “Tam Blake & Co.,” By Jim Hewitson. Page 90.

[23] “Old Hat District,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, January 21, 1880.

[24] “Sold for $100,000,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, April 5, 1880.

[25] Arizona Weekly Citizen, August 14, 1880.

[26] “Among the postal changes for weekend ending January 30th” Peter H. Loss, Postmaster at American Flag (Pima County) and James Bronson, postmaster at Oracle (Pima County); Stone Cabin (Pima County) John P. Zimmerman, postmaster. Arizona Weekly Citizen, February 6, 1881.

[27] It was closed July 16, 1890. “The Story of Oracle’s Post Offices,” Oracle Historical Society and Acadia Ranch Museum.

[28] Owned by Judge Robinson, W. A. Fowler and others. “A Fine Claim,” Weekly Arizona Weekly Citizen, September 18, 1880.

[29] “Old Hat. A Citizen’s Correspondent Visits the Santa Catarinas, and Relates Much That is Pleasant- Some Very Fine Claims and Their Owners, Weldon’s Camp” Arizona Weekly Citizen, January 30, 1881.

[30] “The History of the Lower San Pedro Valley in Arizona,” page 25.

[31] Arizona Weekly Citizen, August 1, 1891.

[32] “County Recorder’s Office, Deeds for Mines,” The Citizen, May 1, 1881.

[33] “Deeds for Mines,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, May 1, 1881.

[34] “Items from Old Hat,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, August 7, 1881.

[35] “Strike in the Oracle,” Arizona Weekly Citizen, October 16, 1881.

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