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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The Tucson Arizona Gold Rush

The search for gold in the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, has generated stories of hidden riches embedded in the mountains, early Spanish mines, a lost city and a lost mission possibly near the Canyon of Gold.

The Cañada del Oro, or Canyon of Gold, is an intermittent stream that runs through the Santa Catalina Mountains and empties out of the north end. The CDO once flowed year round. Now, it is mostly dry. But, the hills are still rich with its history and minerals.

As time passed, the whereabouts of the Spanish mining operation had faded from memory, except through the legends, until it was revived during the Arizona Gold Rush in the 1880s. [1]

The Rush for Arizona Gold

One hundred years after the Jesuits left, the mines became lost in memory. A few lingering legends and newspaper articles kept the story alive. But, the stories of gold in the Santa Catalina Mountains brought new frontiersmen to the dusty streets of Tucson.

As prospectors began to scour the Santa Catalinas in the 1870s for minerals, they also were looking for the legendary lost mine. They learned the stores from Tucson residents who told the stories from their elders.

After the California Gold Rush ended in 1859 some of the disillusioned, the well financed and the adventurous eventually migrated to Southern Arizona in search of gold. Prospectors dug all around the Santa Catalina Mountains. At the time gold was running a steady $18.93 per troy ounce.

The white man’s Arizona Gold Rush first started in the Cañada del Oro after several chance discoveries of the precious ore.

The land around the Cañada del Oro was being homestead by Mexican rancher Francisco Romero in the mid-1850s, followed by other settlers, including Pedro Charouleau [2] and Mariano G. Samaniego.

The period between 1860 and 1870 brought an increase in more than three times the population from 915 residents to 3,224. The Tucson population more than doubled to 7,007 by 1880. By 1890, the number of residents dropped to 5,120 and increased back to 7,531 by 1900. [3]



American’s mining gold from the Canyon of Gold

The Catalina Mountains had a reported production of much as 1,000 ounces of gold from 1904 to 1949. Today, it would be valued over $1.3 million. [4] One nugget found had weighed over six ounces. [5]

In 1982, a reported 230 oz of gold was recovered in a resource assessment test on “placer gravels allegedly near 200-year-old placer sites of the Spaniards.” [6] At today’s prices, it would be worth over $300,000.

The Santa Catalina Mountains continued to be extensively mined for copper, silver and gold throughout the 1900s. Some of Tucson’s pioneer community leaders like Mariano Samaniego, E.O. Stratton and Sheriff Bob Leatherwood were prominent prospectors who lived and worked around the Catalina Mountains. Even William “Buffalo Bill” Cody heavily invested and explored the hills in search of precious minerals, and for the Mine With The Iron Door, with his friend William Neal.

Gold mining the Catalina Mountains still has some lucrative prospects, according to a mining assessment report published by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1994. [7] While American mining ventures have taken out as much of the gold and copper it could from the Catalina mountains for over a century, there are still some spots that haven’t been explored in a long, long time.

Today, the Oracle Ridge Mine, near Mt. Lemmon, and the Mammoth Mines near Oracle have both resumed operations. The Little Hills Mine, near Oracle, has been running for decades. Only one prospector still holds an active mining claim to a remote spot in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Every weekend, amateur prospectors still roam the mountains for that precious gold.

While most of the substantial gold bearing quartz ore has been hauled away from the mountains, fortunate prospectors can still find quartz bearing gold and silver, in select areas of the mountains.

The Cañada del Oro, or Canyon of Gold, flowing south out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The name came from the gold that prospectors found as they settled the mountains. The Spanish knew this area as a source of gold.

“Prior to 1932, this county, which ranks sixth among the gold-producing counties of Arizona, yielded approximately $5,474,000 worth of gold of which about $3,120,000 worth came from lode gold mines. The Mammoth district made most of this production, in the Quartz is an abundant mineral in the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson. Gold trapped in quartz is a valuable commodity that helped spur the Arizona Gold Rush of the 1880s. [8]



The Canyon of Gold- Cañada del Oro

Photo of the Cañada del Oro during a wet season when the normally dry creek flows. Photo by Robert Zucker © 2014.

The Cañada del Oro has been a consistant source of gold and mineral ore. [9] The Spanish name– Cañon de Oro– means the “Canyon of Gold.” This golden gulch sparked the Tucson gold rush in the mid-1850s. At different times, the creek was also called Canyon del Oro and Gold Canyon Creek. [10]

After rare summer and winter storms, the runoff flows out of the Santa Catalina Mountains from the north, runs past historic properties at the delta and turns to the south past ancient Indian ruins in the Catalina State Park.

After the Cañada del Oro drains out the Santa Catalina Mountains, it empties into the Tucson valley, eventually joining the Santa Cruz River near Tucson and Marana at the I-10 Interstate. When it flowed regularly, it was a reliable source of life for both animals and humans. Mountain runoff still helps supply drinking water for northwest Tucson residents today. [11]

Sightings of free flowing gold and other mineral veins stimulated most of the early American mining activity in this area.

The Cañada del Oro has long history of Indian aggressions and gold discoveries. This was the first area of the Santa Catalina Mountains reported to contain valuable minerals.

Even before American settlers began to arrive in Southern Arizona in the mid-1850s, they read newspaper stories about the Canyon of Gold near Tucson. As the Mexicans and Spanish explorers before them, prospectors found free flowing gold along the river and embedded in quartz veins. The hostile Apache Indians would repel many of those efforts to prospect for gold or to even pass through the area.

Yet, tales about a sealed off lost gold mine, an abandoned mission with a hidden cache of buried treasure, and naturally occurring gold deposits, still drove the bravest into the hills.

According to the legends, that mine, and the mission, may still be somewhere near the Cañada del Oro.


[1] “Mineral Appraisal of Coronado National Forest, Part 5.” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, MLA 25-94, 1994. Page 24.

[2] Also spelled as Charaleau.

[3] “Tucson Census,” Education and Outreach, Arizona History Society.

[4] Based on $1,340 value of gold in 2013. Gold values remained a constant $18.93 starting in 1993 a troy ounce through 1871 when it had increased a penny and continued to fluctuate a few pennies each year throughout most of the 1880-1890s. Source: Prices from 1883-1994, World Gold Council, from Timothy Green’s “Historical Gold Price Table.”

[5] “Mineral Appraisal of Coronado National Forest, Part 5” 1994, page 25

[6] ibid, page 25

[7] ibid, pages 12-14

[8] “Mineral Appraisal of Coronado National Forest, Part 5.” Page 25. Reprinted 1983. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, MLA 25-94, 1994.

[9] Mining claims in the Cañada del Oro date back into the 1870s, but prospecting had been conducted for centuries.

“Arizona Bureau of Mines Bulletin,” No. 132 (1932), “Arizona Gold Placers and Placering,” pages 59-61; “Arizona Bureau of Mines Bulletin,” No. 142 (1937); “Arizona Gold Placers and Placering,” pages 74-77; “Gold Placers and Placering in Arizona,” by E.D. Wilson, page 61. 1978; and the Arizona Department of Mineral Resources Gold Channel placer, #1T036 file. Cañada del Oro Mine (Old Hat placers; Gold Canyon placers; Gold Channel Placer #1-3), in the Cañada del Oro Wash, Oracle District (Control District; Old Hat District; Santa Catalina District), Santa Catalina Mts, Pinal and Pima Counties, Arizona, USA (mindat.org).

[10] Gold Canyon Creek is cited in the “Official Map of the Territory of Arizona, compiled from Surveys, Reconnaissances and other sources, by E.A. Eckhoff and P. Riecker, Civil Engineers, 1880.” From the David Ramsey Collection, Cartography Associates. Publisher, The Graphic Co., Photo-Lith. NY.

[11] “2013 Water Quality Report,” Metro Main Service Area, Metro Water District, Marana, Tucson. May 2014. Page 1.


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