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Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains

The Mine With the Iron Door and the 9 Mile City

By Robert Zucker

Written by Robert Zucker
Collaborated with William Carter.

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The earliest published account of the Mine With The Iron Door in the Santa Catalina Mountains was an 1880 article in the Arizona Weekly Star. Two prospectors told how they acquired an old map, found the lost iron door mine, and a lost city, deep in the Santa Catalinas. [12] [13] Finally, one of the lost mines acquired a name– the Iron Door Mine.

This article was the first mention, in print, of a door actually made of iron that sealed off an old, Spanish mine. According to the reporter, the tale of the lost mine began about a hundred years before when the Jesuits where the dominate force in the region.

“At that time the principle gold mines were situated in these mountains and there was a place called Nueva Mia Ciudad, having a monster church with a number of golden bells that were used to summon the laborers from the fields and mines, and a short distance from the city which was situated on a plateau, was a mountain that had a mine of such fabulous richness that the miner used to cut the gold out with a ‘hacheta.” [14]

According to this story, when the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, the city became destitute. They supposedly left behind their riches buried in the mine. The secret of its location was lost. It was called the Iron Door Mine because the bars of gold were secured behind an “iron door.” There were only two entrances to the city and both were “obliterated” to conceal its location. [15]

The two prospectors who claimed they found a city of ruins and an old mine with an iron door in the Santa Catarinas stopped off at the Oracle mining camp and told Solomon Allis, the U.S. Deputy Mineral Surveyor and Civil Engineer, about their adventure. [16]

Allis claimed he saw a “hundred pounds of nuggets in their back packs.” [17] They described in detail to him about the days-long hike far into the canyon and their ultimate discovery. It was the first time Allis heard of anyone exploring that deep into the Catalinas. Nothing further was heard from the two men or if they actually filed their claims. When word hit Tucson of the miner’s discovery prospectors rushed to locate those claims in the Catalinas, but no one succeeded.

The week before the two prospectors told their story to the Mineral Surveyor, C.D. Hays and C. R. Norman told a reporter that they found “rich diggings and plenty of water” in the Catalina placer formations. [18] It is unknown if these were the two prospectors and what happened to their claim. Allis indicated that he was going to find the valley and cave with some partners. No further word on his success or failure.

The week after the prospectors find, a small article was published about Tucson dentist Dr. Theron S. Hitchock’s “rich and rare specimen of gold ore” that came from the “Iron Door” mine. The rock had gold, silver and galena. [19]

Dr. Hitchcock was a collector of rare artifacts and displayed many of them in his office. The next week’s newspaper edition carried a brief article about Dr. Hitchcock’s stone-ax that was found by some Mexicans in the Santa Catarina Mountains. The seven-inch blade was highly polished and quite sharp. [20] The next week, a reporter was shown an old Spanish buckle plowed up near the Mission (possibly San Xavier del Bac). It was silver and had a knight in full armor and was thought to be a relic from the Spanish conquistadores. [21]

Those two prospectors, whoever they were, may have stumbled onto something. By following their route from the entrance of the Cañada del Oro, through the inner canyon, they could have discovered the stone remnants of the fabled Lost City, near Mt. Lemmon where stone ruins still stand.

The prospectors did not stumble upon the remains at the Romero Ruins on the west side of the Catalinas. That area was well known at the time and exposed to travelers along the Cañada del Oro road to Oracle.

This newspaper article spurred the legends about the connection between the Lost City and Lost Mine. This became the popular version of the iron door mine legend that is the foundation of the legend today.

For the first time in print, it explained the familiar local legend of the Spanish mines, Kino and the expulsion of the padres that lead to the lost mine, or Mine with the Iron Door.

Search for The Nine Mile City

During the late 19th Century it was commonly believed that a hundred years earlier the Jesuits had “large fields under cultivation and many men employed delving in the earth after precious metals and turquoise stones.” The nearby town was called the Nine Mile City, “Nueva Mia Ciudad,”  probably because it was located nine miles from some specified location.  [22]

The early Spanish, however, did not use miles as a measurement. They counted distance by leagues, leguas. One league is about 3.45 miles. Nine leagues are about 31 miles — the distance from one of the early Tucson settlements to this old city. Perhaps, it should have been called Nueva Legua Ciudad (Nine League City). In that case, the lost city would be 30 miles from Tucson’s town center – Downtown Tucson. That direction– towards the northeast– leads to the Cañada del Oro (about 7 leagues east of San Agustin).

The prospectors told the reporter they became interested in the Iron Door Mine when they stopped at Caborca, a Mexican town. They were shown a handwritten diary about the events of those days, including directions how to find the mine with the iron door. The Mexican said the book belonged to his grandfather and would not part with it. So, they made a copy.

The two men headed for the Cañada del Oro from Martin and Albert Weldon’s Mining Camp near Oracle in January 1880 and went up the canyon to find the place “where water would exist the year round.” After days of hiking and camping, they found a canyon that was walled on the three sides and discovered a stairway cut in the rock. A vaulted chamber that closed into a narrow passage was eventually discovered. In one place, was an inscription engraved on the wall in Latin - “Dominus vobiscum” – “go with God.”

They traveled further on and found a tract of land covered with pines and oaks. As they walked in an easterly direction to the Nueva Mia Ciudad, they came to a stream of water alive with trout and “shining particles in the stream.”

“The next day, we moved on for another mile where we came into ruins, which, as we proceeded grew larger and could be seen for two miles in width. To think, probably, that we had walked four miles when we came upon a stone building (granite and marble) that was in a fair state of preservation excepting the roof, which had fallen in; the structure was something after the style of the Old Cocospari church in Sonora, and we decided that this must have been the place of worship of the people of this once populous city. Here we spent some time in looking over this edifice searching for gold and silver which was buried in the church, but having no tools, we could do nothing. [23]

They spent three days searching until they found the “mine with the iron door.”

According to one of the prospectors, “Rust and the iron bars that secured it lying down at the mouth of the tunnel ate off the old door.” As they entered the tunnel, they saw a vein about ten inches wide. They followed the tunnel for about 400 feet until they came upon an iron object that resembled a pick. They struck it against the mineral vein and “the gold rolled down in nuggets on the floor.” The newspaper reporter witnessed 100 pounds of silver and gold that the miners displayed. [24]

[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.

[12] “The Iron Door and the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalinas,” Arizona Weekly Star, March 4, 1880.

[13] The Arizona Historical Society in Tucson has a typewritten copy of that article in its archives, “ “The Mine with the Iron Door & the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalinas’ (Arizona Weekly Star, Mar. 4, 1880) COPY: by Mrs. Geo. F. Kitt, Sec’y, Arizona Pioneer Historical Society.” Mrs. Kitt, secretary of the society “would not vouch for the authenticity of the story but does assert that the story was given credence locally to the extent of publication in a Tucson weekly.” From “Mine With the Iron Door Still Lures Adventurous; “Lost City’ Once Visited?” Tucson Citizen, August 7, 1927. A recount of the prospectors 1880 venture was published in the August 7, 1927 edition.

[14] “The Iron Door and the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalinas,” Arizona Weekly Star, March 4, 1880.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The background of the story is based on an account given by Donald Page, “Lost Jesuit Mine with the Iron Door,” Desert Magazine of the Southwest, October 1956. He names Allis as the person who wrote the article and met with theprospectors.

[17] “Mine with the Iron Door and the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalina Mountain’s,” The Arizona Weekly Star, March 4, 1880.

[18] The Arizona Citizen, Tucson, A.T., February 14, 1880.

[19] The Arizona Weekly Star, Tucson, A.T., March 11, 1880.

[20] “An Ancient Battle-Ax,” The Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, A.T., March 27, 1880.

[21] “An Ancient Relic,” The Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, A.T., April 3, 1880.

[22] “Mine with the Iron Door and the Nine Mile City of the Santa Catalina Mountain’s,” The Arizona Weekly Star, March 4, 1880.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

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