History of Helvetia – Rosemont Mining District – Part 1

san-xavierThis article presents the history of the Helvetia-Rosemont mining district from 1875 until the present time. Covering the pre-World War II history of the area, the first part of this two-part series deals with the settlers, the early mining camps where they lived, and the mining ventures that developed and worked many of its early mines. The final part of this series covers the post-World War II mining activities, which led to the discovery and development of the Rosemont copper deposit.


Jesuit missionaries, led by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino arrived in southern Arizona during the early 1690s and established missions along the Santa Cruz River at Guevavi (1691), Tumacacori (1691) and San Xavier del Bac (1692). Presidios were subsequently established at Tubac in 1752 and at Tucson in 1775.


Mission San Xavier del Bac (Photo by David Briggs, December 2013)

These settlements served as bases for prospectors, who explored the nearby mountain ranges. While sporadic conflicts between Indian and settlers along with other frontier difficulties hampered early development of mineral resources of the region, small scale mining activities persisted until the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1810. Records of this early prospecting activity in the Santa Rita Mountains are sparse. It is unknown if any discoveries were made in the Helvetia-Rosemont area of the Santa Rita Mountains during this early period of mining activity.

An increase in Indian conflicts and outlaw activities in the region resulted from the withdrawal of Spanish protection during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), leading to the gradual abandonment of many mines, settlements and missions in the region by 1830. Following the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Mexico was forced to cede much of its northern territory to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This concession included all of Arizona that was located north of the Gila River. The remainder of Arizona, located south of the Gila River, was acquired by the United States in June 1854 with the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase. U. S. troops arrived in the area in March 1856, allowing limited mining activity to resume. However, this protection was withdrawn in 1861 with the beginning of the American Civil War. With the appeasement of hostilities between the Indians and settlers in 1874, mining activities resumed in many areas of southern Arizona.

Early Years of the Helvetia-Rosemont Mining District (1875-1893)

The Helvetia sub-district is located along the western flank of the Santa Rita Mountains, while the Rosemont sub-district is located on the eastern flank of the range. The boundary separating these two sub-districts is generally placed along the Santa Rita ridgeline.


Topographic Map Base obtained from U. S. Geological Survey

The first recorded mining activity in the Helvetia-Rosemont mining district occurred in 1875, when Pinckney R. Tully and Estevan Ochoa shipped approximately 5,000 pounds of copper ore to Tucson from the Omega (?) claim, which is located along the western flank of the Santa Rita Mountains near Helvetia. Other early claims in the Helvetia area included the Old Dick, Heavy Weight and Tally Ho claims. The Helvetia-Rosemont mining district was officially established on April 16, 1878.

The completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad to Tucson in 1880 and the New Mexico and Arizona Railroad from Benson to Nogales in 1882 spurred ranching and mining activities throughout southeastern Arizona. Notable ranches in the Rosemont area include the VR Ranch (now known as the Rosemont Ranch), which was established by Edward Vail in 1883. The Scholefield Ranch (now known as the Hidden Valley Ranch) was founded by George P. Scholefield in 1884.


The Rosemont Ranch was Originally Established in 1883 as the VR Ranch
(Photo by David Briggs, November 2009)

Financed with eastern capital, the Omega Copper Company and Columbia Mining and Smelting Company were organized in the Helvetia area during 1881. They set about developing their holdings. The Columbia Mining and Smelting Company commissioned a 30-ton/day blast furnace on the Bulldozer claim in August 1882, while the Omega Copper Company erected a small water-jacketed blast furnace at the Omega property in early 1883. This allowed them to reduce the ores to a high-grade copper “matte”, which was transported by wagon to the railhead in Tucson.

An overabundance of copper derived from newly developed mines in Arizona and Montana during the early 1880s resulted in a steady decrease of the price of copper, which fell from $0.191/lb. in 1882 to $0.165/lb. in 1883. Lower copper prices combined with the Recession of 1882-1885 and generally poor management made these early operations unprofitable. The Columbia Mining and Smelting Company was shut down in April 1883, and its assets were sold at public auction. The Omega Copper Company was closed in early August 1883, as a result of litigation by its Philadelphia stockholders.

While this ended the first boom in the Helvetia camp, mining activities did not cease in the area. Over the next decade, prospectors continued to comb the hills in search of the next big strike. Among these was William McCleary, who had intermittently explored the eastern flank of the Santa Rita Mountains since 1879. In 1885, he and Thomas Deering located the Backbone Claim along the crest of the range. It was located adjacent to the Narragansett Claim, which had been staked by James K. Brown in March 1879. Other early claims staked in the Rosemont area included the Mohawk Silver Claim in 1888, Altamont and Tremont claims in 1892 and Empire Claim in 1894.

Old Rosemont (1894-1903)

By the early 1890s, William McCleary and his partner, L. J. Rose, had acquired thirty claims along the eastern slope of the Santa Rita Mountains and established the settlement of Old Rosemont, which was located at the present day site of Rosemont Junction. They commissioned a 60-ton/day water-jacketed blast furnace in October 1894 and formed the Rosemont Smelting and Mining Company in December 1894. This company experienced major problems from the onset due to lack of high-grade ore for its smelter. Things went from bad to worse in July 1895, when this smelter was damaged by an explosion and closed.


Slag Pile from Rosemont Smelter at Old Rosemont
(Photo by David Briggs, April 2007)

The Lewisohn Brothers of New York purchased the Rosemont Smelting and Mining Company in February 1896 and changed its name to the Rosemont Copper Company. By early 1897, the Lewisohns’ employed 40 men to develop their holdings. The water jacket for the smelter was repaired and smelting operations resumed in June 1897. Rosemont Copper Company patented 21 mining claims and seven mill sites in April 1899. Principle producers during this early period included the Oregon Copper, Sweet Bye Bye, Chicago, Old Put and Old Pap mines located near the head of Wasp Canyon. The ores from these mines were derived from small open cuts and shallow underground workings. These ores were treated at the Rosemont smelter, which produced a copper matte product that was transported by wagon to the Southern Pacific railhead (18 miles) at Vail (18 miles) or to the New Mexico and Arizona railhead at Sonoita (14 miles). On their return trip, the wagons would bring coke to fuel the smelter as well as supplies for the settlement.

Early mining operations at Old Rosemont were not sustainable. The smelter was briefly closed in 1899 due to a lack of coke, which required the hand-sorted, high-grade ores to be shipped to the Vail railhead for transport to a smelter in El Paso or Tucson. This significantly increased the costs of production. The smelter was idle again at the end of 1901 and operated intermittently until 1903, when it was permanently closed. Following its closure, the Rosemont Copper Company continued to employ a caretaker at the Old Rosemont town site and intermittently leased their holdings to others until the late 1950s.

Following the suspension of Rosemont Copper’s mining operations in 1903, the citizens of Old Rosemont gradually abandoned the site, and its infrastructure was allowed to decay. The Old Rosemont post office was closed in May 1910. By 1927, the Rosemont Hotel had been vacated and was finally dismantled around 1938 for its lumber and brick.

Helvetia’s Second Boom (1898-1911)

During the early 1890s, a group of investors with the Paine Weber and Company began to acquire mining claims in the Helvetia area. By March 1898, they had acquired 27 claims and organized the Helvetia Copper Company in 1899. Over the next year, they invested more than $1 million establishing the town site of Helvetia, erecting a smelter, assay lab, warehouse and 8,000-foot narrow gauge railroad. Completed in November 1899, the narrow gauge railroad connected the Heavy Weight, Copper World and Isle Royale mines with the smelter. A 200-ton/day water-jacketed blast furnace was commissioned in December 1899.


Foundations of the Helvetia Smelter (Photo by David Briggs, December 2013)

On December 6, 1900, the Helvetia Copper smelter was destroyed by fire after molten slag overran the jacket of the furnace and ignited its wooden floor. More than 50% of the workforce was laid off as a result of this mishap. A new 150-ton/day smelter was erected and commissioned on May 1, 1901. However, losses associated with the replacement of the smelter, lost production, an inability to obtain a reliable source of coke to fuel the smelter, and a decline in the price of copper to $0.122 per pound resulted in a decision to suspend all operations and liquidate the company’s assets in January 1902. Helvetia was soon abandoned; as many miners left to find jobs elsewhere.

In November 1903, Boston and Michigan shareholders of the defunct Helvetia Copper Company acquired its former holdings and incorporated the Michigan and Arizona Development Company. By January 1904, 40 miners were working at the Isle Royale, Leader and Copper World mines. Over the next year, much of these efforts were aimed at developing ore reserves at these underground operations. By March 1905, small shipments of hand-sorted, high-grade ores were being transported by wagon to the Vail railhead for shipment to the El Paso smelter. Michigan and Arizona Development Company was reorganized as the Helvetia Copper Company of Arizona in October 1905. The existing smelter was refurbished and commissioned in early 1906. However, it was permanently closed in 1907 due to operational difficulties, resulting from its poor design. Following the closure of the smelter, high-grade ores were transported by wagon to the Vail railhead (17 miles) for shipment to the Old Dominion smelter in Globe. Although the Helvetia Copper Company of Arizona survived the Panic of 1907 and made their operations more efficient over the next several years, all operations were suspended during the summer of 1911. The principal reasons for this decision were the collapse of the price of copper from $0.20 in 1907 to $0.125 in 1911, and the high costs of mining and transporting the ores to a railhead.


Panorama of the Helvetia Town Site (Photo by David Briggs, December 2013)

Following the closure of the mines in 1911, some of the former miners found work at neighboring ranches. Stimulated by an increased demand for copper during World War I, Helvetia’s mines experienced a brief boom but never returned to the large scale operations of the pre-war years. The post office closed its doors in December 1921, and Helvetia’s school was closed in 1923. Although most of its citizens moved away, marking an end of an era at Helvetia, lessees continued to conduct small-scale mining activities in the area over the next several decades, with a small boom occurring during the mid- to late 1940s.
New Rosemont (1915-1921)

By 1915, the increased demand for copper led to the development of the Narragansett mine, which had been intermittently worked by James K. Brown since 1879. In July 1915, William R. Ramsdell purchased the Narragansett claim for $60,000 and incorporated the Narragansett Mines Company in September 1915. Production commenced soon afterward and by 1917, two hundred and fifty miners were working at the site. Most of the mine’s employees lived at the mining camp of New Rosemont, which grew up along a low ridge located immediately east of the mine site.


Workings of the Narragansett Mine along the Ridge overlooking the New Rosemont
Town Site in the Foreground (Photo by David Briggs, March 2007)

The Narragansett mine was the district’s largest producer during World War I. Between 1915 and 1918, this underground mining operation produced 34,300 tons of copper ore, which was transported by wagon or truck to the Southern Pacific railhead at Vail (18 miles) for shipment to a smelter. However, this operation was plagued with financial problems throughout much of its life. In an effort to raise funds to keep the mine operating, the principals of the Narragansett Mines Company formed the Narragansett Copper Company in January 1917. This company gave the Narragansett Mines Company four notes, totaling $300,000, in return for a mortgage on fifteen unpatented mining claims, including the Narragansett, which were subsequently sold to Albert Steinfeld of Tucson. The steady decline of the price of copper following the end of World War I made it unprofitable to ship its low-grade ores to a smelter. By July 1919, Albert Steinfeld recognized his investment was in jeopardy and filed a lawsuit against the Narragansett Copper Company. Steinfeld received a judgment against the defendants in August 1919, and eventually acquired the Narragansett property as part of the settlement. Operations continued under a lessee until 1921, when production ceased and the mining camp of New Rosemont was abandoned.

Albert Steinfeld patented the Narragansett and six other claims in February 1926. The next recorded activity in the area was in 1938, when R. Hughes and Earl Peterson leased the Narragansett holdings from the Steinfeld estate. It was intermittently operated over the next two decades, with the last recorded production occurring in February 1961.

David F. Briggs is a resident of Pima County and a geologist, who has intermittently worked as a consultant on the Rosemont Copper project since 2006. The opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Rosemont Copper.

Copyright (2014) by David F. Briggs. Reprint is permitted only if the credit of authorship is provided and linked back to the source.

About David F. Briggs 47 Articles
David F. Briggs is a retired geologist, whose work is feature by the Arizona Geological Survey. Briggs intermittently worked on the Rosemont project between 2006 and 2014. He has authored articles on Arizona’s mining history.