Castle Dome near Yuma
offers authentic look at 19th-century mining life
Castle Dome was just one celebrated gunfight
from being an international tourist destination rivaling Tombstone.
All the other elements were there: booming
silver mines, a rowdy populace with a colorful cast of characters and
plenty of gunplay. Only none of it was perpetuated by an Earp, and that
makes a big difference. For example, one shootout in Castle Dome
(documented in a new exhibit) was over a stolen hand-winch. Not the sort
of epic feud that makes
moguls start speed-dialing Sam Elliott.
But today, what
does better than
-- better than other ghost towns, historic districts or traditional
museums -- is provide an authentic glimpse into everyday life in an Arizona
Tucked away in the sun-splashed outback of
the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of
, Castle Dome isn't hard to reach but is just isolated enough to stay
off the radar of most tourists. Otherwise, this remarkable place would
be teeming with visitors. Nestled at the foot of craggy mountains
patrolled by desert bighorn, Castle Dome offers an unforgettable blend
of scenery and history.
Since buying the property in 1993, Allen and
Stephanie Armstrong have created a sprawling museum. They started with a
handful of original buildings still standing. More structures were
hauled in from outlying mines, while others were constructed on-site
using salvaged materials. Today, visitors can prowl through 50
buildings, including a hotel, doctor's office, church (with functional
bell tower), blacksmith shop, assay office, sheriff's office, jail and
several saloons. And you'll be hard pressed to determine which buildings
are original and which are re-creations.
"I was a stone mason and went on to
build log cabins using found material," Allen Armstrong said.
"We had a homestead in
where we did everything by hand. So it was all pretty good practice for
What makes the now-bustling ghost town so
intriguing is that each building is packed to the rafters with period
furniture, equipment, accessories and artifacts. Each self-contained
mini museum fills in a piece of the larger picture of what life must
have been like in this hardscrabble frontier.
Castle Dome, 40 miles northeast of
Yuma, contains the longest-working mine in Arizona. It operated from 1862 to 1979. During its heyday, 3,000 residents
lived here despite blistering summer temperatures. Jacob Snively, who
had served with Sam Houston, is credited as the first American to
discover the rich silver and lead deposits. Yet he followed a trail
blazed by Spanish conquistadors who mined here in the 1600s.
The district holds the second mine to be
patented in Arizona, the Flora Temple in 1871. The Castle Dome Mine was patented in 1876.
With no railroad access, tenacious ingenuity was required for ore
shipments. In 1878, Castle Dome Mine built the world's largest wagon
with a capacity of 20 tons. The wagon required a team of 40 horses or
mules to pull.
Castle Dome didn't follow the predictable
boom-bust cycle of most mining towns. An ebb and flow of activity swept
the town along. Large-scale lead mining erupted during both world wars
to meet the demand for bullets. During World War II, miners extracted 9
million pounds of lead ore, making Castle Dome one of the largest
wartime producers in the country. The mines closed for good in 1979.
Most of the artifacts on display in
were pulled from surrounding mine shafts. For years, Armstrong has been
exploring the 300 shafts gouged into the landscape, often rappelling 250
feet into the darkness. He has entered shafts that have been sealed off
for a century or more and uncovered a trove of items exquisitely
preserved by the right mix of temperature and humidity.
"We went into one drift where it looked
like the miners might be back any minute," he said. "Dynamite
was still in the holes, fuses were there, and blasting caps. They were
all set to fire off another round. And on the floor was a newspaper with
the headline, 'Bulgaria Surrenders, Hostilities End.' It was the end of
World War I. I could just envision the foreman coming down and telling
everyone it was their last day of work and they just walked away."
Armstrong has found miners' equipment,
documents, love letters, bottles, tobacco cans, powder boxes, canned
goods, 100-year-old matches that still strike, hats and clothing,
including a pair of Levi's blue jeans dating to 1890. He also has found
boots and stirrups from conquistador times.
"The people left in such a hurry. In a
lot of cases, I think they planned to come back," Armstrong said.
"They just didn't make it. This is a tough place to get back
The newer exhibits include a two-story
doctor's office. Fifteen mannequins on the first floor introduce
characters of the town and re-create the gunfight over the filched
hand-winch. Be sure to venture upstairs to admire the authentic bottle
windows Armstrong built using bottles recovered from the mines.
Allen and Stephanie Armstrong, a former
teacher, research their finds and document the stories. So every
building bristles with rich details of the lives led -- and lost -- at
Visitors can wander the grounds at their own
pace, soaking it all in. Wooden floors creak at every step. A soft
breeze rustles sun-faded curtains. Sit in one of the saloons for a few
minutes and the echoes of the past swirl about. Instead of seeming
haunted, the place feels vibrant.
"One of the things that make
this place special is that, despite the longevity, not all that much
changed," Allen Armstrong said. "They were still
hand-drilling during World War I. So it's really retained the flavor
of the past. That's what we're trying to preserve."
CASTLE DOME MINE MUSEUM
What: The museum is divided into two sections. The
main part consists of the ghost town, where most of the buildings are
clustered. The second part is a self-guided walking tour through the
mining district. A sandy path leads past a mill, bunkhouse, cookhouse,
cabins, graveyard and the entrances of several mines, including
Spanish workings dating to the 1600s.
Where: About 185 miles southwest of central
Phoenix. Take Interstate 10 west to Quartzsite, then U.S. 95 about 45
miles south. At mile marker 55, turn east onto Castle Dome Road and
follow signs for about 10 miles. The first 3 miles are paved; the next
7 are well-maintained gravel.
Visit the Castle
Dome Mine Museum website here: http://www.castledomemuseum.com/
More than 300 shafts were dug in the Castle Dome
Mining District northeast of Yuma.
- This article was
published with permission from the author, Roger Naylor. Please visit
his website and
You might also be interested in "Arizona
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