Mining History of the Grand Canyon
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo deeded vast tracts of northwestern Mexico to the United States, including the Grand Canyon. When American settlers moving west into these territories saw it for the first time, they decided it was beautiful but economically ‘worthless’. Many were looking for gold, and the difficulties of mining in this vast isolated area were immediately apparent. There were easier pickings elsewhere, and most moved on.
The Railway Arrives
The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad changed this. It reached northern Arizona in 1882-83, making it possible to move commercial quantities of ore. Word spread and by the end of the 19th century, dozens of prospectors had staked claims up and down the canyon looking for viable minerals like gold, copper, and silver.
Mining In The Grand Canyon
Over the next four decades, many hopefuls tried to make a living from their workings. However, although they found gold, silver, zinc, lead, zinc, asbestos, and various other minerals, only a handful of workings were ever profitable in their own right.
Mining conditions in the Canyon were tough, unforgiving, and often dangerous. The physical geography, unusual vertical breccia pipe formations in which many of its minerals are located, climate, and sheer effort required to get ore to the top of the canyon, defeated many.
Those who did make money often made it via profitable sidelines like tourism, or by selling their claims. The National Parks Service, and Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, for instance, bought up many claims for conservation purposes or to prevent ‘undesirable’ activities.
Mining interest in the area began to wane and forty years after it began, the Grand Canyon mining boom was mostly over.
Minerals Of The Grand Canyon, And Their Mining History
Gold Mining In The Grand Canyon
The Colorado River hosts numerous placer gold deposits. The 1450-mile long river and its many tributaries have meandered across gold-bearing rocks for millennia. In the process, they’ve eroded them and deposited the gold into the resulting sediment.
Grand Canyon Gold Mining Ventures
Mining for placer gold here began in the 1870’s. However, most discoveries were less than impressive, and interest petered out after a few years. The gold was there but it was powdery and mixed in with so much silt that separating it out was virtually impossible. It was also hard, financially unrewarding work.
Over the years, other operators brought in hydraulic systems, and a dredge, but again – the nature of the gold made even these methods uneconomical. Nevertheless, a few small, albeit unremarkable, gold rushes did happen at Kanab Creek mouth (1872), Nankoweap Basin (1880’s), and Glen Canyon and Lees Ferry (early 1900’s).
A placer miner searches for gold at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Lee's Ferry, Northern Arizona. c1913.
Copper Mining History Of The Grand Canyon
Unlike gold, the Grand Canyon has significant high-grade copper deposits. The mineral is predominantly found in near-vertical breccia pipe deposits, left behind as mineral bearing solutions flowed through the fissures between the broken rocks. In fact, many of the minerals associated with the Grand Canyon are located in these breccia pipe deposits.
A number of small copper claims were worked throughout the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s but few made any money. Accessing the copper-rich sections of the breccia pipes was difficult, expensive, and slow. Many simply gave up and either sold their leases or went into other ventures. Only one mine left a lasting legacy, and made its owners some money.
This site, located on Horseshoe Mesa below Grandview Point, was exceptionally high-grade. Its ore was up to 30% pure copper in some places. A particularly famous 70% copper carbonate-containing chunk of it won the mine’s owner, Peter Berry, first place at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
Grandview / Last Chance Mine (1892 – 1907)
Peter Berry and his partners, Ralph and Niles Cameron, discovered the high-grade copper deposit on Horseshoe Mesa in 1890. As the Grandview or Last Chance Mine, it ultimately produced some of the purest copper in the country.
During its lifetime, the mine is estimated to have produced at least $75,000 worth of copper plus some 30-odd other minerals including silver, zinc, and lead. Today the old workings are part of the Grandview Mine Historic District.
Uranium Mining And The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is perhaps better known in current mining circles for its rich uranium deposits. Again, most of it lies in the vertical breccia pipes found throughout the ancient sandstone. It is an unusual type of uranium deposit, unique to the Grand Canyon and one or two places in China.
The mineral was first discovered in 1951 at the Orphan Mine. Located on the only privately owned land left within the Grand Canyon National Park, it was exempt from the regulations covering the rest of the park.
The Orphan Mine (1893 – 1946: Copper | 1951 – 1969: Uranium)
The Orphan Mine started as an unsuccessful copper claim, staked and registered by Dan Hogan in 1893. When the copper proved uneconomical, he turned to tourism as a backup and built up a very profitable canyon touring and accommodation business. He sold the business and land in 1946.
In 1951, the uranium was found and proved to be one of the richest uranium deposits in the country. Golden Crown Mining Company acquired the land in 1953, and subsequently merged with Western Gold and Uranium Inc.
The company operated the Orphan Uranium Mine up until 1969. By its closure, the controversial mine had produced over 4¼ million pounds of uranium oxide from just under 500,000 tons of ore3 for an estimated value of $40 million. It also produced copper (6,680,000 lbs), silver (107,000 lbs), and vanadium oxide (3,283 lbs).
The National Parks Service finally got the property in 1987 under the terms of the Orphan Mine Bill. However, although the infrastructure has since been removed, the area is still contaminated by low-grade radiation.
Asbestos Mining Within The Grand Canyon
In the 1880’s William W Bass filed some asbestos and copper claims to the west of modern-day Grand Canyon Village. For over 2 decades from the late 1880’s, he spent his winters digging out and stockpiling the higher-grade ores. He also built a cable tram across the river at Hakatai Canyon to get the ore out.
Bass took advantage of high mineral prices during WW1 and sold as much of his ore as he could. By the time he retired in 1917, his copper workings had earned him around $10,000. He also sold 6 tons of his asbestos for $1,500 a ton. Finally, in 1926 the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company bought out his claims for $25,000.
Another early asbestos claim owner, John Hance, also sold his claims to investors for a reported $6,250 in 1901. Like many other claims, there is little evidence that much ore was actually produced before the claims were profitably sold.
Creating The Grand Canyon Tourism Industry
Most would agree that tourism generates much more value at the Grand Canyon than mining ever could. It receives nearly 5 million visitors each year!
When mining proved unprofitable, many early miners started showing visitors around their camps and workings for a small fee. Most ultimately made more money from this than their mines, and some subsequently sold their budding tourism businesses for a substantial profit. Others built hospitality and trekking infrastructure to cater for tourism and made money that way.
Today’s massive Grand Canyon tourist industry owes it foundations to these early Grand Canyon mining-associated tourism ventures. They built many of the trails still in use today, and provided the historic workings and campsites that people come to see today.
Although the workings are off limits to tourists, and many of the more dangerous ones have been filled in, the remnants of camps and mining equipment are still clearly visible, and a clear reminded of the mining history of the now protected Grand Canyon.Further Reading:Gold in ArizonaGold Prospecting Areas near PhoenixGold Prospecting in the Mojave Desert