Helvetia Trip Report
Originally published in UV Waves, the bi-monthly publication from the Fluorescent Mineral Society.
Helvetia. Just the name conjures up all sorts of thoughts, images and expectations. Goddesses, Switzerland, and perhaps even hell itself. Who knew what awaited us in the heart of the Arizona desert?
Dan Moore, a resident of the area, had researched the area looking for both fluorescent minerals and bats. At Helvetia, he found both. Dan posted several of his rock finds on the FMS Facebook Group page and piqued a lot of interest. Fortunately, he was willing to share his knowledge and offered to lead a collecting trip for a few intrepid travelers during the 2017 Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. The courageous band included Dan, Mark Cole, Valerie Cole, Howie Green, Bob Fendrich, Raymond Wu and yours truly.
The day started easy enough, with some of us making a morning trip to Electric Park (a.k.a. the Kino Gem and Mineral Show) to check out the rocks of the many sellers there. As it was the furthest south collection of sellers, it was right on our way to Helvetia. Several of the crew were late arriving, as they made an unscheduled stop to some secret sellers, but that’s a chapter for another report.
Around noon, we met Dan, our leader and guide, just off of I15 and grabbed a quick lunch from the local Subway. We hopped in our cars and our caravan headed east towards the Santa Rita Mountains. After a right turn at the pecan grove (who knew that Arizona was a major producer of pecans), we followed Dan and headed onto a dirt road. After 16 miles of washboard laden, dust choking miles, we stopped.
Dan hopped out of his four-wheel drive machine and announced, “Okay, we’ll drop a couple of cars here.” Mark had rented what he thought was a four-wheel drive with high clearance. Not. Seeing where we were headed, Mark and his daughter, Valerie, joined Raymond and me in my Land Cruiser, while Howie and Bob jumped in Dan’s real four-wheel drive vehicle. Dan headed up and over the roadside embankment and followed two tire tracks into the Sonoran Desert, and we were right behind.
For those not familiar with the Sonoran Desert region, it is a truly amazing place. Covering much of the American Southwest, it’s much more than cactus and dust. Desert plains are covered with saguaros, ocotillos, and acacias. “Sky Islands” erupt from the plains as magnificent mountain ranges with deciduous and coniferous forests. Flora and fauna are stunning in both its diversity and uniqueness. Ocelots, jaguars, ring-tailed cats, Eared Quetzals, desert tortoises, free-tailed bats, javelinas, gila monsters and many other amazing species make their home in the region.
Anyway, the drive started easy enough for the first ten feet or so. Then the road narrowed and ocotillos and other shrubs started to reach out for our car. The road tilted. Ditches, gullies, and washes were crossed. I’d taken my Land Cruiser off road in the Yukon and Alaska, but this was different. On several occasions, the Land Cruiser struggled to grip the desert as we tried to traverse it. I could feel Mark and Valerie clutching my seat back as we hit the more treacherous spots. The bushes screamed as they left their “pinstripes” on the side of the car. Finally, after a mile across the desert, we’d reached our destination. Sort of.
We hopped out and I surveyed the damage. Yup, pinstripes down both sides of the car. I rubbed some portions of the stripes off, so wasn’t very worried. I didn’t realize until I returned home to California that the trailer brake connection had been bent out of place and a serious dent to the underside of the driver side running board had occurred. Battle scars. I always chuckle at the masses that purchase 4WD vehicles, only to traverse the treacherous terrain of the suburban jungles in which they live. At least I’ve used ours for what it was designed for. Anyway, I digress.
We pulled out our backpacks and readied ourselves for the next step of our journey. Dan pointed to where we were headed, but I didn’t understand. I thought we were headed around the closest ridgeline to some unseen mine. We were indeed headed to an unseen mine, but as it turned out, it was over the huge ridgeline in the distance. We were going to die.
After posing for a quick picture or two, we headed out. Pretty easy walking at first, up a dry creek bed. Sure, underfoot was a sandy silt material, but at least the terrain was only slightly up hill. I was stunned and disappointed by the complete lack of wildlife. The desert is supposed to be teaming with all sorts of unique creatures; unfortunately, we didn’t experience much in the way of native fauna. We did, however, have a lot of up close and personal experience with the flora, and all of it seemed to have thorns.
Hiking cross-country without a trail is a challenge. Climbing a steep slope without a trail is even more difficult. Ascending a scree covered steep slope without a trail is treacherous. Surviving a scree covered steep slope thick with bushes thick with thorns is nigh impossible.
Four hundred feet up we climbed. That’s forty stories. But at least our packs were empty, save for our lamps, hammers and chisels. Coming down would be a different story. Our group separated on the ascent, as the out of shape folks quickly separated from the really out of shape folks. Dan pointed some of us to the saddle where we where headed and off we went.
After an arduous climb, navigating the scree and the thorns, I was the first to make it to the mining area. Howie was close behind, but he zigged left when he should have zigged right and ended up on a peak to the north. Even from the saddle, the views were incredible—desert as far as the eye could see to the east and to the west. Fortunately, a nice breeze popped up to provide some needed cooling.
This being my first organized group collecting trip, I didn’t know the appropriate protocols—should I wait for the others, or start exploring on my own. Sweaty, but exhilarated, the temptation was too great. I dropped my pack and surveyed the area. Tailings were everywhere, and several open shafts dotted the terrain. Not knowing what to look for, or where to look, I pulled out my grill cover and my lamp and set up on the tailings.
I was stunned. Red glowed everywhere under the tarp. I’d not seen anything like it outside of New Jersey. I grabbed a few of the more interesting pieces and took a look at them in the daylight. As the rest of the crowd trickled in, I started perusing the tailings looking for rocks that seemed to hold promise.
Everyone had their own preferred collecting style. I was a hunter gatherer, and was rather intense and focused (remember, it was my first true collecting excursion). Mark, Valerie and Bob each found a good spot and went to work. Raymond both collected and videotaped for posterity. Dan served as guide and consultant. Howie was a true zen master; quietly contemplating great specimens as they miraculously appeared under his grill cover.
As the sound of steel on rock began to fill the air, the diversity of styles was matched by the diversity of colors and minerals. Reds, blues, whites, greens, oranges, and yellows. Aragonites, calcites, hyalites, travertines, hydrozincites, caliches and others. Every crack yielded stunning colors and patterns.
We spent a couple of hours collecting, cracking, sorting, and sharing our finds. We were all wowed by what everyone was finding. The collecting was incredible. However, with so many rocks, some difficult decisions were ahead of us. How many rocks can we carry back down the scree covered, cactus-laden slope, and which ones do we leave behind? With time fleeting, the sun sinking, and a dinner reservation awaiting, we packed our bags. Mark probably made the smartest decision of the day. He left behind his sledge and chisel, so he could carry just a few more rocks down the mountain. Now packed up, we reluctantly headed back down the hill.
As anyone who’s hiked steep hills can attest, while going up is more work, going down is tougher on the body and much more dangerous. Throw in the scree and the thorns, and it was downright treacherous. My knees screamed as the weight of my sixty-pound pack pounded them with every downward step. My feet slipped on the loose rocks and I stumbled often, luckily only toppling over on one occasion. I felt like an upside down turtle as I tried to roll over and stand up. Others, however, weren’t so fortunate.
Howie was the first to reach the wash; I was close behind. Together we trudged through the sand filled wash, navigating both thorns and the occasional barbed wire fence as we made our way back to the cars where we waited for the others. What an incredible relief it was to make it back and unload the pack. I felt like I could fly.
We didn’t need to wait long as everyone eventually made it back in one piece. Well almost. Bob looked like he’d survived a knife fight. Bloodstains were pretty much everywhere. Apparently, he took a nasty tumble on the scree, and fell right into an ocotillo full of thorns. To his credit, he was beaten, battered, bloodied, but in great spirits. One tough hombre, indeed.
We celebrated with some shots of water and a few pics, then loaded up the cars and headed back across the desert. More screeches and squeals as the bushes reached out for the car, and more pin striping to document the trip. Relatively quickly we reached the “road”, and we were on our way again. This time, we were in the lead, so no choking dust. Just 16 miles of dirt road until we were back in civilization. Why is it that the washboard always seems to be better on the wrong side of the road?
Anyway, we finally made it back to pavement, then the interstate, then back to Tucson for dinner. After a great meal and some needed beverages (mostly non alcoholic surprisingly for the group, but not for me, as I needed some adult libations), we headed back to our hotel, frankly too exhausted to even look at our rocks. The next night, however, was a different story.
The Helvetia Mining District
Stunning for their beauty and the diversity of wildlife, the Santa Rita Mountains have a rich history for their variety of minerals as well. Over the years, copper, lead, zinc and gold have all been mined throughout the range.
According to most accounts, the Old Frijole Mine was the first mine in the area and opened around 1875. Ore, however, was undoubtedly found well before the Civil War. With the richness of the mines, local, smelting started in 1882 and by 1898, the Helvetia Copper Company of New Jersey was operating twenty-seven claims in the Helvetia area. At its peak, 650 folks lived in Helvetia Camp, residing in adobe shanties and tents. The bustling community included four saloons, a barbershop, a Chinese laundry, a meat market, a restaurant and a boarding house. It was a rough town, as well; as legend has it, a 36-hour, town wide brawl left several dead and many wounded.
As it was in the mining days, prosperity ebbed and flowed with the price of the minerals they were mining. Copper was not immune. Edison’s invention of the light bulb, created a great demand for copper, but it didn’t last long. Soon, the Helvetia Mining District was yet another ghost town that dotted the West, hidden until movie producers and hippies found it in the 60s.
In 1966, the remains of Helvetia became the main set for Paul Newman’s “Hombre”. I’d not seen the movie, but serendipitously, as I was flipping channels while working on the history portion of this article, “Hombre” was playing. You just can’t make this stuff up. Great flick, highlighting stereotypes and racism in the old West. Wow. Amazingly evident were the tailings on the mine adits evident on set, all just waiting to be explored.
The producers left and the hippies moved in. Quickly though, the powers that be plowed the sites under. Fortunately, Dan Moore was the next person to explore the mines looking for bats and fluorescents. What a find he made!
Unfortunately, the Santa Rita’s are under assault. Toronto based Hudbay is planning a $1.9 billion open pit copper mine (called the Rosemont Mine) in the Santa Rita Mountains. The development threatens important Jaguar habitat and would spoil 3000 acres of prime Sonoran Desert habitat with waste and tailings. Maybe the tailings would be fluorescent, but what’s the price? Perhaps John Russell knows.
A little more about the geology, from Dan Moore’s website mineralarts.com:
The rocks consist of calcite, aragonite, and barite with minor amounts of opal, wulfenite, and amphiboles. The fluorescence is the result of minor impurities in the minerals slightly altering chemical bonds in the crystal structures of the minerals.
The Paleozoic limestone host rock was heated and brecciated as a result of the nearby intrusion of magma. Tremolite and muscovite replaced silty layers in the limestone. At least two episodes or pulses of hydrothermal fluids passed through the limestone, one of which carried the trace element(s) responsible for the fluorescence. The hydrothermal alteration of the limestone resulted in the dissolution of portions of the limestone and deposition of calcite veins, overgrowths, and cavity fillings in the rock. A thin layer of hyalite opal was deposited over the calcite. The limestone was later chemically weathered, again leading to dissolution of the rock and the deposition of aragonite (travertine) in dissolution cavities.
Mineral List (by relative abundance)
Hyalite Opal (S)
S = shortwave, L= longwave, P = phosphorescent
Sources in order of importance include:
HELVETIA MINING DISTRICT Material was collected and edited by: Charlie DelBecq, Bill Fritz, Harry Frye, Chuck Rogers and Peggy Smith.
The Journal of Arizona History. Vol. 9, No. 2. Tucson: Arizona Pioneers
Historical Society, summer 1968.
Sherman, James E. Ghost Towns of Arizona. Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Murbarger, Nell. Ghosts of the Adobe Walls. Los Angeles: Westernlore
Action Photos courtesy of Raymond Wu. Thanks!
Rock photos by the author