Life in Old Boom Towns with Jackass Prospectors

Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.

The gold and silver rushes, more than anything else, provided the inspiration for people to give up relative comforts in the East and come west. Opportunity to get rich quick is a uniquely American article of faith and was virtually born in the West. With a single lucky break, one could instantly make more money than he could lend, spend in a lifetime. So, it was “off to Californey, Coloradie, or Arizonie with my wash pan on my knee,” looking for, as Bret Harte said, “a fresh deal all around.” Most were either trying to get something or get away from something. It was called the “greatest mass migration of greenhorns since the children of Israel set out in search of Canaan.”

…Arizona was one of the last regions to be tapped by those incurable jackass prospectors of the 19th century. Its history is chock full of stories of lost treasures and bonanzas. They came from all points of the globe in search of the golden boulders of the madre del oro or lost mines like the Phantom Peralta, the Mislaid Peg Leg and the Lost Dutchman.

The People of Boom Towns


Arizona, like the rest of the West, was opened for settlement by the jackass prospector. Whenever a prospector made a rich strike, other enter­prising persons were sure to follow. The first place of business and social gathering place was usually a saloon. This might consist of two whiskey barrels with a plank stretched in between for a bar. There was, by rough estimate, one saloon for every 100 persons. Next, a merchant would arrive and set up a crude store selling anything from tobacco and horse liniment to shirts and shovels.

These were soon followed by the soiled doves and gamblers, tin horn and otherwise, and speculators. If the camp possessed any staying power, and the mineral deposits held out, it would soon become a small bustling town. In time, a railroad company might see fit to run a line to and through the town, thus insuring many years of prosperity.

These overnight boom towns bore a litany of picturesquely whimsical names like Total Wreck, Bumble Bee, Lousy Gulch, and Timbuctu. These names give insight to the colorful nature and personality of the people who inhabited them. The new camps were populated by a ramshackle collection of boisterous, dirty, devil-may-care reprobates. Some struck it rich, but most of those who did were the ones who came in, not to pull the rich ore from the earth, but to remove it from the pockets of the lucky miners or prospectors. It was called “mining the miners.”

Down on the old tenderloin district one might have a short term love affair with such excessively soiled doves as “Lizette-the-Flying-Nymph,” “Peg-Leg Annie” and “Little-Gertie-the-Gold-Dollar,” who were always ready to fulfill the romantic illusions and pluck the pockets of the unwary prospector. Card sharks and tin horn gamblers such as “Jack-the-Dude,” Coal-Oil-Georgie,” and “Senator Few Clothes” took what was left and sent the- prospector scurrying off to the hills in search of more yellow dust.

The Living Conditions of Boom Towns

Living conditions in these towns was deplorable. There never was enough room for everybody. Miners in towns like Bisbee and Jerome slept in shifts. Old timers say the men in Jerome kept warm on cold winter nights by walking the four-mile road down Mingus Mountain to Clarkdale and back. It is also said the jail had spikes on the floor, rendering a night’s sleep impossible. This discouraged one from getting himself thrown in jail just to have a place to sleep.

Conditions of the streets during inclement weather were another prob­lem. The avenues became seas of mud, and people and animals were thought to drown or disappear in them. Drunks were thought to be especially susceptible. During the wet season, streets were not only impassable, they were not even jackassable.

Many of Arizona’s mining towns were built on mountainsides right next to the mineral lode, on slopes so steep it was said, that if you spit tobacco juice out your front window, it would land on your neighbor’s back porch. Mothers were warned to tether their children by rope when they were out playing in the yard, lest they fall onto their neighbor’s rooftop.

Labor in Boom Towns

…Placer gold, the kind you could mine with a jackknife or the toe of your boot, soon played out and the day of the fabled jackass prospector faded into the realm of romance. Mining was big business and the men who did the digging did so for wages. They labored six days a week, ten hours a day, for $3. Glory holes had to be deepened in what became known as the world’s deepest underground lunatic asylum. Never before in history had men worked so hard to get rich without working. Professional hardrock miners were imported from Mexico, Germany, Wales and Cornwall to extract the rich mineral from the earth.

Men voluntarily went thousands of feet into the earth in the employ of a company that overlooked safety standards, believing that “men were cheaper than timbers.” Singlejackers and doublejackers, drillers, muckers and power men gouged out the drifts and slopes, gutting the mountains, extracting the ore, leaving the tailings piled high just outside the mine. These leached-out, man-made mountains were so sterile that nothing would ever grow on them.

Timbers were removed to make charcoal and to shore up the mines. What vegetation remained was killed by the fumes of the corrosive sulfuric chemi­cals used to roast the ore.

These reeking mineral factories do not paint a pretty picture of life in the mining camps, yet unemployed immigrants waited in line for work. A miner not pulling his weight or making his quota was fired at the end of the shift and another sent down in his place the next day. They called it the era of the three-shift miner. One man was down in the mine, a second was going down the road after being fired and a third was standing in line waiting for a j ob. They also called it the time of the 10-day miner.

It was said a man could only stand 10 days of work before his body would give out. At 2,300 feet, the temperature was 120 degrees. At the 3,000 foot level, the temperature increased five degrees for every 100 feet. The air was so stagnant that the men could only work 15 minutes out of every hour. Wooden pick handles were so hot the men had to wear gloves. The heat and the pressure gave a man stomach knots, cramps so disabling that he would only work a few days at a time. Miners lived in constant terror of being crushed in a cave-in, scalded by an underground cavern of hot water, a thousand foot fall into a water-filled sump or atomized by misfired explosives. A man never knew when he came on shift whether or at what turn of the tunnel he’d come face-to-face with death.

Labor-saving equipment, such as the steam drill, was introduced in the latter part of the 19th century. This made it possible to go even deeper into the earth and did eliminate some hazards; however, it created another. The dust kicked up by the drill got into the miners’ lungs. This silicosis of the lungs killed so many that the miners dubbed the machine the “widowmaker.”

…Hard times fell on Arizona in the early 1890s. Silver was demonetized by the Republicans in 1893 and almost every silver mine in Arizona had shut down. One old timer spoke for the majority when he said, “Anyone who called himself a Republican out here was either a newcomer or a damned fool.”

Still, with indomitable spirit and inexhaustible fortitude, people sur­vived. They always will. They built churches, schools and raised families. Some of their children would become city, county and state leaders in the coming years.


  1. Nancy says

    Can you explain in more detail why you said silver was demonetized by the Republicans in 1893? For example what I’d like to know if this was a national move or state move? What events lead up to this decision? Thank you. Otherwise, nice article.

  2. marshall trimble says

    Hi Nancy: It was a national policy, the Gold Standard vs The Silver and it was/is complicated. Historically the U.S had used both gold and silver as a basis for currancy but in 1873 Congress passed a law “demonitizing” silver, making gold the only standard for American currancy. It was supposed to promote international trade.
    Gold Standard supporters, mainly Easterner capitalists wanted to prevent new silver discoveries in the West from expanding the money supply. Silver production boomed, was flooding the market and dropping the value of the metal. Eastern Conservatives in both parties denounced silver while Southerners and Westerners demanded the unlimited coinage of silver. Hard times hit and Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1890 where the Treasury would buy more silver. This brought about about a boom in silver mining. Again gold standard advocates made plans to repeal the law. President Cleveland pursuaded Congress to repeal the Act in 1893, thus enraging the Southerners and Westerners as the Treasury quit buying silver and this caused western mines to shut down. This was when Sen. William Jennings Bryan made his “Cross of Gold” Speech. Like most Westerners, he saw the silver issue in the context of a struggle between the “corporate interests, aggregated wealth and capital, arrogant, compassionless” against “an unnumbered throng….of work-worn and dust-begrimed.” In other words, a fight between the wealthy class and the working class.
    Most Americans today don’t realize how close this country came to a second Civil War in the 1890s.
    Sorry to be so wordy. Economics can be complicated.

  3. Doug says

    I’m looking for information on a bar called J.Wise which was located in Bowie, Arizona. I found an old token stamped on an English coin saying that it was good for one drink at J.Wise and would like to see any photos or find information about this bar and its history.

    Thank you and best regards

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