The Story of J Goldwater & Bros: Commerce on the Colorado River
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
“Gold!” The word spread like wildfire. The emotional pitch generated by that single cry sent normally sane men and women scurrying up hundreds of canyons and river beds to wash away nameless mountains—a shovel load at a time—over the riffles of a sluice box.
“Gold!” No other word could stir the souls of men, cause them to abandon fields and families, rent out their church pews and head west to assay out that dream of getting rich without working.
Most of these would-be millionaires were either trying to get something or get away from something. They were, as Bret Harte said, “looking for a fresh deal all around.”
Following in the footsteps of the Argonauts came the gamblers, tin horn and otherwise, saloon keepers and shady ladies—all dedicated to that age-old art of “mining the miners.”
Among the earliest and most important arrivals to the boom camps were the traveling drummers and merchants. Oftentimes forgotten in the westward rush, the role they played in the opening of the West was significant indeed. Survival in the vast wilderness would not have been possible had it not been for them and their cracker-barrel cornucopias.
These all-purpose establishments supplied items ranging from Bibles to whiskey. Inventories included coal oil, calico, coarse wool, cotton cloth, medicine, groceries and hardware. Merchandising goods was not the only requirement of these frontier entrepreneurs. As leading citizens in the community, they were required to perform such civic duties as quasijudge, i.e., settling local disputes among the raucous miners, and administering a form of informal justice. They were bankers of sorts, extending credit sometimes in the form of a grubstake, and they might be members of the school board.
The all-purpose stores with their fineries of silk and lace provided frontier women a rare touch of beauty to brighten their lives. The mercantile store was to women what the saloon was to men—a place where they could mingle socially and exchange the latest bit of news or medicinal remedy.
One of the most remarkable of these unsung heroes of the raw frontier boom towns was Michael Goldwater. Born into a Jewish family named Goldwasser near Warsaw, Poland, he fled that country in 1847 when the Russian Cossacks invaded. He settled in Paris, but when revolution struck he moved on to London where he met and married Sarah Nathan, daughter of a wealthy importer. At this time he anglicized his name to Goldwater.
By 1854 the brothers had formed “J. Goldwater & Bros.,” and were dealing in general merchandise in Sonora, California, at the southern end of The Mother Lode.
The store did well until the late 1850s when the gold ran out and the rough and tumble miners evaporated. The brothers closed their doors and moved south to Los Angeles where they started a new business. Around 1860, the enterprising Mike Goldwater bought a wagon, loaded it with essentials and peddled his wares in the desert communities of Southern California and Arizona. The outbreak of the Civil War, along with a severe drought, caused a panic among their creditors in San Francisco and “J. Goldwater & Bros.” went under for the second time.
The first of several major gold strikes occurred in Arizona at Gila City in 1858. Before the strike played out, some two million dollars worth of gold nuggets had been plucked from the bed of the Gila River. The strike was short-lived and by 1864 all that was left of Gila City were “three chimneys and a coyote.” In 1862, another rich strike was located near La Paz on the Colorado River by famed scout Pauline Weaver. Another eight million dollars in placer gold was gathered in pans, rockers and sluices. One year later, La Paz came within a few votes of becoming the first capital of the new Arizona Territory. In 1863, the rugged explorer Joe Walker led a party of argonauts up the Hassayampa River into the Bradshaw Mountains where they located rich placer deposits in Lynx, Big Bug and Weaver creeks. Lynx Creek would prove to be the richest stream bed ever found in Arizona. One member of the Walker party, former Confederate officer and future developer of modern irrigation in the Salt River Valley, Jack Swilling, sent two gold nuggets to General James Carleton, military commander of Arizona and New Mexico. These were forwarded to President Lincoln and no doubt played a role in the creation of the Territory of Arizona and the location of the capital at Prescott near the site of the fabulous find.
Following on the boot heels of the Walker party was another group of miners led by A. H. Peeples and guided by the ubiquitous Weaver. In the rugged mountains, at the foot of Yarnell Hill, members of the Weaver-Peeples party found gold in the saddle of a steep-sided mountain which came to be known as Rich Hill. Within weeks, some $250,000 in nuggets had been picked up by the eager miners, making Rich Hill the biggest single placer-gold strike in Arizona history.
About the same time, Henry Wickenburg located what was to become the richest deposit of gold ore in Arizona, about 10 miles southwest of the town that bears his name. Records reveal that Wickenburg’s Vulture Mine produced some 17 million dollars in gold and was known locally as the “Comstock of Arizona.” The total worth of the mine will never be known, as millions more were stolen by highgraders.
Nineteen men were hung from a large tree in the middle of Vulture City, mute testimony to the violence in the boisterous mining camps.
The rich strikes of gold and silver opened the new territory to settlement. Almost immediately, wagons loaded with freight rumbled down the Bradshaw Road from San Bernardino to the settlements on the Colorado. Among the first to arrive were the enterprising Goldwater brothers. “J. Goldwater & Bros.” were back in business, this time at La Paz on the Colorado. LaPaz was a boom town of some 1,500 living in tents and brush or adobe houses. After the gold played out, La Paz became an important river port for the steamboats hauling cargo up the Colorado. The Goldwaters hauled goods into the Bradshaw Mountains, supplying both miners and military.
Wickenburg’s mine, called the Vulture, was located several miles from the Hassayampa river. Since water is essential to the reduction process, ore was hauled overland to the river. Mike Goldwater grubstaked the miners $35,000 to build a mill to crush the ore, and when the company ran into production difficulties, he took over the operation until it was running on a profitable basis and the note was repaid.
In 1868, the fickle Colorado River changed its course, leaving the port city of La Paz high and dry. Mike and Joe packed up their goods and located a suitable port on the river’s edge six miles downstream. They called the new town Ehrenberg, in honor of German engineer Herman Ehrenberg, one of the first white men to locate rich minerals within the boundaries of the new American acquisition.
Ehrenberg was a hot, dusty town of some 300 inhabitants, one meandering street, a row of adobe houses facing the river and a boat landing.
It was from these humble, dreary beginnings that the merchant dynasty of Goldwater got its start. Over the next few years, the family would open stores in Prescott, Parker, Tombstone, Bisbee, Contention, Seymour, Fairbank, Crittenden, Lynx Creek, Benson and Phoenix.
The Goldwaters arrived in Arizona during the peak of Indian hostilities. On one occasion, not far from Prescott, Joe and Mike were attacked by a band of Mohave-Apaches. In a running gun battle, reminiscent of some Hollywood western, Joe was severely wounded and spent three weeks in a makeshift army hospital at Camp Date Creek, recovering from the bullet wounds.
He had one of the bullets made into a watch fob as a souvenir of his harrowing escape. He carried it the rest of his life. Hostile Indians were not the only culprits. A few years later, a store operated in Bisbee by Joe Goldwater and Jose Castaneda was robbed by five gunmen. On their way out, the thieves shot and killed four citizens. The five perpetrators of the so-called Bisbee Massacre were later legally hanged in Tombstone with rope generously supplied by Messrs. Goldwater and Castaneda.
During those turbulent years on the Arizona scene the Goldwater wives maintained residences in the refined city of San Francisco. Neither woman oared for the harsh vicissitudes of a frontier existence. Mike and Joe made periodic visits often enough to keep the family flourishing with offspring. Several of Mike’s eight children would eventually enter into the business in Arizona. Most notably were sons Morris and Baron.
In 1872 Mike decided to open a store in the new farming settlement on I he banks of the Salt River, now called Phoenix. Morris, 20, a young, energetic, resourceful entrepreneur was selected to manage the operation. Morris Goldwater deserves credit for bringing the first telegraph to the town. The line was being installed by the military and was planning to bypass Phoenix. Morris (ably armed with a bottle of premium John Barleycorn) was able to convince the soldiers that Phoenix should have a telegraph. He even offered to let them install an office in the Goldwater store and promised to act as telegrapher, all for free. Morris’ entrepreneurship notwithstanding, fledgling Phoenix was not quite ready to support a large mercantile business and the store closed its doors three years later.
Prescott became the main mercantile center for the Goldwater brothers after the Southern Pacific Railroad stretched its ribbons of steel across the territory in the early 1880s. Up to that time, most of the cargo came by way of steamboats on the Colorado to Ehrenberg and was hauled to the interior by freight wagons.
The Goldwaters laid their wares out in a two-story brick building across the street from today’s Yavapai County Courthouse. Morris, popular, dapper, and sporting a handlebar moustache, was by this time taking an active role in running the business. He was also the most public-spirited of the family. He firmly believed it was a man’s moral duty to repay the community for his monetary enrichment by serving that community. He quickly became one of Prescott’s leading citizens, serving in the territorial assembly (he was president of the 20th Territorial Council) and vice president of the Constitutional Convention in 1910. He organized the first volunteer fire company in Prescott, helped organize the Democratic Party in Arizona and served as Mayor of Prescott for 22 years.
Several years before, in Ehrenberg, Joe was given an unusual opportunity to demonstrate his public spirit. The community hired its first school teacher only to discover that she couldn’t speak Spanish and none of her pupils could speak English. The problem was remedied when Joe agreed to come to class and act as interpreter for the remainder of the term. No doubt many a youngster of Mexican descent learned to speak English with a thick Polish accent, thanks to Joe.
Mike ventured into the political ring once and that was enough for the rough and rugged merchant. At the urging of his son, Morris, he ran for mayor of Prescott and won. Mike lacked his son’s finesse and affable nature. Besides, he was a strong-willed product of the harsh frontier, with neither the patience nor tolerance required to deal with petty politics and mollycoddling greenhorns. He resigned before his term expired and semi-retired, rejoining his wife in San Francisco. Earlier, Joe had sold out his interest and went partners in a store in Bisbee with the aforementioned Jose Castaneda. He died in Tombstone in 1889. The operation was now in the hands of the second generation of Goldwaters.
Mike’s youngest son Baron finished school and came to Arizona in 1882. He hired out as a clerk in the Prescott store, learning the business from the ground up. Baron was a hard-working fastidious man. He learned quickly and was rewarded 10 years later when his brothers voted him a full partnership. At that time he was charged with opening a store in Phoenix. The earlier effort had failed, but much had happened during the interim. Phoenix had been made the permanent capital in 1889. A spur linking the capital with the Southern Pacific at Maricopa had been completed two years earlier, and by 1895 the Santa Fe would link Phoenix to Prescott, Ashfork and the northern transcontinental line from Chicago to Los Angeles. Frontier Arizona had officially closed. A century was born and a century had died. Soon Arizona would take her long awaited place as a full-fledged member of the union of states. Born with the territory, “Goldwater’s” would prosper and grow, reaching maturity in statehood, becoming one of the Southwest’s lending department stores. The business remained in the family until it was sold to a large eastern corporation in 1962.
Michael and Josef Goldwater had been among the first white men to arrive in the raw, lonesome land. They came—not just to take from the land its rich minerals—but to build. They remained and helped carve out a frontier society in the wilderness. Pioneers in the truest sense of the word, they and their legacies have served Arizona and the nation well.
Excerpt from Arizona Adventure by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.