Exploring The Mine with the Iron Door

Visit the interactive map for The Mine with the Iron Door.

This is part two of a series; read part one here: A Recommendation from the General.

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On a warm October morning, five months after a hike unexpectedly introduced me to Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door, I am standing in a small wash near the north end of the Tucson Mountains. The petroglyphs on the rocks stacked to my left assure me that this is the place. A little further on and the wash turns sharply and disappears under some scrubby looking mesquite trees. Looking around, I feel a little of the excitement of a scavenger hunt and also the excitement of visiting a location I first encountered in a book. I can easily imagine the horses coming to this point from the north, the Apache named Natachee searching the gravelly sand for any sign of the other riders, his companion Hugh Edwards waiting anxiously for his judgment before they both continue on to the west.

The spot tucked away behind the Redemptorist Renewal Center is pretty, and I am a little surprised I have never been here before. I am also a little skeptical: Is this narrow wash that runs by Picture Rocks really the only pass someone trying to reach the Mexican border between Tucson and the Baboquivari Mountains to the west could have taken? How many miles can a horse ride through the desert in a single night? I start mentally running through my list of friends and acquaintances thinking of people that are familiar with horses. I will have to ask later.

For a long time I have enjoyed exploring the locations that appear in books. In college a series of events led me and a friend to Pamplona just in time for the Festival of San Fermin that Ernest Hemingway had made famous in The Sun Also Rises. My first visit to San Francisco was colored by the poems of Robert Hass that I had read in college, and in 2006 I spent hours one summer pouring over maps of Dublin, pinpointing the places of Stephen Dedalus’s childhood in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In each case a deeper understanding of both the book and the place developed. This book, Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door, which has led me to this sandy wash, is a little different though. For a few months the book has been leading me around my adopted hometown and its surrounding mountains and through a history I had not much considered before.

Back in the parking lot looking 25 miles to the east, I see the Samaniego Ridge stretching north for six or seven miles, away from Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalinas. It is far enough away that I can take in its whole length.

Beyond that ridge lies the Cañon del Oro, a broad, forested canyon running north toward the town of Oracle before the streambed at its heart swings around and widens into the Cañon del Oro Wash, which turns back south toward and through the town of Oro Valley. Hiking alone in the east fork of that canyon, I first learned of The Mine with the Iron Door, where I would meet Natachee and Hugh Edwards along with Marta Hillgrove and her two old prospector fathers, Bob Hill and Thad Grove.

Before I even held the book in my hands, its title was already leading me to learn more about the history and legends of mining in the mountains near my home.

The rumors about a lost mine in the Catalinas probably peaked in the late 19th century, after the California Gold Rush had begun transforming the American West and prospectors began looking in earnest for new veins of wealth hidden in mountain canyons wherever they could find them.

There is no single definitive story about the lost mine, but the basic legend is this: at some point in the past there was a mine in the Santa Catalina Mountains that had such thick ribbons of pure gold running through it, the precious rock could be cut out with machetes. The control of the mine is usually attributed to the Jesuits who were active in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, and when they were recalled to Spain by King Charles the Third in 1767, the location of the mine, which had been sealed with an iron door to protect its treasure, was forgotten. [Note: A detailed selection of stories and newspaper articles relating to the mine with the iron door are collected in Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains ( Amazon | Library ) by Robert E. Zucker.]

Everyone loves a good story about lost treasure, and as Barbara Marriott recounts in her book Canyon of Gold: Tales of Santa Catalina Pioneers ( Amazon | Library ), after Gertrude Pusch related the story of the mine to author and screenwriter Harold Bell Wright during one of his visits to the Steam Pump Ranch, he rented a small campsite from the Linda Vista Ranch near Oracle, which offered a full view into the Cañon del Oro, and began crafting his novel.

The book is set almost entirely in the canyon, but it makes a few references to locations in Tucson: the railway depots, the University, the Mexican quarter, Main Street, the cemetery. Written in 1923 the book is a time capsule of the city. Even these seemingly mundane place names can reveal local history. I, like most Tucsonans, am familiar with the historic train depot across from Club Congress, which has been renovated in recent years to house a transportation museum and restaurant, but until I examined some of the maps in the Special Collections Library at the University of Arizona, I had never heard of the El Paso and Southwestern Rail Depot whose building still sits near the northwestern edge of the Tucson Convention Center property, miles from any tracks. Even the term the Mexican Quarter, which referred to an area largely cleared for the Tucson Convention Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s during a period of urban renewal, was a revelation to me after living in Tucson for more than 15 years.

EP SW Station

As he traces the route that leads from Tucson to the Cañon del Oro, the narrator describes following the Bankhead Highway, one of the precursors to the Interstate Highway System, and another piece of transportation history that had eluded me. Discovering the local importance of and visiting places like the Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley, which has recently begun undergoing renovations, and finding the petroglyphs known as Picture Rocks all added to the fun of exploring this book.

Through all of my explorations though there was one place that I knew I had to visit, the main setting for the book–the Cañon of Gold itself–and I again turned to my well-worn topographic map of the Santa Catalinas. Almost as much as hiking the trails on the map, I enjoy looking over its contour lines, studying the canyons and ridges of the mountains. It was while studying this map that I picked out the loop trail that led me to the The Mine with the Iron Door in the first place. Since reading the book, I had been examining the map again and again, looking for a way into the main canyon.

Despite its popularity as a mining destination a hundred years ago, the canyon remains fairly inaccessible to day hikers. After searching for a route in from the north and weighing the merits of bumming a ride in on a bumpy Jeep trail to Charouleau Gap or turning the adventure into a multi-day backpacking trip, I finally committed to a full day 16-mile loop to explore the canyon, a down-and-up hike that would begin and end just a few hundred yards from the highest point in the Catalinas, and push my limits for a single day trek. Any trepidation about finishing the hike was buried under my excitement to finally see the canyon, and my unacknowledged hope of stumbling across the mine myself.

If I am being rational, I don’t really believe there is a hidden mine with an iron door somewhere in the mountains. The story feels too fantastic and is just the kind of story people used to tell in the West because it added intrigue to a place. The story has barely persisted in the local consciousness of Tucson–sure the eatery in the small ski area at the top of Mount Lemmon is called the Iron Door Restaurant and a recounting of the story appears in local books and magazines from time-to-time, but I had never heard the story while living here, nor has anyone else that I have told about it since reading Wright’s book. There are other legends of lost treasure in mountains and caves around Arizona, but this one seems hardly known. While the mountains are full of nooks and crannies that would take decades or longer to explore thoroughly, it is hard to imagine that a mine with so much wealth would not have been found by the prospectors and large mining companies that have systematically surveyed the mountains.

Still, heading into a canyon that I had become aware of specifically because of its legend of containing such a mine activated my imagination. And who knows, after the rainy monsoon season maybe something would be uncovered, maybe I would catch something out of place, an edge or a corner of a rusty old door, barely visible among the undergrowth. Then, what would I do?

As I had before, I started early under uncharacteristic gray skies and descended the same steep trail I had taken out of the east fork of the canyon on my earlier hike to the little mining cabin. I made it to the canyon floor in a little more than two hours, happy to find the same steady flow of water in the stream I had crossed five months earlier. After another mile-and-a-half, I was looking into the main canyon. To my north, hidden from view, was the Linda Vista Ranch where Harold Bell Wright had stayed while writing his book. Looking south I could see before me the wide canyon stretching for several miles before being enclosed by the ridge I would need to climb back toward my car.

I found a flat rock near where the two streams–the one coming from the east fork of the canyon that I had just exited and another coming from the main canyon that I would soon be entering–joined, and I sat down for a lunch of peanut butter and jelly and one of a couple apples I had brought along. The north side of the Catalinas has high, wooded ridges and steep canyon walls, yet unlike the numerous trails that overlook Tucson or start in the city’s foothills, these trails are hardly used. Save for a couple cyclists grinding up toward Ski Valley on the road I had to cross near the beginning of my hike, I had not seen another person all day, and took a moment to reflect on my gratitude for having so much nature to myself and for the book that had led me there.

The solitude was a paradox though. In visiting a place like this, it is easy to think of it as preserved from the encroachment of our ever expanding cities, but the very reason for my visit was that at one time this place had been filled with sounds of work. Its current peace was the result of changing economies and purposeful decisions about how to protect it. Those ideas did not cross my mind just then, however. With nine miles still ahead of me, including over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, I didn’t linger long before starting again.

Heading into the canyon, I was immediately enveloped by trees and spent the next few miles walking on relatively flat ground, under a canopy of green leaves, alongside a gurgling stream. I have explored my share of trails around Tucson, and this was one of the most pleasant. If it were more accessible it would be swarming with hikers throughout the year, but as it is, the trail is hardly maintained, often disappearing to just a faint trace among the grass and leaves.

CdO Trail

The hike itself completely freed me from any notion of finding the lost mine. The steep walls of the canyon, with the Samaniego Ridge to the west and the Reef of Rock to the east, never seemed accessible. From the broad bottom of the canyon, the walls only appeared as rare glimpses through the trees, and the forest on either side of the trail seemed dense and nebulous enough to suppress any urge to explore off trail, especially with so much distance to cover before sunset. Perhaps on a repeat trek, when I am more familiar with the place, I would attempt it, but the space was much more bewildering than I had imagined.

Before going in I had read a story in Robert Zucker’s book, Treasures of the Santa Catalina Mountains, about someone who claimed to have found the legendary iron door mine but lost his way in a storm and could never locate it again. The story seemed doubtful–how could a prospector accustomed to being in the wilderness not be able to return to a mine filled with enough gold to set him up for life? If nothing else he should have been able to find the general area and, being sufficiently motivated, eventually rediscover it. His supposed inability to re-locate the gold reinforced my belief that the lost mine was just a fun story for campfires. Seeing the canyon for myself made the prospector’s story seem a little less implausible.

Returning to my own motivation for the hike, I also found the canyon unlike my image of the place from Wright’s novel. If I felt walking through the canyon would place me in the world of his characters I feel no closer to them now. Wright offered several eloquent descriptions of the canyon, like this one from the third chapter:
“It was that time of the year when, if the rain gods of the Indians have been kind, the deserts and mountains of Arizona riot in a blaze of color. On the mountain sides, silvery white Apache plumes and graceful wands of brilliant scarlet mallow were nodding amid the lilac of the loco-weed, while, in every glade and damp depression, the gold of the buck-bean shone in settings of the brightest green. And on the cañon floor, the pink white bloom of cañon anemone, with yellow primroses and whispering bells, made points and patches of light in the shadow of the rocky walls.”

His writing captures the beauty of the Catalina canyons that are familiar to those who have spent enough time in them. His other descriptions seemed less exact though. I spotted a few rocky outcroppings along the Samaniego Ridge. Several times in the book the Apache Indian named Natachee ascends to such heights where he can observe the events in the canyon below, but if the houses of the novel are near the stream as he describes them, even for the swift and experienced Natachee, the distance seems too great to be covered quickly or allow for much useful surveillance. And if the houses he describes were meant to be in this part of the canyon with its relatively flat, wide bottom, some of the key events in the novel seem unlikely to have been possible. The narrower canyon of the east fork seems like a more suitable setting, but it is much too far from the Samaniego Ridge to align with many of his other descriptions.

This opens a broader question about looking into the geography of literature in the first place. An author needs a setting for a story, but that setting can play a number of different roles. For some authors the place itself is important, almost becoming another character. For others it is just background.

For Harold Bell Wright, the canyon gave him the story of the mine with the iron door and the backdrop for his tale, but in comparison to some other writers he seems less focused on accurately depicting the minute details of a place than weaving an interesting story and creating an atmosphere that would appeal to readers, most of whom had never been to Arizona.

Of course, I could be wrong–I spent one day in the canyon during a long and rushed hike while he spent months looking into and possibly exploring the landscape regularly–and, even if I am not wrong and his story is more atmospheric than specific, it is not necessarily a sign of weak writing; it is just one of many approaches to describing place in literature, which is meant chiefly to appeal to our imagination rather than our intellect.

One of the pleasures of bookmapping is discovering how an author approaches setting, and coming to understand the author’s process and the real world more fully, not to simply judge the author’s veracity. Wright’s book gave a glimpse of the mountains that I had not seen before, and helped me understand my home and its surrounding environment a little more fully. He gave me descriptions that capture the allure of the mountains better than anything I could write. That is more than enough for me.

Rainbow

As I walked out of the canyon late that afternoon, it began to rain, and as I made it to the top of the ridge that connects with the Samaniego Ridge Trail–another route I am still looking to explore–there was a little bit of a break, and the clouds to the west lifted enough to allow for some late afternoon light to bathe the mountain in its glow. A little cold and plenty tired, I kept turning back toward the canyon looking for a vantage point that would give me a picture that captured all that I had just seen, but none existed. A little farther on, I walked the last stretch toward the top of the mountain and toward a rainbow that arched full overhead and down below me into the Wilderness of Rocks, bending along more than 180 degrees of its circle, and then the mountain itself, its trees, the sky above, became pink and pinker until finally the light went out completely, and Tucson below, again visible from high up on the mountain, twinkled to life.

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Read more about discovering and mapping The Mine with the Iron Door:
–> Part One: A Recommendation from the General
–> Part Three: Harold Bell Wright’s Tucson

Visit the interactive map for The Mine with the Iron Door.