Harold Bell Wright’s Tucson and The Mine with the Iron Door

This article is the third in a series about The Mine with the Iron Door. Read the first two here:

A Recommendation from the General
Exploring The Mine with the Iron Door

Also check out the interactive map with more information, images, and links about specific location in the book.


I cannot promise if you take up bookmapping that you will suddenly be entangled in the literary histories of the places where you live and visit, but it definitely increases your chances and it has been my experience on multiple occasions. My relationship with Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door is based almost entirely on its setting in the mountains north of Tucson. I first learned of the book unexpectedly during a hike in the Santa Catalina Mountains, and in mapping the book I found the motivation to uncover a number of details about my adopted city that I might never have discovered otherwise. But beside just showing me historic sites and giving me the encouragement to explore hard to reach canyons, the book had one more surprise for me.

Just a couple days after I had finished the novel, long before I had a chance to hike through the Canyon del Oro or go looking for petroglyphs and small mountain ranges west of the city, I had, as a good Tucsonan is apt to do, bought a burrito and stopped at a nearby park to eat it. The Mine with the Iron Door was on the passenger’s seat next to me, stuffed with sticky notes about the locations mentioned in the story. When I annotate a book, I first track the names of individual locations as I read. Afterward I transfer them to an online notes site where it is easier to organize and work with them. After finishing my lunch, I hoped to spend some time plugging information into the site on my phone.

So, I sat there eating my burrito, listening to a podcast, thinking. The park had a nice grass field, a small basketball court, a play area, and just in front of me to my left a big wooden sign. Take a bite, chew, think. Glance at the sign. Chew. Think. The sign: “Harold Bell Wright Memorial Park.” Harold Bell Wright? That sounds familiar. Wait, what? Look at the sign. Look at the book next to me.

POW: synchronicity!

Maybe. It certainly felt like it right then. I had not remembered ever hearing Harold Bell Wright’s name before I found The Mine with the Iron Door, and now after reading the book and learning about the places he describes that are also the places where I live, the unnoticed details in the hazy background of my daily life were beginning to rise into my consciousness. I had visited that park dozens of times and never noticed the name, never gave it a second thought.

Immediately I was searching the Internet for answers. In 1920, a couple years before writing The Mine with the Iron Door, Harold Bell Wright, who suffered from tuberculosis, had purchased 160 acres of desert five miles outside of Tucson, where he built his estate. In 1950, after Wright had moved to California, sold the property, and died, the land was purchased by a developer and subdivided into lots. The entire neighborhood, just a short drive from my own home, was named the Harold Bell Wright Estates.

The website I found included one more interesting detail: in laying out the new neighborhood, the developer named the streets after the characters from Wright’s novels. My mind and heart buzzing with excitement, I began driving through the neighborhood, studying each odd street name–Brian Kent, Barbara Worth, Printer Udell–that I had noticed before but never understood.

MID Intersection

Soon enough I found Marta Hillgrove, named for the two old prospectors’ daughter, around whom much of the plot of The Mine with the Iron Door revolves. I followed the road until it came to Natachee, named after the Apache who also lived in the Cañon del Oro and featured prominently in the story. From the corner there is a nice view of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. A perfect intersection.

I could not have predicted events would have played out this way when I began mapping this book, but since beginning Booma this is the second time something like this has happened to me in Tucson. In researching why Jack Kerouac had passed through our small city in 1949, a brief excursion recorded in On the Road, I discovered it was to visit the grandfather of a student and acquaintance who had graduated from the high school where I teach.

Try it out for yourself. Pick up a book that takes place in the area where you live. Dig into the descriptions of the setting and do a little research, and see how your surroundings move from the background to being something you consciously interact with. You could do this by learning about the local history and even the natural history of your area too, but what is fun about bookmapping is that your awareness of your surroundings and your attention to place in writing are both increased, which, if the author has done a good job, will also heighten your pleasure of reading.

This is still not the end of my Harold Bell Wright story though: a couple months after the revelation about the neighborhood that bears his name, my family and I were hiking in a side canyon off Catalina Highway. We happened to stop beside the same waterfall that a gregarious hiker was admiring. We struck up a conversation with Geof, our new friend, and soon discovered that he was a longtime resident of one of the original buildings, the former workers’ quarters, of the Harold Bell Wright estate. A couple weeks later he was gracious enough to show us around his house and some of the surrounding property, a tour made more significant for the journey that led to it.