Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Mystery of Rich Hill

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The Mystery of Rich Hill
The Mystery of Rich Hill

From a distance the mountain is shaped like a saddle. It is located about 10 miles northeast of Wickenburg, AZ., nicknamed the 'Dude Ranch Capital of the World.'

The remains of two ghost towns, Stanton and Weaver, lie at the foot of the mountain. Parts of old buildings still exist, with the desert breezes blowing through the crumbling remains. In the distance a coyote howls. A Gila Monster sits on a rock sunning itself, its tongue darting out to catch flies. A sidewinder rattlesnake slithers off and disappears beneath a barrel cactus.

Rich Hill became famous in 1863 when a party of travelers camped at the foot of the mountain. The group was led by Pauline Weaver. When an animal escaped from the makeshift corral Weaver had set up, one of the members followed it to the top of the mountain. There his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

The mountain was covered with gold.

There were nuggets everywhere. In the stream running across the top of Rich Hill. In the boulders strewn across the mountain top. Some of the nuggets were as large as potatoes and that part of the mountain gained the nickname the 'Potato Patch.'

Within a short period of time when gold was selling for about $10 an ounce, the Weaver party extracted more than $100,000 in gold. The gold was so abundant they didn't even have to do much digging, removing most of it with shovels and knives.

The gold discovery occurred nearly 160 years ago. Since that date, an estimated $900 million in gold has been taken from the Rich Hill area. And the truly amazing part of the story is that, according to the prospectors who are working the area, the mother lode has not yet been discovered.

Joe Wilcox was a gold prospector who divided his time between Phoenix and his home in Sedona, AZ. where he and his family operated an Indian trading post. I met him in the early 1980s when I worked as a reporter for the Phoenix Gazette.

Joe was helping a friend promote a service station by setting up a sluice box and letting motorists pan for gold, using ore that Wilcox had transported in a pickup truck from Rich Hill. I stopped my car to fill it with gas and tried my luck at panning. I found a tiny gold nugget in my gold pan and became hooked.

The prospector and I became fast friends and he agreed to take me to Rich Hill the following Saturday. We made the 60-mile drive from Phoenix in Joe's pickup and spent the day panning for gold after a two-hour trek up a mountain trail that took us to the top of the mountain.

'Here is what is so amazing and mysterious about Rich Hill,' Wilcox said. 'Even after all the prospecting and mining over the past 160 years, the mountain is still loaded with gold. After a heavy rainstorm, it just pops out of the ground. Nobody can explain it. This is a phenomenon of nature.'

That day thanks to Joe's tutoring, I found a gold nugget big enough to make into a ring. Joe cracked open a boulder in the middle of the stream and discovered 13 tiny gold nuggets concealed in the clay inside the boulder.

Today there are a number of gold prospecting clubs that have staked claims on Rich Hill. There are 'No Trespassing' signs scattered across the mountain and gold seekers equipped with shovels, picks, crowbars, gold pans and sluice boxes can be spotted in the area seven days a week.

Joe was a poker player as were several of the prospectors I met in the Wickenburg area. They played in home games as well as at the American Legion Posts in Phoenix and Wickenburg.

One of the prospectors I met in the area was a retiree in his 70s. He lived in a camper that he parked near the foot of the mountain. He and Joe were old friends. Once he was convinced I was okay, he showed me some of his treasures. They contained two solid gold bars that he had melted down from the gold he had found in the stream at the foot of the mountain and on Rich Hill.

'This is part of my retirement package,' he joked. 'I just like to look at the gold and realize that I found it on my own with no help from the government.'

Another person I met on Rich Hill was a professor from Arizona State University. Along with his passion for prospecting for gold, he collected rattlesnake venom that the university used in an ongoing program to find a cure for cancer. His nickname was Rattlesnake Pete, he wore a beard and carried a machete, and he brewed a mean cup of cowboy coffee.

One prospector told me candidly that the story of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine could not compare to the mystery of Rich Hill.

'A lot of men have searched for the Lost Dutchman in the Superstition Mountains,' he said. 'All most of them have found is sunstroke, mosquito bites and fool's gold. Rich Hill is literally a mountain of gold and the mother lode is still out there waiting for somebody to discover it.'

At the Arrowhead Bar, a watering lounge located a few miles from Wickenburg, a grizzled prospector sipped his beer while he recounted his experiences looking for gold in the area.

'There's an old saying that a gold mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar,' he said. 'While that's probably true, the people who have discovered gold on Rich Hill aren't liars. This is real gold country and they'll be finding gold on this mountain a hundred years from now.' He winked and finished his beer.

I have been to the top of Rich Hill half a dozen times over the past two decades. From the top of the mountain you can see for 75 miles in all directions. There are parts of old wheelbarrows on the mountain top and piles of rocks and boulders that have been moved over the years in the relentless search for gold. You can feel the history. It's alive.

On one of my trips to Rich Hill, an actor friend named Dick Alexander accompanied me. Dick was a friend of Nick Nolte, Wilford Brimley and Michael Landon, the star of 'Bonanza' and producer of the 'Little House On The Prairie' television series. Dick had played a recurring role as a Catholic Priest in the series.

As we stood on top of the mountain, Dick was impressed by the grandeur of the place.

'This is real Arizona,' he said. 'You can almost feel the presence of the pioneers who discovered the gold here. The place gives me the shivers.'

I agreed. The mystery of Rich Hill will do that to you.


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