Friday, December 04, 2009

White Hills Is Dead

During the early days of the West, most Indian tribes were aware of the location of numerous gold and silver deposits which so aroused the stupidity of the white man.
From observing the metamorphosis that came over the palefaces at the sight of precious metal, the Indian knew, with a primitive omniscience, that the revelation of these secret places of the desert could only bring disaster to him and his people.
A notable exception to this rule was a certain Hulapi Indian named Jeff who, in the early 1890's, made his home in the bleak and rugged desert region a few miles south of the Colorado River, in what was then Arizona Territory.
In exchange for some trifling trinket, he led a white friend to an outcropping of silver so rich as to be almost unbelievable. The fears of the Tribal Elders were soon justified, because within a few short months, literally thousands of white men were crawling over the hills like ants around a honey jar. The booming town of White Hills, which sprang overnight, became a crossroads and a Mecca for, it seemed, all the lawless drifters of the west.
No water at all was available at this remote camp, and by the time it was freighted in by mule or ox team, the price of a glass of water was very nearly equal to that of whiskey, of which there never seemed enough.
Saloons and gaming houses operated continuously around the clock; the sound of gunfire in the streets was heard so frequently that the little cemetery on the edge of town began to rival that of the notorious Tombstone, far to the south.
Like so many other boom towns of the day, White Hills burned itself out in a few short years. Little is left today. Half a dozen tottering frame buildings, mounds of tin cans crumbling with rust, tons of broken glass bottles and pock-marked slopes of the mountain backdrop forming a natural amphitheater, are the only indications that a city once stood here.
Two cemeteries remain, but many open graves show, that on the whole, even the dead have abandoned the place. A couple of miles up in the hills stands a huge, empty reservoir, which the promoters of the town believed, would supply the water needs of the people. The reservoir was never filled !
On highway 93, about 30 miles south of Boulder Dam, an Arizona Historical Monument points to the dirt track which leads to White Hills, eight miles to the north. The setting up of this monument spelled out the final demise of this old town. With their attention thus called to a hitherto forgotten village, thousands of tourists have, out of curiosity, negotiated the dusty desert road to visit the site and, finding it totally unguarded, they helped themselves to what ever they desired. All that was useless to them they have wantonly destroyed.
When I visited White Hills in the spring of 1963, seven old frame structures were still standing near what was the center of town. Two others were in a state of total collapse, with rotting timbers still lying where they had fallen.
Six carloads of tourists were poking around in the ruins, mostly people from out of state. They stared with undisguised interest as my business-like jeep passed them, but I continued on to the upper reaches of the town where I could have some solitude. Here, on the steep slopes of the hills, were many foundations and "basement holes" of long-vanished buildings. That some has been saloons there could be no doubt, because tons of fragmented pieces of blue and purple glass littered the ground.
This area had been thoroughly dug up by bottle and souvenir hunters. I found horse shoes, a beautiful mother-of-pearl button from a woman's dress and the broken glass lid of lady's powder box bearing the words "Wellman Peck & Co San Francisco Melrose Brand", within a geometrical heart design.
Seeing that it was practically useless to dig among the broken shards of glass, I moved over to the foundations of the buildings, I uncovered a perfect jewel of an off-white pottery bottle, in the pint size, such as was imported from the British Isles in the 1870's.
Made by hand, with the aid of a potter's wheel, it is said that these cheapest of bottles of the day were often shipped from England as ballast in the holds of sailing vessels, sold and filled with potables at San Francisco or Los Angeles, and then distributed to all the mining camps and outposts of the West. More durable than glass bottles, they were frequently used over and over again, after being drained of their first contents.
This specimen, I deduced, may have been in use at the free-lunch counter of a saloon and may have served as a container for catsup or meat sauce. The half-inch segments of bone I found in the soil were the "round bones" from innumerable steaks or roasts of beef that the saloon keeper had set out for his hungry customers. On the other hand, this old earthen bottle may have been simply drained of its original ale or beer by a thirsty miner and then cast onto the bare earth floor where it eventually became buried in sawdust and refuse.
After lunch I took my jeep into the hills, following the old wagon roads to the mines. Steep and narrow, these roads, cut from the precipitous sides of the mountain, had not been used for years. Every few yards, deep mine shafts opened beside the road wit flat, wide built-up areas of tailing from the shaft falling off steeply into the ravine.
These "glory holes" were excavated at forty-five or sixty degree angles into the hillside. Some even had wooden steps sloping to the floor of the tunnel which, after 60 years or more, were still in very good condition.
By the time I returned to the town, the horde of tourists had departed and I was able to examine the buildings more closely. Most were large, frame structures, some with basements, and located at the center of town as they were, they had housed business establishments of various kinds. They had been more solidly constructed than the rude miners' cabins in the residential areas and for that reason they had better withstood the ravages of time.
In the rear of one of these skeleton structures was a large, leveled area surrounded by a neat rectangle of loosely laid desert stones serving as a low retaining wall. This had been a courtyard and was originally fenced with the slender, thorny withes of the ocatillo. Stables and other structures may once have been within the enclosure, but if so, not a sign of them remained.
Some distance below town, an almost obliterated dirt track led me to one of the town's two cemeteries. In this desolate scene, two things stood out above all the rest. First each grave had been piled high with heavy boulders, which gave the impression of a platform raised several feet above the desert. Secondly, nearly every one of the graves had been opened and the coffins removed. These gaping holes were extremely depressing, for I pictured the work of ghouls and body-snatcher pilfering the graves of the unresisting dead. Later, of course, I discovered a much more prosaic reason for the seeming vandalism. After the town had been completely abandoned, many relatives of the deceased had moved the remains of their loved ones to more congenial climates. The laborers did not trouble to refill the empty graves.
White Hills is not only a ghost town, it is a dead town ! While I could see the dim trails, shaky frame houses and dozens of foundations, and although the tin-can dumps, mounds of colored glass and abandoned mining equipment were abundant evidence of a once thriving community, I sensed no specters of the past walking, invisibly, by my side.
The freshly bull-dozed roads of encroaching real estate developments seemed to be severing all ties with the past and the locust-hordes of tourists, with their blinking camera shutters, were enough to alienate the most nostalgic ghost.
The very bones of the dead had shaken off the dust of the desert and had left their open grave pits to stare at the empty sky.

Dad's trip to White Hills, Arizona in 1963 as told by himself (1919 - 2005 )


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