Vulture City Ghost Town

AZ's Two Best Ghost Towns
by Richard Maack,
Arizona Highways Photography Editor

Saloon doors creak. Swirling dust devils dance along a lonely street lined with boarded up storefronts. On a forsaken plain below a range of mountains, a dying town provides the romantic backdrop for a lone cowboy riding along the isolated settlement's 1 main street. Tumbleweeds scatter in the wind, and somewhere, off in the distance, a coyote howls.

The ghost town.

Or rather, Hollywood's version of the ghost town as popularized in the collective imagination through countless Western movies.

Like many romantic visions of the Old West, the reality of ghost towns is much more prosaic, but often, no less dramatic.

For the most part, Arizona's ghost towns are connected to the state's mining heritage. Where minerals were found and mines established, towns sprang up. Sometimes the strikes were rich and towns nearby became large and prosperous. Tombstone. Bisbee. Jerome. Other mining claims played out quickly and the few ramshackle buildings attached to them vanished, often without a trace.

Even the most successful mines eventually reach a point where the expense of extracting their riches exceeds the possible monetary return from the sale of the minerals. The mining claims that fueled Tombstone's prosperity provide a classic example. Although plenty of silver still exists under the town, the cost of wresting it from the ground became prohibitive when groundwater flooded the mines in the late 1880s. Numerous attempts to pump the water out were attempted and all failed. Losing the mines doomed Tombstone to a long slow decline and near-ghost town status before Old West legend and tourism finally saved its economy.

Arizona's ghost towns can be divided into 2 broad categories: those that continue to maintain a human population, but have numerous ruined or historic buildings inside their limits, or true ghost towns, generally completely abandoned by their former residents and left to time and the elements. Each provides great opportunities for photography.

Historic towns like Tombstone, Bisbee, Jerome and Clifton fall into the first category. All were near-ghost towns at 1 point or another during their existence but have experienced a renaissance of sorts as tourists discovered their historic charm.

The second category of ghost town, those abandoned entirely by their former inhabitants, are judged primarily by 1 criterion-"buildings under roof."

Because 1 of the primary construction materials in Territorial Arizona was adobe brick (essentially mud and straw formed into a block and dried in the sun), when a building lost its roof, the adobe walls would quickly break down. Adobe bricks exposed to the elements can melt away almost entirely in just a few decades. However, adobe protected by a roof can maintain structural soundness over a long period of time.

The number of buildings still standing is important in judging the real "ghost town experience." After all, a ghost town should still look something like a "town." There are very few uninhabited ghost towns left in the American West with large numbers of buildings still under roof. Arizona is lucky to have 2 of the best, Vulture city near Wickenburg, and Ruby, southwest of Tucson.

One of finest true ghost towns in the American West, Vulture city grew up around the mine discovered by Henry Wickenburg. Twelve miles southwest of the city that now bears Wickenburg's name, the Vulture Mine and Vulture city once had a population of almost 5,000 souls. Its history was marked by violence and tragedy. Eighteen of Vulture city's former residents swung to eternity at the end of a hangman's noose dangling from the branches of the ancient ironwood tree that still thrives next to the ruins of Henry Wickenburg's old cabin. More died in robberies or through many other acts of terminal lawlessness. A few of those souls are said to haunt the many buildings of the decaying town.

The Vulture Mine and surrounding buildings are privately owned, and temporarily closed.

Located 18 miles west of Nogales and just a few miles north of the Arizona-Mexico border, Ruby began life as Montana Camp, a mining outpost below Montana Peak in the Atascosa Mountains. In the 1870s, when a rich vein of silver was discovered, mining began in earnest in the area. In 1916, when the owner of the local general store sent in an application for a U.S. Post Office for the growing municipality, he used his wife's name on the application for the name of the town. When the license was granted it was issued in the name of "Ruby, Arizona."

Ruby continued as an active mining camp until the early 1940s when the mines played out and the town was abandoned. Also privately owned, Ruby and its many buildings are currently open for self-guided tours for a small fee. There are quite a few other ghost towns of note in Arizona, too many to mention here. A good source for more information on their locations and state of preservation can be found in the Arizona Highways book, Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps by Phillip Varney.