This article was first published in the LOOKING GLASS magazine in 1992
The Great Arkansas Gold and Mineral Rush (Revised 2010)
first published in the LOOKING GLASS magazine 1992
Eureka, Gold! Gold! Gold! When gold is discovered anywhere the news spreads like a California wildfire. The expectation of quick and easy wealth gives rise to latent emotions in all people regardless of nationality, race, age or status in society. The love of wealth, the greed to obtain it, the excitement of finding it, depression after losing it, and anger at those trying to take it from us are some of those emotions.
Even the most primitive people recognized that the rarity and durability of precious metals made them special and highly valuable. Gold was ferociously protected by whoever was lucky enough to possess the yellow metal. Only the American Indians found no use for gold until they learned the white man desired it more than life itself.
Through the ages the search for or discovery of precious metals has inspired man to undertake the exploration of unknown lands, prompted mass migrations of populations, provoked terrible wars, and forever altered the culture and history of complete civilizations. The lust for gold is as old as man himself. In pursuit of gold travelers on the road to riches and treasure have found the crimes of murder, robbery fraud, and deception their traveling companions.
The discovery of gold or silver invariably brings a sudden rush of people into the region. The majority arrive at the scene of the strike complete novices having no mining or prospecting experience. The supposed experts who arrived earlier on the scene may not have discovered gold, but instead learned a thousand ways to fleece novices of their grubstake. The opportunists in the gold fields came in many occupations. Lawyers, saloon keepers, hotel operators, land developers, gamblers and prostitutes. Also flocking to the boom towns were thieves and outlaws looking for easy pickings.
During the great California gold rush in the 1850s, many Western Arkansas farmers were among the thousands of gold seekers who braved the dangerous journey west. Later those with a bad case of “gold fever” followed the rush to places like Lead Hill, Virginia City, Cripple Creek, the Black Hills, the Klondike, and gold fields in Alaska and Canada. These places a man could “strike it rich” or “hit the Mother Lode.” However most of the Arkansas miners did not get rich and slowly found their way back to Arkansas. In the Ouachita Mountains farming and the log woods provided jobs for most of the returnees. Still some diehard miners would not give up on their dream of striking it rich and began to prospect the mountains in their backyard.
Suddenly in 1884 one of the old miners in the Ouachita Mountains of Western Arkansas announced he had discovered gold in a tributary of the Cossatot River. What he’d spent years searching for afar was finally found within a stone’s throw of his old home.
This discovery, according to the story, was made near the mountain community of Brushy. The name of the old prospector is lost to history, but word of his discovery was destined to have a lasting effect in the Ouachitas. He announced the gold strike on the front steps of the Polk County Courthouse at Dallas the county seat. News of the gold strike spread quickly throughout the county and state. Newspapers across America published the news and within months, geologists were proclaiming the Ouachita Mountains contained untold wealth in the form of gold, silver, lead, zinc, manganese, and other valuable minerals.
In 1889, Professor J. Van Cleve Phillip, of St. Louis, proclaimed “This area of Arkansas may be the richest place in North America for gold, silver, tin, lead, nickel and manganese.”
This claim was later reiterated by several noted Geologists in and out of the state, all agreeing the Ouachitas are very rich in many minerals, including gold and silver. Most noted the type of hard rock mining required to extract the ore from their source was often not very cost effective. Still they predicted “it was likely someone would locate some very rich pockets of ore.”
By 1890, the gold and silver rush had begun to gather steam. Miners came from near and far to search the banks and beds of the clear, cold mountain streams for rock formations containing veins of white or grey quartzite. Intense searches were made for the telltale glint of gold, or the black, grey or green of silver ore. They climbed to the peak of every mountain and explored every ravine. Soon the cry “Eureka” brought back from California echoed through the virgin forests that covered the rugged Ouachita landscape.
In 1887, Captain Ward, a Confederate veteran, began work on what was reported to have been an ancient silver or gold mine. The site was on a mountain just south of Shady. He dug a shaft down 123 feet in the spur of the mountain, but abandoned it after striking poison gas. Taking his operations below the lead, he drove a tunnel 462 feet into the top of the vein and 518 feet under the crest of the mountain. The volume of tailings removed made his mine the most intensive tunneling operation in the Ouachitas. Although he was searching for gold and silver, he discovered an abundance of manganese and became the first manganese miner in Arkansas.
In 1896, construction was in progress on a new railroad linking Kansas City to the Gulf Coast. Its route through western Arkansas’ Polk County led to the establishment of what would become the town of Mena, Arkansas. News of the railroad’s route fanned the gold rush flame into an inferno.
The Mena Star, an infant newspaper destined to grow with Mena, printed in its first issue the news of a rich gold strike. For months thereafter another rich mine was announced by the Star, almost daily.
On September 2, 1896, Mr. Frank Moritz, an assayer, sent for a representative of the Star to view “some of the finest specimens of ore and ore bearing rock ever seen in this country.” Two hundred pounds of samples were on display at the Wells Fargo office in Mena. One specimen weighed over 78 pounds and was reported to be almost pure ore composed of gold, silver, lead and zinc found at a depth of only 5 feet. It was taken from a cone shaped vein having a point 30 inches in diameter. The cone growing larger as more of it was exposed. The ore came from near the Cossatot River. A mine in another area showed only free deposits of silver assaying 85 ounces to the ton. The Howard County Mining Company proclaimed, “In this area will be found the richest mines ever developed in the United States.”
September 9, 1896, Mr. B.F. Kennedy reportedly found pure deposits of manganese and much more in samples taken from a mine near Mena. He positively informs the Star that recent claims of gold, silver, lead, and zinc are not only true, but that the metals abound in Polk County.
Reports of rich gold, silver and mineral strikes continued to reach the owners of the Mena town site regularly. Mena’s land developers sent advertisements to newspapers throughout the world, stating that with the new railroad, abundant mineral wealth, cheap land, a wonderful climate, plenty of streams for water power, and forests for lumber, Mena would surely be a “rough diamond” of cities. The railroad promoted its stock by announcing that ore mined in the nearby mountains could be inexpensively shipped to smelters in Kansas City, thereby making mining ventures more profitable.
In the mountains east and south of Mena, new mining towns and camps sprang up almost overnight. Places like Eberson City, just south of Shady, founded by a Civil war veteran named Captain Hanesley. The new town featured two general stores, an assay office, a U.S. Post Office, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, a shingle mill, a water powered grist mill and other businesses.
J.F. Stolts and C.W. Houston, pleased with their prospects on the Cossatot River, announced their intentions to build a new town named Baby Ruth City. It would be located at Wiley’s Bluff where a small mining camp had already been started by a man named Toole. Baby Ruth City had a 24’X60′ two story hotel, complete with a dining hall and maid service. An attempt was made to secure a new post office for the camp, but it failed. Also planned was a large dam across the Cossatot River to provide a continuous source of water power for mining operations. Thomas Schosser and his son, while hunting in the mountains in October 1899, visited the new town site and reported the hotel nearly complete, the grounds all cleared and the area fenced with a new board fence. The materials for the new dam were being stockpiled on site.
The dying frontier town of Gilliam Springs found new life in the gold rush, its hotel and dining hall become popular with the flood of prospectors working the Cossatot Valley. This new found prosperity was short lived, for in just a few short years nothing was left. Today only a name on the map is the only indication a town ever existed there.
The most famous of all the mining camps was Camp Wilder (N34° 28.615′- W94° 15.196′) located on Little Brushy Creek near the west end of a mountain known as Boar Tusk. The area well known for its mineral concentration is by legend is where Spanish and later Mexican miners found silver and gold in the 17th and 18th centuries.
At Camp Wilder the most elaborate mining operations in the area were conducted. The unexpected discovery of an old Mexican mine on a claim owned by J.H. Wilder, led to his finding gold, silver, and copper in the valley. After failing in several attempts to free the precious minerals from the ores in paying quantities, he formed a new company, called Arkansas and Texas Mining, and sold stock in the mines. The president was J.H. Wilder, with Thomas Mahoney, Secretary of Treasury, and C. Petty of Marshall, Texas, Vice President. The new source of capital allowed Wilder to purchase the equipment needed to adopt a new process using a sodium cyanide solution to leach the metal from the ore. This precipitate was then smeltered, and nearly 100% of the gold, silver and copper recovered.
Camp Wilder became the first mining operation in Polk County to use electrically powered mining processes. A large dynamo provided the power for the mill, lights, and a large electric smelter. This smelter was located upstream of the now partially cleared area where an old CCC camp stood until 1941. This author has found a greenish slag from the smelter in considerable quantity in this area. The slag is very similar to that collected the silver mine smelter at Reymert Mines near Superior, AZ.
Other mineral strikes were announced on Fourche Mountain (N34° 41.584′-W94° 6.692′ “approximate”. There an old prospector named Dutch Bill discovered one of the richest gold mines found in Arkansas. Other claims there produced some quantity of gold ore.
Gold and silver was mined at Silver World east of Mena by Confederate General Heath. (N34° 31.141′-W94° 4.101′ location approx. Private land no trespass please)
In Montgomery County just east of the Polk County line, a prospector named Judge Orr displayed ore that assayed out from 24 ounces per ton, taking claim to being the richest ore found in the area. (N34° 26.027′-W93° 53.483′ Location never disclosed but said by old settlers to be somewhere between Slatington and Mosquito Gap.)
The Bella Mines in Sevier County near King produced copper ore containing some gold and silver that sold for $3,500.00 per carload. Several veins were worked in that general area, mostly in the steep banks of the Rolling Fork River. My Great Great Uncle Pleasant Brewer worked the Bella Mines (Circa 1880s) and may have been a partner in the operation. The main mine just north of the Bella Mine Bridge is now submerged by DeQueen Lake. (N34° 7.687′-W94° 23.554′) Uncle Pleas’ home place can be seen as a small island having a large Oak tree or two a little south and east of the Bella Bridge. DeOueen Lake is great fishing and has nice camp grounds near the bridge.
Antimony was mined in Northwest Howard County and a small town called “Antimony City” sprang up there. It existed until around 1910 then became a ghost town. Not too many years ago Jim Alexander, I and others belonging to a Rock and Mineral Club, explored some of the old open pit mines there. Last visit to the area clear cutting and plantation pine planting has erased any evidence of the old mining camp.
On the west branch of Carter Creek, SSE of Dallas, and Worthington’s “Golden” mining camp produced gold from three mines. (N34° 30.365′-W94° 12.702′) Ruins of Golden’s wooden buildings were still visible in 1989. The area evidently was clear-cut some years ago and briars and brush block the road to the mines. Grady Lawrence, an old timer living near Golden, reported (Circa: 1993) the main mine tunnel had been blocked. The road to the site is now closed with a metal gate. A few years ago, talk round Mena, rumored gold being panned from Carter Creek.
Near the Egger Community of Cherry Hill, The Helen Gould Mine also produced gold ore. N34° 35.199′-W93° 59.853′ The exact location of this mine was noted on an old mining district map. No copy of that map is on hand. Well known treasure hunter, Apache Jim Wilson once said he’d located an old mine NW of Pine Ridge on USNF land. A gold mining claim which sold several years ago and involved a lawsuit is located east of the Highland Community and is about NW of Pine Ridge. N34° 37.678′-W93° 56.703′ Coordinates from memory and pretty general.
Several silver mines were reported near Janssen, now the town of Vandervoort and a large lead and zinc deposit called the Towery Lode, was located on right of way of the new Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad just north of that settlement.
The Hatfield Herald reported a rich tin vein located on Blowout Mountain, assaying as high as 261 pounds per ton. N34° 30.841′-W94° 15.697′. (Note added 2011. This tin claim was once owned by W. D. Ashcraft, the Grandpa in my book “Shadow of the Sentinel.” Clues to KGC treasure are found on and around this mountain.)
Mr. John L. Sullivan, a worker at the railroad roundhouse, reported a gold strike 5 1/2 miles north of Mena. The ore vein was 3 1/2 feet wide and ran a full 600 feet that he could follow. Some of the ore from that mine was refined in the roundhouse furnace and produced a gold button weighing 27 grams from a sample weighing only 3 pounds.
Miners from the famed Cripple Creek Colorado Gold Rush came and staked their claim on Gold Hill. A Mena Star story relates. “They found gold so free in their mine that the ore could be roasted over an open fire, and gold buttons would fall free into the ashes, being almost pure.”
On September 30, 1896, Mr. George M. Craig, general agent of the Mena Town site Company, announced that an iron and steel plant would be constructed in Mena. The plant would utilize inexhaustible supplies of iron ore and manganese from local mines to produce steel. Adequate reserves of coal were nearby to produce coke for the furnaces. The plant, with all its associated industry, would require 1,000 men to operate. He predicted Mena would soon be a city of over 10,000 inhabitants.
The publicity hype over the mineral rush was out of control. Mining stock sold during the last week of September, 1896, for ten cents on a dollar, the money to further the mineral development in Western Arkansas. A written guarantee would be given the purchaser, stating that he could not lose one cent of his investment.
Glowing reports of new mineral discoveries continued to be published in The Mena Star. The description of mines and ore used every adjective in the English language to create excitement and optimism in prospective investors or land buyers. It’s possible, as was the procedure in other gold rushes, the reporters may have been given free shares in a new mine to make it appear very promising.
Some evidence indicates that a number of claims may have been salted using the “shotgun prospecting technique.” That’s loading a shotgun shell with small gold nuggets or flakes and firing it into an ore vein or porous rock. This would make a sample taken at the target site extremely rich upon assay.
The trade of locating mines and selling claims became big business in the Ouachitas. Several men sold claim after claim to very rich mines at exorbitant prices. Later the mines proved worthless. Of course, there were no guarantees of a mine’s worth. Only the value of ore exposed at the time of the sale could be determined.
Due to the easy come easy go attitude adopted during any gold rush, anything was considered a gamble, and fraud was usually overlooked in selling mining properties’. Often, even a naturally rich strike would play out.
(In another story I will disclose more about the salting of mines in the Brushy and Cossatot region. I will also disclose my research on the source of the gold and silver used to accomplish the deception.)
News of the Polk County mineral rush reached even London, England. The advertising prompted the firm of Abercrombie and Taylor to invest in lots and houses in the new town of Mena. Mr. George Craig, Town site Agent, A.E. Stillwell, President of the Missouri Kansas Investment Company, and F. A. Hornbeck, Land Commissioner for the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Gulf Railroad, agreed the foreign investment was “a good thing for Mena.”
Then in late October, 1896 the inflated claims of mineral wealth came to a screeching halt. Clark Craycroft, a judge from Joplin, Missouri, knowledgeable in mining and minerals, suspected something amiss in Arkansas. He came to Polk County, visited many mines, and personally took some 100 ore samples to Kansas City for assay. His purpose was to see firsthand what they contained. The Mena Star printed, “The results will be carefully watched.”
Soon the word was out to the capitalists in the East, Polk County mine owners had overstated the mineral wealth to be found in the mountains around Mena, Arkansas. The gold and silver was here, but the quality and quantity were less than investors were led to believe. This immediately slowed money flowing into the area for exploration and development of mining properties.
The Mena Star, which before boldly printed every claim made by self-proclaimed mining experts, printed on December 9, 1896, “Although no one can tell what mineral resources will be developed here in the near future, enough is known to establish the fact that no new country possesses as good of indications for mining as Polk County.”
Then on December 23, 1896, the Cossatot Mining and Reduction Company ceased to sell its stock. Ironically, the company’s general manager was Frank Moritz, the assayer who had released the first news about a rich gold strike.
A month or so later a recently opened jewelry store on Mena’s Main Street closed its doors, soon followed by the general store of Green and Lewis that had been in business barely two years.
The year of 1897 saw very little mining news until early fall. Then the mining boom continued with new faces in town. A respected mineralogist and geologist, J.F. Todd, said to be the best mineralogist in the West and a recognized authority on the subject, announced he found the area south and east of Mena as eruptive and semi-volcanic. He also noted it strange that geology books never mentioned the fact. He claimed some of the rock formations were no less than recent Mesozoic or possibly the Paleozoic Era in age. He found gold, silver, zinc, copper, and antimony in many areas, but indicated mining it would require deep shafts. He added, “The possibilities for gold in Polk County are nearly unlimited.”
On April 27, 1899, the editor of the Mena Star, in defense of his reporters and due to the backlash of the overstated wealth of previous assay reports, wrote, “Referring to the reports in other columns of this paper regarding the results of tests made on rock and ore samples taken from mines near this city showing copper, tin, gold, silver and zinc, we simply say that we give them for what they are worth, merely reporting what was given to us by apparently responsible parties. The gentlemen named are reputed to be honorable and responsible men. They have money invested, pay their own expenses, and as far as learned, ask no favors from anyone, not even proposing to sell any stock or interest in their holdings. They at least appear satisfied that what they have is genuine, and the public can safely afford to wait further developments, knowing that if minerals exist at all as reported, we will have one of the greatest mineral booms that this country has ever experienced. It is quite probable some good will come out of Nazareth or Arkansas yet.”
The gold and silver rush continued at a much slower pace for the next few years. The mines at Camp Wilder produced a considerable amount of bullion using their cyanide method. The headlines announcing the use of the new process at Wilder stated, “This beats the Klondike.” Four and one-half tons of ore produced 5 ounces of gold, 64 ounces of silver and 50 pounds of copper precipitate which was not smeltered. J.H. Wilder, president of the company, took the bullion to Mena for immediate shipment.
In 1899 Professor W.E. Soest, a Mineralogist and Assayer wrote a long letter to the Mena Star admitting that for years fraudulent advertising of Polk County’s minerals had given the area a black eye, but the fact was the mountains contained a vast quantity of precious metals. If the capital could be found develop its mines, the area would become known as one of the richest in the world. He noted several mines shipping gold and silver bullion, including Camp Wilder, the Silver Queen, the Gold Coin Mining Company, and ore shipped to Chicago by: North American Ore and Metal Company. The gist of the article was that poor miners could not afford the necessary equipment to produce the ore in payable amounts; therefore, mining here could not be developed to its truest potential.
Still Polk County had one more ace up its sleeve to promote its mines. The World Fair opened in St. Louis in 1903. The State sent a Mr. Carl D. Smith from Fayetteville to the area to collect ore and mineral specimens to be displayed in the state’s exhibit at the fair. Mr. Smith visited mines and quarries in the county and took his samples personally. These were sent to Little Rock for cleaning and preparation and soon were on display. The comments from knowledgeable observers were unanimous; the ore specimens displayed were as rich as any found in North America.
Continued interest in Polk County mining soon brought representatives of a Chicago Syndicate to town. They placed an option on the silver mines at Camp Wilder; the reported price was $300,000.00. The new owners formed the De Soto Mining Company which continued to mine Camp Wilder silver for several years.
The gold rush slowly subsided in Western Arkansas. The old mines ceased operations and equipment was abandoned where it stood. The author grew up in the gold rush region exploring and playing in the old mine tunnels. Many of the old miners were family friends and kinfolk. Mining claims were still being staked and filed in the 1950s, and manganese mines produced into the 1960s
It’s said the curse of gold fever is unbreakable, but sometimes it’s not so bad. The old gold rush never completely died in Polk County. For years diehards held onto the hope of striking it rich. Whole families spent years combing the mountains filing many claims on promising minerals. Today prospectors are often seen panning the streams and digging in old mine shafts and tunnels. Infrequently excitement percolates the community when someone claims to have found flour gold or a few colors in a mountain stream. Fresh stories of gold nuggets or a vein being discovered here or there are a topic occasionally heard in the local coffee shops. So most residents believe the metal is still around but admit it being hard to find.
As this is written a well funded company is developing a track of private land for gold mining operations southeast of Mena. A check of mining claim records in the Polk County courthouse shows some 2,000 gold mining claims filed recently. (1980-1992) Just a couple of years ago a mining company drilled a thousand test holes in a mountain near Brushy Creek.
Samples taken from some of the test holes were refined at a nearby mill. The author was present when a crucible holding a couple of pounds of concentrate from the mill was fired and produced a gold button about the size of a small acorn.
Everyone knows gold is usually found in igneous rock. Most geologists say there are no igneous rock formations in Polk County. So likely any gold found here will be mainly in pockets containing the remnants of ancient placers formed where the metal was deposited after being freed from its original lode by erosion of the ancestral mountains. These mountains, gone eons ago, provided the building materials making up the Ouachitas. This sediment formed the bottom of an ancient seabed. Heat and pressure changed the sediment into the rock that forms the foundation of these hills. The Ouachitas were created by folding and upheaval of horizontal strata caused by movement of the earth’s tectonic plates.
One geologist interviewed for this article believes the gold in the Ouachitas was deposited by hydrothermal volcanic vents on the sea floor of ancient oceans. This theory was proven years ago when the first submersible vessel reached the bottom of the Mariana’s Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Hydrothermal vents, called “Black Smokers,” were found spewing hot water containing dissolved gold and other minerals. http://ns.gov.gu/geography.html Sediment from the undersea geysers form volcanic shaped cones almost identical to those found in Arkansas at a place named “Spanish Diggings” near Magnet Cove, AR. Geologists claim miners mistakenly identified the ancient cones as “old Spanish Diggings” and so named them. The Lost Louisiana Mines worked in Pike County are an example of the ancient hot springs.
Some gold reportedly found in Polk County is a molecular form of “invisible gold.” This gold is in hard rock along with silver, lead, and copper. The Davis and Bella Mines in North Sevier County produced ore of this type.
If the price of the precious metals were to greatly escalate, it might be possible to make a living working certain deposits of ore found in Arkansas, but until then prospecting will just be a hobby for most people.
Prospectors who came with the gold rush may not have found a bonanza in gold, but many stayed, realizing just living in the Ouachitas is reward enough for most hill folks. The hidden wealth of Polk County may be in our lush forests, crystal clear streams, scenic hills, and the fresh air we enjoy. It may also be in the freedom from traffic jams, crime, and the hustle and bustle of urban living.
Miss Linda and I just enjoy prospecting, treasure hunting and being outdoors. If we ever hit the “Mother Lode,” we’ll figure out how to live with it. Until then, look for us on a mountain top or deep in a mine tunnel. It’s here, and we’ll keep still looking!
Still not interested? Then try some old Spanish treasure if you subscribe to those legends. You may find out as I did, those are stories are mostly hot air. However real buried treasure from other sources truly is hidden in the Ouachitas. For right now I’ll keep what we’ve learned about that secret, because nobody would believe it anyway.
By the way the Ouachita Mountains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouachita_ are the only major range in North America to trend east to west. Geologists say the Ouachitas are the oldest mountains in the western hemisphere.
They rise from the Arkansas River and host the two highest peaks between the Appalachian http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachian_ Mountains and the Rockies. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockies
Good Luck to all you miners, prospectors and treasure hunters. Hard work does pay off occasionally!
Hillbilly Bob with Miss Linda Brewer
Mena Star archives, Mena, AR
Arkansas Democrat, BIG Mac Archives Little Rock, AR
DeQueen Bee, DeQueen AR
Arkansas State Geologist Report 1884
Polk County Clerk Records, Polk County, Mena, AR
Oral History as related the author by old time residents of Cossatot River area and Brushy Creek Valley. Polk County (between 1949 and 2009)