In Cochise County at the end of the 19th century, as soon as anyone struck precious ore – be it copper, silver or gold – a town was born.
Many boom towns hit bust and were deserted just as quickly. A few remain – Tombstone, Wilcox, Bisbee and others. The rest are now ghost towns, distant memories as faded as the sparse adobe walls, rusty collapsed roofs and splintered wood frames that pepper the landscape. Dilapidated and disintegrating, these half-dwellings are reminders of some of lives that were there before us.
This is a photographic journey through that landscape.
OK, Pearce is not actually a full-fledged ghost town. A few residents live there, and Old Pearce Pottery operates out of a restored historic building. The general store has also been restored.
But today’s town is just a sleepy shell of its former rowdy, outlaw, cowboy past.
In the early 1890’s Jimmie Pearce worked as a miner in Tombstone, Ariz., and his wife ran a boarding house. Tired of the grueling trade, Pearce uprooted his family and bought a plot of land about 20 miles northeast of Tombstone in the Sulphur Springs valley. Pearce raised cattle on his ranch instead of raising ore from the ground, but mining would forever be a part of Pearce’s life.
Legend has it that one day, Pearce was walking his land and threw a rock he picked up at the ground. It broke apart revealing a large vein of gold, according to Arizona Ghost Town Trails. Immediately, Pearce made some mining claims on his land and the Commonwealth mine was born. In 1902 Pearce sold the mine for $250,000 to John Brockman.
The mine was one of the richest, producing over $15 million worth of gold over the years. The surrounding town reached a peak of 1,500 residents. George Bravin was hired as constable, and he hired Burton Alvord as a deputy. At the time, Alvord was just a hardened lawman but after about six months Bravin decided Pearce did not need the deputy anymore. Alvord moved to Wilcox, where he transformed from a vigorous officer to a killer. According to Legends of America, Alvord partnered with Billy Stiles and together they roamed the Arizona territory ruthlessly robbing trains. With a murderous reputation the Alvord-Stiles gang used Pearce as headquarters for many of their jobs.
The Great Depression took its toll on the production of ore and when it was no longer profitable, the mine closed, the train stopped coming, and the town almost vanished.
Retirees and tourism keeps this small community alive. There is land to buy – even the old Commonwealth mine. It is for sale for $13.5 million.
Ten miles south of Pearce on Ghost Town Trail Road, an eerie vacant building looms on the dirt road, the remnants of the Courtland Jail. With years of overgrown vegetation surrounding the structure, a desert trail ends at the giant hole in the concrete that used to be the front entrance. Within are two 14-by-14-foot cells, each with a small, private attached room, which were bathrooms featuring indoor plumbing.
Built in 1908 after a prisoner tried to burn the old jail down by lighting his mattress on fire (the old jail was just a shallow mine shaft in the ground with a wooden door), this jail was state of the art. Yet it caused more problems than it solved, according to Arizona Ghost Town Trails. Courtland was one of the more popular mining boom towns with the population peaking at 2,000. The rip-roaring western streets housed two stage stations, a movie theater, restaurants, general and grocery stores, pool halls, hotels, a meat market, a car dealership and even a horse track.
The problem with the jail was its modern conveniences. Many of the miners and other workers lived in shacks and tents without a bathroom, so a place with running water was so much of a luxury that some frequent jail birds started calling it the Bright Hotel named after Deputy Sheriff John Henry Bright, according to Courtland Arizona: Law and Order by Glenn Snow. The jail also hindered road production and repairs. Courtland had a program that would lessen prisoner’s sentences in exchange for working on the town’s roads but the prisoners liked being in the jail so much that they refused to do any work and they didn’t care if they got out early.
Things were looking grand and prosperous for Courtland, which had one of the biggest copper deposits in southern Arizona, until one of the mines hit limestone about 300 feet down. One by one each mine hit that same limestone ridge, which meant no more copper production. A mass exodus followed in 1920, just 11 years after W.J. Young struck a claim there and named the town after his brother Courtland.
The only buildings still somewhat standing today are the jail and a few scattered mining structures. Courtland went out in true Wild West fashion – fast and loud.
It wasn’t until Courtland became a thriving town did Gleeson begin to shine. Many miners and native Americans had claims throughout Gleeson, about 10 miles southwest of Courtland, dating back to the early 1870s, but John Gleeson, in 1900, opened the first mine called the Copper Belle after he cultivated some of the deep copper ore.
Not as wild as Courtland, Gleeson’s population reached about 500.
In 1912 a raging fire consumed almost all the buildings. According to Arizona Ghost Town Trails, Deputy W.W. Gales was making his rounds one night when he noticed some smoke. He fired five warning shots into the air as he ran to the flames. He watched his town burn to the ground. This was just a minor setback though because copper was in such abundant supply in Gleeson, they quickly rebuilt and prospered, at least for a little while, again.
Once the miners could not extract anymore copper, the mines began to shut down and the people began to leave around the 1930s. The post office shut its doors in 1939. A few structures still stand. The jail was restored as a museum in 2008 and stands where it was built 98 years before. An old saloon is almost fully intact but is crumbling and remnants of the school idle in desolation.
There is so much sordid history within the walls of this one cabin that, although it was not an entire town, it deserves its own section.
The cabin is said to be one of the bloodiest places in Arizona, where some 21 people were said to be murdered and buried on site, according to Find A Grave Memorial: Frederick Brunckow. It is located a few miles east of the San Pedro River on Charleston Road, about 10 miles southwest of Tombstone.
Frederick Brunckow was a German mining engineer born in 1830. He emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1850 and started working at the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company. In 1958 Brunckow left the Sonora Company to start his own endeavor, the San Pedro Silver Mine.
Brunckow’s life came to an abrupt end in 1860 when his body was found in a nearby mine shaft. There were four white men among many Mexican workers at the Brunckow camp. The legend says that one of the men, William Williams, went to Fort Buchanan to get supplies. When he returned, he found the remains of two of the other white men, and eventually found the body of Brunckow a little later.
Only a few walls of the still stand, but it’s the creepy silence that makes the hair on the neck stand on end in this bleak, empty, isolated part of the world. An article in the Arizona Democrat from 1891 captures the essence of Brunckow’s cabin: “Many will tell you that the unquiet spirits of the departed ones are wont to revisit the glimpses of the moon and wander about the scene which witnesses their untimely taking off. The graves lie thick around the place.”