The crash and rumble of the ball mill has been silent for nearly a century, and the once bustling town is being reclaimed by native vegetation and wildlife. Ruby sings in the morning now. As a cool morning breeze turns into an unseasonably warm winter day, flycatchers (Pyrocephalus obscura) dart from oak branches, and mexican ducks (Anas diazi) make ripples on the serene surface of Town Lake. Mining is one of the most prominent threads woven into the tapestry of land use here in the Atascosas. Evidence of its impact on the local environment can be seen in the thousands of mine claims across the Highlands and in the unstable pits and discolored piles of tailings that dot the hills. The old abandoned cars and dilapidated buildings of long gone wildcatters sit silent, mangled by bullet holes and worn to ruin by time and the elements. In trying to understand the effects of industrial activity on the Atascosa Highlands, a look at Ruby can provide a sense of the many ways in which a landscape can be irrevocably damaged, and the more subtle ways in which an environment is capable of recovering.

           In the time when this was all Hohokam and O’odham land, people likely gathered the colored stones scattered around these canyons. Where chunks of quartz, bits of gold, and rounded geodes cracked open from the bedrock. In the mid 18th century, a Yaqui miner discovered a massive slab of silver near the Mexican rancheria of Arizonac, setting off a small mining boom that brought prospectors into the region. Fanning out into the nearby mountains in search of wealth, a few of these miners met success by panning for precious metals in the ephemeral streams or digging shallow holes into the rock. But transporting the ore and maintaining much needed equipment was a near impossibility at the extreme periphery of the Spanish Empire. Their work was made even more difficult by the O’odham uprising in 1751 and continual raids by Apache bands, which eventually forced the abandonment of these first mining claims.

            Intrepid prospectors would continue to visit the area after Mexican independence and the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. But the challenges facing their predecessors remained until the railroad connected this land with wider markets, and U.S. cavalry began patrols of the surrounding grassland, deterring Apache raiders and bandit gangs. Gradually more pits were blasted and dug into ridges and canyon walls. Small burro powered ore crushers gave way to large stamp mills and whatever gold and silver could be reached was pulled out of the ground and shipped east. Few struck it rich, and most went broke or moved on to more promising strikes at Tombstone, Bisbee, or Cananea. The living was hard, Carol Clarke Meyer writes,

            “A few of the men of the neighborhood had their own diggings, but many worked for others. Wages were small and money was scarce. Some families lived in adobe huts, but many had only tents or even occupied caves. Everybody worked hard but there was little to relieve the grimness of the struggle.”

Despite the difficulties of living in such a remote area, the most productive and destructive period of mining was about to begin.

            The key was a shift from the gold and silver focused mining that had dominated the Atascosas since 1736, towards base metals like zinc, lead, and cadmium. An old mine site near the base of Montana Peak showed great promise as a source of these metals, drawing the interest of larger mining corporations. The Montana Camp had seen its ups and downs, but through a succession of owners it continued to produce in fits and starts. Various owners had invested in infrastructure improvements and the camps mercantile was becoming a profitable general store drawing nearby miners and ranchers from both the U.S. and Mexico. In 1912, not long after Arizona Statehood, a post office was established at the mercantile, and store owner Julius Andrews became the Montana Camp’s first postmaster. The post office came to be called by his wife Lille’s maiden name, Ruby, and gradually this name was applied to the surrounding camp.

            WW1, and the increasing industrialization of the era necessitated the mining of lead and zinc and in 1917, the mining rights to this once meager camp, now a small town called Ruby were purchased by the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company. The mine was expanded and modernized, roads were graded and maintained to provide access to the railroads east of Ruby, and that same year the Ruby schoolhouse opened. Over 100 men worked the mine with their families living in the growing town nearby. But even this, turned out to be just another peak in a series of boom and bust cycles. The Company had another dam installed just south of town, but the rains didn't come, and without reliable water an operation the size of Ruby couldn’t survive. Goldfield shut down the mine and hauled off its equipment to more productive sites.

            In 1926 the town was purchased by the Eagle-Picher mining company, and in the midst of the Great Depression, Ruby saw a heyday lasting until the early 1940’s. The shafts were expanded, until the mine reached over 700 feet in depth and stretched out for hundreds of yards under the oak studded hillsides.  Word spread of Eagle-Picher’s success and more and more new miners arrived with their families, growing the once tiny settlement into a community of over 1300 people. The increasing population brought new pressures to bear on the isolated community, and for the mining town to survive it had to adapt. 

            Water availability was always unpredictable despite the numerous dams built over the years, and so the company commissioned head engineer Walter Pfrimmer to design and manage construction of a 16 mile water pipeline. Running from the banks of the Santa Cruz River through the Atascosa Mountains to Ruby, the water was stored in cisterns on the hill South of town. Incoming residents also required large amounts of wood for cook fires and buildings. Interviewed decades later, Ruby resident Joe Ortiz recalled that,

            “I was 7 or 8 when I started delivering wood. At the time there were trees all over the hills...We would cut trees, cut them up, and haul wood to people...I did wood before school and after...I made more money then the miners.”

            This constant harvesting of the oaks and ash trees around Ruby led to a decrease in tree cover, compromising the network of roots holding together the hillsides near town. Today much of what would have historically been oak woodland is covered in Mesquite (Prosopis velutina) and Desert Broom (Baccharis sarothroides) which thrive following disturbance.

            Buildings began to go up all over the valley at the base of Montana Peak. Management lived northwest of the mine in adobe and timber frame houses. The mercantile and a few homes were north of the mine in the Hollywood neighborhood. But the vast majority of the workers lived east of the mine in canvas tents with wooden floors and tin roofs. While many of the adobe houses and the mine structures remain, the tents are long gone, marked only by the piles of stones that served as stem walls and garden boundaries. Single men typically lived in barrack-like dormitories or rented rooms in boarding houses, and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the company rent, lived in caves carved into the hillsides.

            These caves also served as markets for illicit goods and havens for after hours activities frowned upon by the company. During prohibition, alcohol made its way north from bootleg stills in Saric and La Arizona and was sold to miners whiling away their paychecks in these makeshift gambling dens. In an interview with former Ruby resident Maria Reyes Marques, she recalls that,

            “They had these big tunnels around here and the men used to go play cards...That was one form of entertainment that the men would have. And there were women that would make tamales or sweetbread, you know, like turnovers. And they’d send the younger boys to go and sell this food to the men. And of course that let ‘em have more time there gambling.”

            The men who worked the mine experienced tough working conditions and long hours underground, starting with a ride in ‘The Cage’, a small elevator which dropped them down into the shafts. There was little air flow deep underground and so the mine was hot and humid. Workers would drill into the rock, transport loads of ore and debris, shore up shafts with timbers, and set explosives at the end of their shifts to blast out rock for the incoming crews to clear. Despite the obvious risks, no deaths were recorded in the Ruby mine. But the mine itself was slowly senescing. Ore became harder and harder to extract and the company began to wind down operations. The residents of Ruby began to find work elsewhere. By 1941 all operations had been shut down. The site was eventually bought by a group of Tucson businessmen, but their plans to turn Ruby into a resort never materialised. In the 1960’s hippies moved into the area and squatted at Ruby and other nearby mine sites, pilfering the buildings for firewood, before eventually moving on.

            Despite the challenges of life in the remote mining camp, Ruby residents interviewed over the years speak fondly of their time there. Maria Reyes Marquez reflected on how,

            “Everybody that lived here remembers Ruby because it was such a nice place to live, and they had such a camaraderie...they took care of each other.”

            Another former resident, Carmen Madrid Boltares said,

            “These were my best young little days of my life here in Ruby...It was very quiet here...that's why we liked it so much.”

One of the last surviving residents of Ruby, Tallia Cahoon Pfrimmer recalls that at 80 her mother,

            “Would still have lived out here if she could have.”

            Old photos show families laughing from rowboats and teaching their children to swim in these waters. But today, after a series of long dry summers and lowering water levels, Ruby owner Pat Frederick explains that the willows have begun to move in. Forming a dense ring, that blocks the lake from view as the cold night air sinks into the valley at the base of Montana Peak.

Ruby artifacts courtesy of Pat and Howard Frederick

            Ruby quickly peaked as the number one producer of lead in the country, the clearest evidence of this production is the 700,000 tons of mine tailings that filled in the canyon east of town. As raw ore was unearthed from the deep mine shafts below, a steel ball mill ran 24/7 at the heart of town, grinding the rock into the texture of beach sand before it was treated with mercury and arsenic to separate the rock from lead. This chemically treated sand is structurally and chemically ill suited to support life. The area was so featureless and clear of vegetation that Ruby residents even played their baseball games atop the sandy manmade playa. One unnamed Ruby resident remembered how,

            “We used to fish out of the lake, oh, they had great big fish. And when they turned the tailings down into the lake you could go down and see where the fish had died in the lake..It was sad to see happen.”

            Today, Ruby stands as a reminder of the complicated relationships between humans and their environment. The old buildings and piled rock walls have created habitats for a diverse flora and fauna. Currently 330 plant species of plants have been recorded at Ruby, with much of this flora dominated by disturbance loving species which have colonized the vacant ground left scarred by the heavy industry activity. While Ruby is a haven for birds because of the several small lakes formed by dams, the water is tainted by the leaching of chemicals from the extensive mine tailings. After nearly a century since the closing of the mine, it is this dead zone that forms the greatest ecological legacy of Ruby, and demonstrates the profound impacts that heavy industry can have on natural areas like the Atascosa Highlands. Ruby sings now that it's machines have all gone silent, but only a couple miles south the renewed sounds of industry cut through the still mountain air as panel after panel of steel bollard fencing drops into place along the US-Mexico Border.

        The town of Ruby, Arizona is privately owned by Pat and Howard Frederick. The public is welcome to visit Ruby and explore the historic schoolhouse and museum, fish for large mouth bass on Mineral Lake, and camp for a fee. For reservations and information please visit: