Swansea, AZ, was once a boom town in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was literally in the middle of nowhere but that was where they found the copper ore.
Estimates of how many people lived in Swansea vary, but it seems safe to say that, at its peak, about 750 people called the town home. There were enough people to support all the conveniences of a modern town of the day. It even had its own “electric light” company and, in some homes at least, indoor plumbing. After the town became home to families with children, a school was built and a teacher hired. The town even had its own newspaper, “The Swansea Times”. Not too bad for the middle of nowhere...
All of this was made possible by the copper mines and the confluence, in 1909-1910, of a railroad, a copper smelter, a U.S. Post Office and George Mitchell.
But first, in 1904 ‘progress’ came to the western range of the Arizona Territory when the Arizona & California Railroad began laying tracks from Wickenburg to Parker.
Seeing an opportunity, two miners, Newton Evans and Thomas Jefferson Carrigan, found investors and began to develop a copper mine at what would become Swansea. Within a few years, the two miners formed the Clara Consolidated Gold and Copper Mining Company, installed a large furnace, laid a water pipeline to the nearby Bill Williams River and installed hoists for five mine shafts.
Enter George Mitchell.
Originally from Swansea, Wales, Mitchell was a trained metallurgist who made his way to the United States in his early twenty’s and worked for various mining companies. In 1908 he became Clara Consolidated Mining’s president, chief operating officer and head cheerleader. His job was to glad-hand potential investors and manage the enterprise. The former he did well; the latter, not so well.
Mitchell expanded everything… the town, the mine, the ore processing, everything. Mitchell even changed the name of the town. When he arrived, the town was known as Signal and it was very small. But with Mitchell at the helm, the town grew at break-neck, boom town, that-wasn’t-here-yesterday speed. In the year after Mitchell’s arrival, the town boasted a population of 500, had a new name, and a U.S. Post Office that literally put Swansea on the map.
Soon after all this, the Arizona & Swansea railroad began operations, connecting Swansea to the outside world through its tie-in with the Santa Fe system.
But, like so many other mining boom towns of the West, the break-neck growth was too much and too fast. Mitchell had put more resources above ground than he did in the mines and in just three years burned through all of Clara Consolidated’s cash and credit. The combination of financial and management problems, along with falling copper prices, closed the mines. He declared bankruptcy and turned the mine over to the French investment group that was the primary investor. The group tried to make a go of it and even though they had a $4 million war chest they did not have the necessary personnel and the effort was doomed from the start.
When word of the dire financial straits spread, most folks left the bankrupt mines. Swansea was dying. The few hardy souls who remained and had faith in their town’s future were rewarded when The American Smelting and Refining Company bought the mines in 1914, rebuilt much of the town, and made rapid improvements in mining operations. The new effort attracted more people and the town grew. It seemed to hit its peak in 1916-1917.
The town, and the mines that supported it, survived World War 1 and the initial post-war years. However, with copper prices continually sliding, the town went into a slow decline. The Post Office closed in 1924. The initial shock of the Great Depression closed most of Swansea’s mines in 1929.
Swansea struggled on for eight more years but in 1937, there were few miners left and even fewer towns people. Shopkeepers had abandoned their stores long ago. The lumber yard and car dealer were fading memories. The school had been closed for some time and some towns people looted the wood. The children who remained went to school in Parker, AZ.
At the end, the company couldn’t make its final payroll so the remaining employees cut up all the steel at the site, loaded it all on the train and even pulled up the rails behind the railroad as they left. They sold the metal as scrap to recover as much of their lost wages as possible, divided the proceeds and went their separate ways.
It is said that American Smelting’s mine superintendent and his family, who lived in the only two-story home in town, were the last people to call the Swansea home. In 1941 they literally turned out the lights for the last time.
The remains of the town stand in silent tribute to the resilience of the people who lived there and tried to make a go of it. As it has passed through time, much of it has, unfortunately, dissolved back into the desert from which it came.
While the town site has attracted those who are simply curious, it has also attracted those who have an interest in preserving a part of our Western history and restoration efforts are underway. The restoration efforts are not aimed at creating a tourist destination but rather at simply preserving what is left of the town.
And even now, if you stand very quietly in the town site and listen with all your might, you can just about hear the hustle, the bustle, and the noise of the machinery that brought people to this place….
… a place literally in the middle of nowhere.
When arriving at Swansea, the first thing seen are the workers barracks. Each shack has two rooms that two men shared. In all, with the 12 shacks, arranged in two rows of six each, a total of 48 workers had modest living quarters.
The barracks were built in 1917 after American Smelting took over the operations of the mine. Built of adobe brick and covered in concrete, the barracks were designed to be part of the "permanent construction" in the town. Some miners preferred living in tents pitched in camp-sites around town and being able to move on at a moments notice.
Despite their age and the lack of ongoing maintenance, the barracks have survived both the test of time and the desert environment in reasonably good condition.
The deteriorated west wall of the general meeting room. During the week this room served primarily as a mess hall for employees but on the weekends it was used as a mess hall, recreation hall and, on Sunday morning, a room for church services for those who could attend. Swansea mines ran 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
The purpose of these cement structures near the remains of the main hall is unknown but they are proving that the desert does nothing quickly or, it seems casually. The desert is slowly filling in and reclaiming these concrete foundations.
An adobe home is dissolving back into the desert. The majority of the homes in Swansea had just one room that served as living room, kitchen, dining room and bedroom. For the well heeled, homes had two rooms, one that functioned as a living room, sitting room and bedroom while the other was a kitchen-dining room combination.
A company house built circa 1920. This was the residence for one of the mining company's executives. The home was provided to the employee and his family by the mining company. The house came with the marvel of the age (at least in mining camps)... indoor plumbing which meant no more having to go to the pump for water.
Detail of the plumbing within the company house foundation.
The stone foundation of a private (non-company) home. While some may interpret the wood-framed openings as ‘basement windows’ they were actually vents to let the air flow through the crawl space and keep the floor joists from rotting.
Entrance to the Swansea reverberatory furnace. This type of furnace was a complex and high-tech piece of equipment for its day and required highly trained operators. The furnace allowed the Swansea mine to process not only its own output of ore but to take in ore from nearby mines for processing.
Part of the foundation of the reverberatory furnace. There must have been plans to add a second reverberatory furnace to the site as this was dubbed "No. 1" but a combination of falling copper prices and the lingering effects of the Great Depression closed the mines for good in 1937.
Referred to as the "Dust Chamber," this 1909 building was the smelter that helped establish the Swansea copper mines and helped the town grow. The building imploded as the result of constant exposure, no maintenance and high winds.
The chimney base for the Dust Chamber showing the debris and roof girders from the building implosion.
A service pit for one of the huge the slag conveyors. The conveyors allowed the slag from the smelting process to be piled into huge mounds that are found around the smelter. At places, the walkway between the piles is only several feet.
Foundation of the main water tower for the smelter. It is said that this water tower held some 40,000 gallons. The processes used thousands of gallons of water daily which was piped in from the Bill Williams River. This water supply system was built well before the construction of Alamo Dam when the Bill Williams ran uncontrolled.
The concrete foundations of one of the mills at the Swansea mine site. While much of the town was built of materials that were conveniently at hand, the construction associated with mining operations was over-engineered.
One of the numerous small water tanks around the town. This one broke apart and slid down a slag pile, gathering rock and debris as it went. The smaller tanks were used to feed mining operations and the needs of the town. All of Swansea’s water needs were met by the Bill Williams River. The force of the running river was used to generate the town’s electricity.
Like many things in Swansea, how this light-truck cab came to rest here is not quite clear. Perhaps the engine and chassis were commandeered for use in the mine. Or perhaps it got here long after Swansea was abandoned. Swansea grew large enough to have both an automobile dealer and an insurance office.
The wood used to build the mining company offices has been completely striped leaving only the concrete slabs and this wood-burning stove. The dyed concrete looks relatively modern despite being almost 100 years old.
Swansea - The Anonymous Boom Town
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