Ghost Town: Tumco


The late afternoon sun scraped across the desert’s surface spotlighting the rusted remains of giant metal tanks full of sand nestled in between the Cargo Muchacho Mountains along the Arizona-California border. I was drawn to this strange specter in a barren patch of scrub. Most of what remains of the Tumco townsite blends in to the landscape, and often times, only traces of the past can be inferred — a rectangular outline of fallen rocks that was once a building or the straight edge of an old road poking out from the sand. Though there are a few intact building ruins, what really stands out on first encounter are those enormous metal cyanide vats, rusted and corroded, falling apart, but still dominating the landscape, a metaphor perhaps, for the way the mine dominated the life of the town.

Tumco, originally known as Hedges, was one of California’s earliest gold mining towns. Gold was first discovered here by Spanish colonists as they moved northward from Sonora, Mexico. According to legend, two young Mexican boys returned bare-chested to their family’s camp one evening carrying their shirts filled with gold ore. These muchachos cargados or “loaded boys” became the namesake for the Cargo Muchacho range. Another version of the story says the boys found the gold while looking for horses or mules that had strayed. In either case, the Cargo Muchacho Mining District was established in 1862 and when the Southern Pacific Railroad completed the Yuma to Los Angeles line of its transcontinental route in 1877, the rails ran within two miles of the Cargo Muchachos and a gold rush began.

The old cyanide vats are the most prominent feature when approaching the site.

By 1880, the railroad had established a siding and section headquarters at Ogilby, approximately 2.5 miles southwest of the Padre Mine, and the Gold Rock Mining camp was well established. Historically, mining communities generally developed in three successive stages. The first was the camp, which formed immediately upon announcement of a major discovery causing a “rush” into the region. The typical mining camp was made up of makeshift temporary structures consisting largely of tents with some brush or log lean-tos and dugouts. If the discovery was substantial and the region continued to develop, the camp phase was usually very short, lasting from a matter of months to one or two years. The second phase of mining community development was the boom stage. If the mineral strikes proved valuable more permanent buildings soon appeared to replace the tents and lean-tos. Speed was essential, however, and no time could be spared to build anything beyond a simple, functional, unpainted structure, which resulted in a community of small, undecorated buildings that often gave the settlement a haphazard appearance. If the settlement continued to prosper, it soon passed from the boom period into the third or mature stage, with larger, more ornate wooden and brick buildings in the business district and residential neighborhoods.

Much of the site has to be "imagined" from the traces that remain, like these rocks that were once part of a building.
One of the few standing ruins that can be found at the Tumco site.

Walking through the site, it is hard to imagine a bustling town once stood here. Apart from a few standing ruins, the rest has been reduced to rubble and reclaimed by the desert. Yet, the longer I spend wandering around the site, the more it begins to reveal itself through traces of human activity. I can see the line of a graded road or rail bed, and following it, I come across the remnants of metal rails. I notice a group of rocks, and can just make out the rectangular arrangement that was once a building, and not far from it, there is another similar bit. A few old rusted cans half buried in place are likely artifacts. I am enjoying the feeling of playing “archaeologist” as I explore, trying to reconstruct the history of this place in my mind as I scour the landscape for more clues.

The surface ores around the Cargo Muchachos began to be exhausted by the late 1880s and the small-time prospectors couldn’t afford the increasingly greater expenditures required to pursue deep rock mining — only a large company or corporation could raise the capital to continue profitable mining operations. In early 1893, outside financiers moved to purchase and develop the mines around Gold Rock Camp from various owners who held title to the claims. A group of investors including William V. Hedges, of the Sioux City, Iowa-based firm of Hedges, Fuller, and Company, consolidated the Gold Rock claims and formed the Golden Cross Mining and Milling Company in April 1893. The mining camp of Gold Rock became the boomtown of Hedges.

Hedges was a typical mining town of its day. Historical accounts talk of rich eastern investors, unscrupulous charlatans and colorful characters in the raucous townsite and the mining boom ultimately leading to financial ruin. Although little can be seen of Hedges, during the boom time of the 1890’s, it supported a population of at least 500 people and the 40 and 100 stamp mills of the mine produced $1,000 per day in gold.

The company had big plans for their new operation including its own stamp mill and a pump and pipeline to bring water from the Colorado River. However, problems resulting from poor planning began to manifest as early as 1894. The forty-stamp mill had been erected on a low flat in order to have easy access to the numerous mines in the canyon. This was a logical idea for an operation with several main shafts but after only a few months, it was obvious that satisfactory disposal areas for the tailings and slag waste was not available at the site.

Soon tailing piles had filled the thirty foot deep gully on the south side of the valley. Newly installed elevators raised the tailings to a point where they would flow away from the mill. The pile of sand soon grew to ten feet in height and encroached upon the mill to a point that a bulkhead had to be built so the buildings would not be buried.

Discovery of the cyanide process for milling gold ore in 1887 revolutionized the industry. Simply explained, cyanidation consisted of mixing crushed ore or tailings with a low level cyanide solution that dissolved and separated gold from the ore. The solution then passed through zinc shavings or boxes where the gold reformed into a solid, allowing for collection of virtually every atom of gold from tailings, waste, and low grade ore. In 1900, Golden Cross Mining built a three hundred ton cyanide plant at Hedges, notable for the recognizable large vats used in the process.

Despite all the production — Ultimately, over 200,000 ounces of gold was taken from the mines in the area — the mining company was not able to make a profit. A combination of speculation, over-expansion and increasing debt forced Golden Cross Mining into receivership and operations were shut down in 1903. The town of Hedges, which was Imperial Country’s largest town in 1900, was completely abandoned by 1905.

The United Mines Company bought the old Gold Rock claims in 1910. Though all of the old shafts went down at least a 1,000 feet, they reconditioned the mill, hired a crew, and rechristened the town “Tumco” — an acronym for the company name (T)he (U)nited (M)ine (CO)mpany. But low-grade ore brought the enterprise to a halt soon after it was launched. By 1911, the diminishing prospects of the mines forced the miners and their families to return to Yuma, signaling the end of Hedges/Tumco as a community.

The Tumco site is easy to access on a short dirt track off of Ogilby Road, and there is some BLM interpretive signage near the designated parking area. The “townsite” is now off limits for driving, but open to foot travel.

A few of the old rusted cans that can be found around the site.


All text and photos ©2021 JoMarie Fecci/ Please contact us for any usage permissions or for further information about the journey or locations included in this reportage.