Dr. Ralph Fleetwood Palmer

By Tom Kollenborn

High on the west slope of Superstition Mountain, up above where the Mining Camp Restaurant once stood, is the waste dump of the old Palmer Mine. This silent dump denotes a bygone era of copper and gold mining history long since forgotten. The site is still quite conspicuous from many points around the Apache Junction area. Questions have been asked about the history of this old mine and what happened there on the slopes of Superstition Mountain many decades ago.

You might say the story began on November 4, 1875, when Dr. Ralph Fleetwood Palmer was born in Marquette, Michigan. Palmer attended the University of Michigan from 1894-1898, graduating in 1898. He then attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons at the University of Illinois in 1900. On December 1, 1900, he was made a member of the house staff at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. On June 1, 1902, he received his diploma and immediately moved to Arizona Territory.

Dr. Palmer circa 1935.

Upon his arrival in Arizona Territory, he stayed at the Halfway House, located between Morristown and Castle Hot Springs, just west of Phoenix.

He moved to Prescott in September of 1902, and from there, he moved to Camp Verde in December of 1902. He spent a year in Camp Verde, then applied for a position with the Bureau of Reclamation at Roosevelt. The position was post physician and surgeon.

Palmer moved to Roosevelt in 1903. Almost immediately after arriving at Roosevelt, he became involved in his first encounter with the Superstition Mountains. A group of Pima Indians refused to work on the road gang, because an old chief was afraid one of his wives was going to die. The two wives had been in a vicious fight, and one had a severe hatchet wound to her skull. Some thirty-seven miles away, Palmer was sent to Government Well to see what he could do. None of the road gang would return to work until the wives were better or had died. Palmer was able to save the lives of the two women, and, in doing so, he became a friend of the old Pima chief.

Chief Ash Nash Ni told Palmer he was guarding the secrets of Ain-We-Gophon (Superstition Mountain) and further explained that his wives would soon give birth to a son for him to pass on the secrets of the mountain.

The chief also told Palmer that his sons would guard the secrets of Ain-We-Gophon and would forever make peace with the Pima Earth Gods. This was Dr. Palmer’s first contact with the mysterious Superstition Mountain.

Palmer wasn’t sure there was any truth in what he heard, but he became intrigued with the mountain for the rest of his life.

Dr. Palmer had read a lot about the Goldfield area and knew it had produced a lot of gold just a few years before his arrival to this area. He dreamed of opening his own gold mine in the Superstition Mountain area, as he would do some years later.

Palmer’s first mining property in the Goldfield area was originally located by William A. Kimball, who had staked his claims many years before in 1886. Kimball had shipped a considerable amount of high-grade ore from this mine prior to 1900. The Buckhorn-Boulder claims were the oldest mining claims in the immediate area, excluding the Lucky Boy.

An Arizona newspaper reported on February 28, 1900, the following: “W. A. Kimball of Mesa is shipping some high producing ore from the Buckhorn Mine, two carloads being loaded yesterday.” The rich ore referred to was copper and was taken from a shaft some seventy-five feet deep. The old Buckhorn Mine is the present location of the Old Palmer Mine.

Kimball died around 1904, and the mine remained inactive until 1917. A group of Mesa entrepreneurs acquired the mine and, after extensive investigation, they decided to extend the old shaft to 120 feet in depth. The Buckhorn and Boulder Mining Company decided to initiate this work. The shaft was further sunk to the depth of 215 feet between 1917-1918.

During the summer of 1918, a “drift” was extended 35 feet to the south of the shaft and there, in an isolated pocket, a single specimen of ore assayed 882 ounces of gold per ton. (Drift is a general mining term, meaning a near-horizontal passageway in a mine, following the bed of copper or vein of ore). Many other assays ran more than 400 ounces to the ton in free gold.

World War I virtually shut down operations at the mine in August of 1918. The property then remained closed for the duration of the war, with an outstanding note against it for $5,000, except for the annual assessment work done in the name of the corporation. The property was sold at auction in payment for outstanding indebtedness in 1926, at which time Dr. Palmer bought the property.

Palmer made several attempts to finance the property and reach the pot of gold he believed lay just beyond the 215-foot level. It would require another ten years before Palmer was able to raise sufficient capital to sink the shaft.

Dr. Palmer organized a company to open the mine in 1937 and put it on a paying basis. Palmer and nineteen other investors, in need of financial backing, formed the Ain-We-Goph-On Tribe. The name was based on an old Indian legend about the origin and destiny of Superstition Mountain. The company was eventually known as the Superstition Sage Mining Company. Continued efforts by the company failed to uncover Palmer’s pot of gold.

Palmer was a dedicated and sincere man who believed there was a rich deposit of gold just beyond the 215-foot level. He and his associates invested several thousand dollars in a vain attempt to extract the gold they believed existed there.

The mining operation came to an abrupt end in December of 1947 when Enestro Jacoeo was killed in a premature explosion at the bottom of the 225-foot shaft at the Palmer Mine. Frank Hedworth, the hoist operator at the time, later reported he heard the blast before the signal was given to raise the men in the shaft below. This indicated to him a premature blast.

The mine was abandoned in 1949, but Palmer continued to do the assessment work on the mine for a short time. The old shaft was used as a well to supply water for the Barkley Cattle Company from 1950-1962. On many occasions during the summer of 1959, I started the pump at the old Palmer to water cattle. Recently, on a ride to the old Palmer Mine, I found most of the old dump obliterated and planted over. Often, when I look up at that spot on the side of Superstition Mountain, I reminisce about the history of one great Arizona Pioneer.

Dr. Ralph Fleetwood Palmer was a true Arizona pioneer, and in his book Doctor on Horseback, he tells how it was in those early days before statehood, serving the medical needs of early Arizona pioneers before the arrival of the automobile.

He was truly an amazing man, having once stood at the side of President Theodore Roosevelt, he was the first mayor of Mesa after statehood in 1912. He was instrumental in the organization of the Mesa Rotary Club and was the club’s first chartered president.

Palmer conceived the idea of the first real hospital in Mesa, raising some $10,000 to finance the construction of the South Side Hospital. Some claim he brought modern medicine to the pioneer community of Mesa in 1907.

His memoirs reflect his love, determination and efforts to help settle a primitive frontier and help others cope with medical problems. Throughout his long life in Arizona, his love for mining and the Superstition Mountains intrigued him until the time of his death in Mesa on December 17, 1954.

I would like to acknowledge Dr. Palmer’s daughter, Harriet McCarter, now deceased, and Nancy McCollugh, his granddaughter, for their kind assistance in making this article possible.

Profile map of the Palmer Mine (Boulder-Buckhorn Mine) and also the Kimball Mine.

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