Run for the Border - Part I
By Matt Marine
Click here for Part II
I stood on the southern side of the Huachuca Mountains and looked at the wide-open valley below leading into Mexico. It was amazingly beautiful. Large expanses of fertile grasslands intermixed with green canyons lined with tall trees. Behind me were a few wooden structures weathered from the relentless Arizona sun and summer storms. Equipment and remnants from an era long gone lay strewn about: an old stove, heavy winch housing, discarded fire bricks, rusted ore chutes.
My friend, Bill, and I had just stumbled upon this old mining camp – one of the best I had ever visited – on the last night of a four day expedition along the “Ghost Trail.” This famous road parallels the US-Mexico border from Nogales to Sierra Vista in southern Arizona. We had spent the previous few days exploring the ghost towns of Dusquesne, Mowry, Sunnyside and Washington Camp. This day we hadn’t expected to see anything as spectacular as this, we had just been looking for a place to camp before returning to Tucson the following day.
Little did I know that this mining camp would seem to vanish from existence and twenty six years later I would be leading another expedition to try to find it – all the time questioning as to whether it had actually ever existed at all.
Google Earth is a wonderful thing, and at the same time, extremely frustrating. Bill and I were hunched over my laptop searching the Huachuca Mountains for the lost ghost town we had visited twenty six years ago. I used my mouse to zoom in on a faint road. Only trees and desert grass. I shook my head. Where in the hell was it?
Every once in a while Bill and I would reminisce about that trip along the Ghost Trail that we took and decide we wanted to try to find it again. We both remember the ghost town or mining camp we stayed at during our last night, but neither of us could exactly remember its location. The best we could remember was it was somewhere between Sunnyside and Montezuma Pass, north of the Ghost Trail. We had turned off the main road near a bridge with a flowing creek where families were playing in the water. I remembered the road as being rough, while Bill remembered it being easy. Our thoughts on distance we traveled spanned anywhere from a mile to a long ways. Not a lot to go on. Especially since time can play tricks on memories. We did a lot of exploring back then (and campfire drinking). All those adventures seem to jumble together in my brain and it can be difficult to determine specifics.
In April and May 2014, I took two trips near the area (though neither was specifically to locate the lost mining camp). During one of those trips, I crossed two bridges just west of Montezuma Pass and memories from the 1988 trip flooded my brain. This was the area! I didn’t have time to do any exploring during those trips, but I took the GPS coordinates so I could do some research on Google Earth.
Once back home, I loaded my coordinates into Google Earth and … was disappointed once again. There didn’t seem to be anything like what we had seen almost thirty years ago along those roads. I brought up my Topo map and plotted the points. The trail leading north from the westernmost bridge led into Bear Creek, ending up at Wakefield Camp and Mine. Hmmmm. Wakefield Camp showed a promising number of square boxes (five) denoting buildings of some sort. I jumped over to GE. I didn’t see anything in the large flat area by the camp where I would have thought the buildings would be located, but there were also a ton of trees in the shallow canyon next to the camp that could easily hide some buildings.
Heading north in GE, I saw nothing but old tailings at Wakefield Mine. But on a trail leading east of the camp I found a large, white rectangle of a building. This could be it! My excitement was short lived. The building’s roof looked too new to be something from an old mining camp and I remembered seeing a post from a friend of mine (who is also named Bill) who had discovered a not-so-old trailer/cabin in the area. I looked up his post on the Offroad Passport Forum and concluded it was the same cabin (actually a mobile home type thing that had an outside log cabin type shell built around it). Definitely not what we saw during our first visit.
I contacted ORP Bill and asked him if he’d seen any old buildings or mining sites. He hadn’t, but he had been out alone and didn’t do much exploring.
I then looked at the second bridge in GE and found a road heading north from it. I followed it and found two interesting features at the end of the trail. It wasn’t clear whether they were natural or manmade (I wish GE had better resolution in these areas). The trail we found on GE, is not listed on the FS map so I knew we would be walking it if we wanted to have a look. I did a quick distance check: a little more than ½ a mile. Easy.
Ok, we had two possibilities, but what really bothered me was the lack of information on the Internet regarding this place. If there was a nice town with multiple buildings there, I should have been able to find someone’s trip report on it. There was nothing. Maybe it had been destroyed by fire or the Forest Service dozed it down after we visited the area?
Even so, my excitement was growing. I really wanted to make a trip down there and see if we could find the place (even if the buildings were gone) just to be able to say I didn’t imagine the whole thing.
Before the trip, I played the last card up my sleeve. I contacted Ernie (Toysx2) who I knew from an excellent website he authors called Arizona Backcountry Adventures. He also frequently posts his adventures to the Explorer Forum I belong to. He had found many lost sites in the area and was a thorough researcher. Maybe he knew something of it. I shot him off an email. His reply both depressed and excited me. No, he didn’t know of anything like I had described, but he knew someone who may.
He sent Leonard Taylor, who wrote the Trails of the Huachucas book, my email request. Leonard knew the Huachaca mountains better than most. Click here to visit Leonard's website. If anyone knew of this camp, it would be him. I also knew of his book. My friend, Scott, who is an avid hiker, uses it regularly for any hikes he does in the area. He finds it an invaluable resource.
Leonard contacted me quickly, but unfortunately, he didn’t know of any such place. He said that when he visited the area in the early 1980s, Wakefield Camp had already been leveled, only leaving the building foundations. Although Wakefield Camp couldn’t be the place we were looking for since in 1988 we’d found standing buildings, he thought it would be a good place to start.
Ok. I was set. I had a few places to begin looking. We set the date for the following weekend. Although I didn’t have high expectations in finding the camp’s location, I would end up being extremely surprised on what we actually would find.
Full-Sized Pictures From the Trip
Dusty driving along the Ghost Trail (1988)
Although there were a few buildings here, for some reason this is the only one we took a picture of (1988)
My trusty CJ5 going through a washout on our way to the ghost town in 1988
Me, posing near some equipment at the ghost town in 1988. Gotta love the 'stach and sneakers...
Google Earth view of the area I thought the ghost town was located
My Jeep in the plains near the border
Topo map of the Wakefield Camp area
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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