The Experience Arizona Memory Project: Gunfire at Copper Creek (Late 1980s)
By Matt Marine (with Bill Wittke, Ron Tietje, Jim Hanson)
Gunfire echoed off the sides of the canyon. The four of us immediately stopped and turned our heads in disbelief toward the source of the shots. They were coming from the road above us where we had heard the sound of vehicle engines just moments before.
When the gunfire stopped, we yelled at the top of our lungs to let them know there were people camping in the area and they shouldn't be blindly shooting into the canyon. Either they didn't hear us or they ignored our pleas because they kept on shooting.
In between the gunshots and the roar of engines, we also heard shouting from above us. The shooting didn't appear to be at us, but more in a drunken celebration. Great. Big time partiers. And it wasn't even dinner time yet. The vehicles and intermittent gunfire kept coming closer as they inched their way down toward our camping spot next to the Sibley mansion.
Maybe they couldn't hear our shouts. I took my trusty AK-47 and emptied a clip into the water (away from the people coming down the hill). It didn't help. They kept on shooting.
"Shit!" someone said. "Those assholes aren't going to stop."
We took cover behind our vehicles. Their voices grew louder as they came down the hillside. We yelled at them again. No response. Due to the thick foliage, we couldn't see the intruders as they came down the trail. We had no idea who they were, how many vehicles they had or if they were friend or foe.
"Load up," someone else said.
Each of us grabbed the weapons we had brought on our trip and began loading them to maximum capacity. The trail to the mansion is difficult and it took the vehicles a while to make it to the bottom. We made good use of the delay using the time to load all our weapons.
We heard the vehicles stop, but we still couldn't see who they were since they were a few hundred yards from us.
It was time to find out if they were friendly or not.
Camping at Sibley Mansion
A few days prior to this encounter, the four of us had no idea we would be ducking for cover as some idiots were blindly shooting down into the canyon we were camping in. Those with me were Bill Wittke, Jim Hanson and Ron Tietje. We had been by ourselves at the Sibley Mansion in Copper Creek for the past few days. This was a favorite haunt of ours with lots of history, places to explore and not many people (usually). We had come there to do some camping, drinking, and exploring in the late 1980s. I don't know the exact month or year, but my guess is May 1988.
I had my trusty 1977 CJ-5. Bill took his 1976 Land Cruiser. During this time, the roads out at Copper Creek were open and could be driven on if they were passable including many side trails to other mines, the road through the creek and the one we took down the hill to the mansion. Unfortunately, most of these have now been closed off. The road to the mansion was difficult and washed out. It could take a few attempts to make it up the steep hill on the way out.
But it was worth it. The area was beautiful. Tall trees shaded the hot sun, thick green grass carpeted the canyon floor near the mansion, cool water flowed in the creek. It was a small bit of paradise in an often bleak and cruel Arizona desert. But like many of these areas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it wasn't this beauty that originally lead to the building of the town and mansion here, it was the ore.
Copper Creek History (from the Copper Creek 4WD Adventure)
Copper Creek was not the name the original miners had intended. The Yellow Bird Claim company began prospecting the area in 1863 in hopes it would yield a large supply of silver. Unfortunately, copper was more in abundance than silver, so the area became know as the Copper Creek Mining District.
Even so, by 1910 the town was thriving and more than 500 people lived in the area. The town also boasted a post office (the foundation is still visible), more than 50 buildings and its own resident physician. Transportation to the town was supplied by the Copper Creek Stage Line.
Around the turn of the century, Roy Sibley and his wife, Belle, moved to the town. Roy was one the of the mining company's managers and his wife became the town's first postmaster in 1907. It wasn't Roy's managerial skills or his wife's postmaster proficiencies that would make this town famous, it was the home he built.
In 1908, Roy constructed a 20-room mansion down by the creek. It was built of stone and had polished oak floors, picture windows and full-length mirrors. This was one of the most ornate homes in southern Arizona and it was the center for social activities in the area. Rumor has it that the Sibley's entertained some of the social elite including the governor of Arizona. The high life didn't last long. The Sibleys moved out of the luxurious home in 1910.
In 1917, a nature lover by the name of Martin Tew turned the property into a ranch by the name of Monte Bonito. He also wrote poetry which he shared with others by leaving it on trees for people to read.
In 1933, the Arizona Molybdenum Corporation was mining in the area. It was at this time that the San Diego Union reported Copper Creek as a town that was crime-ridden and wild, much to the dismay of its residents. After almost another 10 years, the mine and post office closed after about 35 years of service.
The area is also well-known for a large ranching family, the Mercers.
Exploring the Area
We spent the first few days of camping exploring the surrounding areas. Most, if not all, of these have since been gated off and are now closed.
First and foremost, was the Sibley mansion itself. Although the roof and floors had long been torn up and taken elsewhere (wood is scarce in the desert and it was routinely reused for other purposes when buildings were abandoned), most of the exterior stone walls remained. With the rocky creek only feet away, there was no shortage of rocks. The walls were high and magnificent. The front wall (the one facing the creek) had two high towers at each corner making it look almost as if were a castle from Medieval times. The wall that spanned between the two towers had a curved spot for a bell in front. Wooden window and door lintels held up almost one hundred years of stone above.
Just across the creek, there's the old bunkhouse or store (I can't remember what it was). This is a large stone building (no roof) with three distinct rooms. The front had large windows, which leads me to think it was more of a store than bunkhouse, with the sides having smaller openings. I believe there was also a smaller stone structure there at the time, but I can't remember for sure.
The Ruins at Bluebird Mine
Near the town of Copper Creek, the ruins at Bluebird mine were 3-4 old wooden and adobe structures not far from the mine itself. There wasn't much left except the walls and metal roofs. Either these structures never had more than dirt floors, or the floors had been ripped up and carted away. Near the mine are a series of small concrete tanks and other concrete structures and a large "cut" in the hillside as though a huge circular saw had cut into the rock. Very cool.
Bunker Hill Mine, Holiday Inn and Stone Dam
I believe this area is still open for exploration. The dam was built out of stone and spanned across the Mulberry Wash. In addition, there are some old concrete walls that someone painted a Buddha on and wrote Holiday Inn. That's how it got the name. Above the concrete walls is the mine, with a good trash pile and small foundations.
Sombrero Butte Area
At this time, there were some trails that got you pretty close to Sombrero Butte which overlooked a big portion of the valley. At the base of Sombrero Butte, there are some old foundations and some wooden/stone ruins (the foundations are still there, the ruins are not).
We had a great time exploring the surrounding areas, but we also spent a lot of time at the campsite just hanging out. At night, we would drink cheap beer. Typically, whatever Wallgreen's had on sale at about $3 a 12 pack. We drank a lot of Old Milwaukee, Schlitz and Blatz. We joked that Schlitz gave you the shits, but that's not fair to Schlitz. All of the cheap beers made you feel like shit in the morning. But being young and healthy we were able to shake it off fairly quickly.
One thing happened during this trip that doesn't happen too often in Arizona. I got bitten by chiggers. These are nastily little buggers who like to go in at your socks or waistline and eat you up. They bites are very, very itchy.
What does this have to do with the drinking in the paragraph above? One thing led to another and while I was sitting around the campfire itching the Hell out of my ankles, I got out my WWII bayonet and began to slice open the bites, thinking I would bleed out the poison. Then Jim began to pretend to "drink" the blood oozing out of me (see photo). Yeah, sometimes drinking makes you do stupid stuff. But to tell you the truth, I didn't itch all that much after that, except for when the scabs were healing.
Black and White Photos
I also took a roll of black and white film to try with an old Nikon FG camera I had bought from a friend. This was my first time using black and white film. I don't think I did it justice.
The only other thing I remember about the trip is that we went down to the creek to "take a bath" in the cool water. There was a lot more water in the area back then. The stream flowed most of the year and the water was clean and cool. Of course, someone had to take a picture of the bathing beauties at the time. Tighty whities rule!
And of course, finding out that our picture was being taken, we had to oblige with the mandatory moon shot. Black censor bars have been added to the photo. Not to protect those in the photo, but you, the viewer, from bad taste.
Back to the gunfire...
It was time to see if those who had invaded our campsite with such audacity was friend or foe.
On the count of three, everyone in our party let loose a furious volley of fire into the side of the canyon, making sure the gunfire wasn't aimed at the intruders.
It was as if all Hell broke loose. The sound of semi-automatic weapons, shotguns and powerful handguns spitting fire all at once filled the canyon walls and echoed back as though there were a hundred angry rifles calling your name. The almost continuous fire lasted about twenty seconds.
The canyon was dead silent after our fingers left the triggers. No birds called out. No bugs chirped. I couldn't even hear the creek gurgle. It was as if the world was holding its breath.
We waited as the smoke from our barrels began to dissipate. After about a minute, we heard a tentative voice call out from the direction of the vehicles who had just come down the road full of rowdy arrogance.
"Hello?" It called out, barely audible above the ringing in my ears.
"Yes?" Some smart ass from our group called out as if we had just woken up from a nap.
"We wanted you to know we just arrived and not to shoot in our direction," he said as he slowly walked out of the trees toward us.
We must have been a sight to see. Four grizzled and redneck looking dudes with a plethora of guns on them.
The sacrificial lamb cautiously walked into our camp. We smiled and welcomed him in. He said they were just down there for the day and would be leaving before it got dark (I don't remember them spending the night). Then he looked at Jim's handgun on his belt and said, "Is that a .44 magnum?"
Jim shook his head. It was a piece of crap .22. Nice try.
He walked back to his camp and we didn't hear a peep out of them the rest of the time they were there.
"I remember it a little different. I remember that Matt, Ron and Jim walked to their camp."
- Bill Wittke
"Just goes to show you how time fades memories and people remember different things."
- Matt Marine
This was one of my favorite camping trips of that era. Great friends and an awesome place. It saddens me that it is now closed off and not accessible anymore, but I will always have these memories.
Photos From the Trip
The stone dam at Bunker Hill Mine
Wooden ruins at Bluebird Mine
Adobe ruins at Bluebird Mine
Wooden ruins at Bluebird Mine
Wooden ruins at Bluebird Mine
The burned out ranch as you came into Copper Creek
One of the stone towers at Sibley Mansion
Looking down on Sibley Mansion from the road above
Love those tighty whities
View from roads by Sombrero Butte
Green snot or algae? You decide.
Relaxing by the creek (front end of my CJs bumper in the foreground)
Rocks up near Sombrero Butte
Wow. Did we actually dress the same or was it for the photo?
Sibley Mansion at Copper Creek
Green grass in front of Sibley Mansion at Copper Creek
Coming up the hill from Sibley Mansion
Jim in Black and White
Jim washing some dishes in Copper Creek
Bill, showing off his chest hair
Relaxing at the camp site
The store across the creek
Jim pretending to lick the blood from my open wounds on my ankle
Ron at Sibley Mansion
Jim along Copper Creek
Bill's Land Cruiser coming up the hill near Sibley Mansion
Looking up the hill from Sibley Mansion. Were those corduroy shorts?
Jim and I at a small waterfall
Reflections in the water at Copper Creek
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