October 2, 2016

The Forgotten Ghost Town of Placerita

Old Stone Cabin at Placerita, AZ.
Since this picture was taken, the roof reportedly has collapsed.
There are different types of ghost towns in Arizona, depending largely on the ease of access to them. Ghost towns located on well-travelled roads, like Jerome, really only used to be ghost towns and are now vibrant tourist stops.

Then there are the ghost towns located on dirt roads that still might have a ranching community or even a bar, like Cleator.

Finally, there are the true ghost towns that sit in the middle of the wilderness and are only accessible by foot trail.

Placerita, Arizona is one such "true" ghost town and offers a colorful history of gold, goats and several killings.

The Founder:
The cantankerous founder of the town, Anson Wilbur Callen, quickly earned the moniker "Old Grizzly" even in his early forties.

The rush to settle the area occurred when Callen “'struck it rich' in July, 1884, while building a dam. He picked up about $350 in gold. One piece was worth over $200. Then, in March, 1887, he found gold worth $900, while completing a 5-mile ditch to his Placerita camp." (*1)

A newspaper report on March 28, 1888 spoke optimistically of Placerita's mining future:  “The Great Placerita Country, in Walnut Grove District – One of the richest and best portions of Yavapai county... It is everywhere interspersed with ledges of gold, silver, copper and lead, and almost every ravine, gulch and canyon contains heavy placer gold, and many of them are very rich. The placer mines have only been superficially worked, and that by “dry washing” process, although even in that way more than $100,000 has been taken out of the main Placerita gulch in coarse gold, some of the pieces weighing over a pound, and one piece containing $900." (That would amount to over four pounds of gold in a single rock!) (*1)

One man's account of the trials and tribulations of simply traveling to Prescott, Arizona in 1871.

The settlement grew, eventually obtaining a post office February 1st, 1896 until it closed August 15th, 1910. (*2) A business directory of 1909-10 listed no stores; only the post office and a population of 30. (*3)

On July 24, 1889, however, "Old Grizzly" needed to display a previously unknown knack for gun-fighting. (*1) It began when two of Callen's friends, Byron J. Charles and Frank H. Work had been given a claim to work by Callen himself. However, the once abandoned claim was only 1000 feet long and Charles and Work coveted 500 feet more. Callen explained that "he had partners, and couldn't deed it to them, even were he so disposed." (*4)

As time passed, the two miners continued to press the issue with Callen, who still refused. Ultimately, the two miners became irate. "Charles then suggested to Work, as nothing could be done 'with the old (SOB), let's fix him.'" (*4)

"Work then struck Callen across the neck with a club (and) called to Charles to 'shoot the old (SOB).' Callen said, 'don't shoot till I get a gun and we'll all die together.'" Charles refused to wait, instead firing two shots at "Old Grizzly" as he ducked in the door of his cabin. (*4)

Callen immediately returned with his shotgun. There he saw Charles leveling his pistol toward him. Old Grizzly quickly fired on Charles and then on Work, killing both instantly. (*4)

Callen was arrested and brought to jail by the legendary Buckey O'Neill. (*4)

Had he survived the Spanish-American War, he would have been the first Governor of the State of Arizona.

Eventually, Callen's actions were deemed to be self-defense. (*1)

According to Callen's family, “at least twice in his life he was a millionaire, but he spent it as quickly as he earned it." In September 5, 1906, Callen lost his mines, after his company failed. (*1) Still, mining continued for another decade until the vein was finally tapped-out.

Another homicide occurred on August 4th, 1895 and involved a dispute between two Mexicans. The loser suffered "the top of his head (being) blown-off." The survivor high-tailed it to Mexico, unpunished. (*5)

Such disputes among Mexicans were rarely investigated then and the motive for the killing is lost to history.

The Goat Farmers:
Another form of commerce in the rugged terrain surrounding Placerita was raising goats. But when some sheep herders invaded the area with their flocks, the "old settlers" were ready to go to war.

Instead of eating only the blades of grass, sheep will devour the roots also. In a desert climate, it might take years for the grass to recover. As a result, sheep herders were constantly on the move and where there were other animals grazing, the sheep were most unwelcome.

On May 10th, 1907 a "feud of some months standing between the Mexican sheepherders and the farmers and stockmen of the locality" resulted in two men being slain. (*6)

A local goat farmer named A.T. Meadows and a Mexican sheepherder came to blows when the latter's sheep mixed in with Meadow's goats. "There were four eye-witnesses to the bloody affair, and it is said that the Mexican fired four shots at Meadows with an automatic pistol," missing him three times as Meadows reached for his rifle. The fourth shot struck Meadows in the groin, mortally wounding him. Yet before he fell,  Meadows got a shot off "and with unerring aim, ended the life of his assailant." (*6)

It was feared that the feud would escalate, as it had in other locations in the territory. "The incident has aroused the Walnut Grove and the Placerita districts, and it is said that the end is not yet, as the farmers and stockmen declare that they will assert their rights and prevent further encroachments on their domain by the sheep owners, who are said to show no respect for the rights of the old settlers of the community." (*6)

Apparently, the warning was enough for the sheepherders to leave the area, as no further episodes of violence were recorded.

Eventually, goat farmers found that the area could not sustain constant grazing and the community dried up by the end of the First World War.

The Desperate Depression:
During the Great Depression of the 1930's, many local men revisited the old, played-out mines in hopes of finding some "crumbs" of gold to put food on their tables. At Placerita, men shoveled dirt all day long to find a meager seven-tenths of a gram of gold. This amount, barely enough to cover a finger print, would net the men fifty cents--barely enough to buy a meal or two for their family. (*1)

Placerita Today:
Today, a few recreational gold-panners still make their way to the abandoned site to try their luck, while in 2014, a Canadian mining company bought neighboring mineral rights in 2014 and is working the area today.

Tourist Tips:
How to locate Placerita:  "Keep in mind that some of the roads go thru private cattle grazing areas and ranch land. Stay on the main roads and honor any gates (keep them open or closed as you find them.) Please do not litter or trespass, so these roads will stay open to the public.

"Go east on Wagoner Road, signed to Walnut Grove, from Highway 89 between Yarnell to the south and Prescott to the north. After about 3.3 miles, at the top of a hill, turn south on Zonia Mine Road (signed).  Go about 1.5 miles and continue straight on Whitehead Ranch Road at a junction. (Zonia mine road branches off on the right.) Travel about 5.5 miles on the Ranch Road to a junction. The Ranch road goes to the right.  Take this and go about .5 mile, looking for the stone ruin on your right. You will see an overgrown, rough track leading down a hill to the ruin.  If you go another .5 mile, you will find a good track that leads to the right to a large camping area. Take this short road down and walk or drive back along the creek bed to your right about ¼ mile to the end of an old road. Cross the creek and walk about 100 feet on a faint trail to the ruin. If you miss the turn-off, a locked gate and active mine are about 1 mile further on Whitehead Ranch Road.

"Enjoy this ghost town site, take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints! The site is currently on Forest Service land." (*1)

For a pictorial account of one person's day trip to Placerita, CLICK HERE.

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(*1) http://www.apcrp.org/PLACERITA/1.%20Placerita.htm
(*2) "Ghost Towns of Arizona" by James E. & Barbara H. Sherman, 1969, University of Oklahoma Press. Page 121. ISBN # 978-0-8061-0843-8.
(*3) Arizona Business Directory 1909-10 (Part 6 of 9) - Arizona Historical Society
(*4) Arizona Champion 7/27/1889; Pg. 3, col. 3.
(*5) Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner; 8/7/1895, Pg. 3 col. 6.
(*6) Arizona Journal-Miner 5/12/1907; Pg. 4 col. 1.