August 23, 2020

Harrison Yarnell and the Mystery of Rich Hill

“It was a piteous scene and remarkable in the extreme,” the Journal-Miner observed. Harrison Yarnell (for whom Yarnell, Arizona is named,) stood before Judge Frank O Smith a broken man. He was applying for admission to the Pioneers’ Home in Prescott—something reserved only for the destitute. “I’ve tried hard to keep from this,” he told the judge, “but I’ve fought my battle and I’m through.”

At the very least it was bitterly ironic. His namesake mine, which he founded, had yielded $12,000,000 worth of gold at that point. "All the money, however, went back into the ground in an attempt to find the big deposit of gold which he believed was to be found within a space of five miles square around the Yarnell mine,” the Hassayampa Miner described; but it was his attempt to solve one burning mystery that took his last dollars.

Yarnell Mine, Year Unknown
Yarnell’s goals were not so lofty when he first entered Arizona. In 1881, he intended to start a grocery business at the Vulture Mine camp. However, he soon found the Yarnell Mine and abandoned the mercantile business for the lure of gold. 

His results were mixed. Another bonanza was located by him in the Juniper Mine, but several ventures went bust. These two mines would produce multi-millions in minerals, but Yarnell sold both early on to investors for less than $100,000.

As soon as Yarnell arrived in Arizona, he heard a story that would consume him for the balance of his life. It occurred 18 years earlier, when Pauline Weaver, along with a group of pioneering prospectors, were traveling along Antelope Creek. When a burrow strayed to the top of a nearby hill, one of the men followed to bring the pack animal back. While tracking the creature, the man “tripped over a pile of gold nuggets as big as potatoes!” 

Besides the loose nuggets, there was an exposed, gold-bearing ledge on the top of the hill as well. Weaver later described that this exposed gold was “popped out of the earth with a knife.” The hill became known as Rich Hill and the one acre of pay dirt on its top yielded almost a half-million dollars worth of gold—a large amount of money in the mid-19th century!

Rich Hill and neighboring Antelope Hill, where gold was also discovered, became geological enigmas. How did this gold end up so high  (up to 1800 feet) above the surrounding ground? How did the loose pile of potato-sized nuggets come to be? Why didn’t the surrounding low ground offer such easy pickings? These mysteries would consume Yarnell for a third of a century.

At the time, it was thought that the loose pile of potato-sized nuggets must have been placed there by an ancient, lost river. They had signs of being in a riverbed. After all, they were all worn smooth. Yarnell believed that the Hassayampa River must have flowed over this tall hill at one point.

“Here is where the theory becomes startling,” the Journal-Miner reasoned, “for the Hassayampa is now a long distance from Rich Hill, and the bed of it is 2000 feet lower than the surface of the hill.” Still, if his theory was correct, it might become the biggest gold find in the state. He studied the geology of the area and hired some experts to find the course of this ancient, buried riverbed. 

He created the Old Channel Mining company and surveyed several locations where he thought the ancient riverbed might have flowed. “It [was] the object of the company to tunnel through the range” at the level of two springs located a half-mile apart. “Though a tunnel of a half-mile is an expensive proposition,” the newspaper reasoned, “it is estimated that the expenditure of $10,000 will put the scheme on a paying basis.” 

It did not. At first, the project seemed promising. Wash gravel and black sand were found which is often indicative of placer gold. However, no gold of any magnitude was ever found in "paying" quantities. Yarnell kept searching, spending his last dollars in this futile effort.

ALSO ENJOY: 1871: CB Genung Builds the Old Yarnell Road

The story of the first heavy use road to run from Kirkland to Wickenburg before there was a White Spar Road (Hwy. 89). It was built by Charles Genung in 1871.

How the ledge of gold on top of Rich Hill formed is still a mystery. If the rest of the gold vein was tapped into by the many surrounding underground mines, then why was Rich Hill’s gold so much higher in elevation?

However, when it comes to the pile of potato-sized, loose nuggets, it might be that they weren't a sign of river flow over the hill at all. This researcher found no mention of what might be the simplest theory: that they may have been placed there by indigenous peoples. It would not be the first time that ancients associated gold with the sun.

The Incas believed gold was the sun’s “sweat.” Perhaps some ancients noted the gold embedded in the granite on this hilltop and decided to place these large nuggets, (found elsewhere,) at the same location—closer to the sun, for some religious purpose. Perhaps Weaver’s men stumbled upon a Native American artifact and only saw the gold. 

And so “Harry” Yarnell found himself a broken man standing before Judge Smith in 1914. Yarnell refused to answer some of the judge’s specific questions, but he granted him admittance into the Pioneers Home anyway. Yarnell had employed a large number of men and brought great capital to Yavapai County and was deserving of the help. 

After space for him opened, Yarnell did not spend much time at the Home. He became critically ill in early August, 1916 and died on the 11th due to “heart trouble.” He was born May 29, 1854 in Colin County, Texas and left a widow and child in Phoenix.


At this date, 39 towns and places are described.


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Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/1/1914; Pg. 5, Col. 2.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 8/9/1911; Pg. 4, Col. 5. 

Hassayampa Miner, 8/18/1916; Pg. 1, Col. 4. 

What's in a Name: Yarnell

Arizona Weekly Citizen 3/6/1881; Pg. 3.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/23/1909; Pg. 6, Cols. 5-6.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 10/6/1909; Pg. 2, Col. 1.