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Picacho, the Golden Road

picacho2Picacho Road was once the dusty path to gold riches for over 150 years. Today, it is the main entrance to the 6,769-acre Picacho State Recreation Area, and provides access to the Bureau of Land Management’s Picacho Peak and Little Picacho Wildernesses, the inactive Picacho gold mine, and the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge along the Colorado River. Starting in Winterhaven and heading north, Picacho Road is 24 miles long, but only the first six miles are paved. The remaining 18 miles are developed mostly as a wide, graded dirt road, maintained by the County of Imperial. At times the road is rough, and while 18 miles of dirt may try the patience of any driver, a light right foot is recommended to keep your tires intact. Patience is rewarded on arrival at Picacho State Recreation Area, as the serenity and raw beauty of the area will shed any leftover anxiety.

The mining of gold at Picacho began unpretentiously. Beginning in the 1850s, placer and lode deposits were worked by Mexican miners and their families at various locales between the Colorado River and southeastern Chocolate Mountains, including what would later be called the town of Picacho. Legend has it that around 1861 or 1862, a young fellow by the name of José Maria Mendivil, seeking the next opportunity in life, came across a group of families’ placering for gold near the future town site of Picacho along the Colorado River. He was invited to stay and work for gold, but knowing that potentially richer sources of placer gold lay in the higher ground; he declined and explored the hills to the south. José staked several claims but without the means to develop the newly recognized rich deposits, he departed from Picacho, not returning until the 1870s with his small family. By then Anglo-Americans began arriving, investing capital and labor into the extraction and milling of the deposits in Picacho Basin.

picacho1David Neahr began construction for the mine a fifteen stamp mill overlooking the Colorado River in 1879. Although the mill was profitable, Neahr was forced into bankruptcy when a dishonest employee stole $7,000. Subsequently the California Gold King Mining Company, with former Colorado Senator Stephen A. Dorsey as president, consolidated the various Picacho mines and operated them from 1896 until 1906, when the Picacho Basin Mining Company took over. Dorsey’s company built the so-called “upper mill,” located just above Neahr’s abandoned mill, in 1897. This mill was specially designed to handle large quantities of low-grade ore and boasted the largest cyanide plant in America. The mill ran almost non-stop from 1904 to 1908. By 1904 the mine employed 700 individuals with a monthly payroll of $40,000. A narrow gauge train, the so-called Picacho and Colorado River, brought ore from the Picacho mines down to the mill by the river. During construction of the railroad, work halted when new placer deposits were discovered and workers stopped work to pan for gold. Work on the railroad resumed when the placer was exhausted. At this time the town of Picacho, which developed around the mill, consisted of some 2,500 citizens.

In 1908 the mill was moved to the mine site, in part because flash-flooding sporadically washed out sections of the railroad. The town followed suit, dismantling and rebuilding near the mine, thus ending rail transport of the ore down what became today’s Picacho Road. By September of 1910, the Picacho Basin Mining Company halted operations due to a combination of accidents, low quality ore, and interruption of cheap riverboat transport of the ore as a result of the erection of the Laguna Dam. Those who remained rebuilt Picacho the town where it previously was, by the river. Sporadic attempts at mining continued until World War II. Ruins of the mill, the machine shop of the 450-ton mill, and the boiler and tank are among the objects and buildings still standing. The total production estimate for the Picacho Mine during 1904-1910 is approximately $2,000,000.

picacho3Modern mining in the Picacho Basin was initiated by Glamis Gold, Inc., in 1979. Open pit mining commenced in 1981, and was phased out by 1998. Production of gold continued until 2000, with a total of 380,000 ounces of gold extracted. Notably, Glamis Gold was the operator during the mine’s entire existence, considered a rare feat from a mining corporation perspective. Tailings of the former operation currently surround the mine site, obscuring almost all of the diggings from Picacho Road. Glamis Gold deemed the mine “exhausted,” but recent interest in renewing mining operations at Picacho has begun. At this writing, effort is underway to determine the feasibility of opening the mine once again.

PHOTO Scene along the Picacho Road. Photo by Izzy Tihanyi

BY TOD A. WIRTHS