Early methods of surface transportation in the history of mining in Arizona were an important step in establishing the vast enterprise that enriched the state’s economy with towns, roads and other improvements.
Overcoming logistical challenges, including topography, distance, cost and tonnage, went a long way toward increasing the profitability of the mining industry.
Before the arrival of the railroad, freight was hauled by mule teams, ox carts, burros, camels and horses, while the stagecoach delivered mine personnel and investors to mine sites.
Additional forms of transportation included aerial tramways and inclines from mine to rail. Steamboats and barges transported equipment to mines along the lower Colorado River.
Pack animals were used in certain areas that were inaccessible to roads, including remote mines of Southeastern Arizona such as the Hilltop Mine in the Chiricahua Mountains, the Grand Reef Mine in the Santa Teresa Mountains and the Reef Mine in the Huachuca Mountains.
Teams of mules and horses transported ore to markets in San Francisco and along the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico to Kansas City, more than 1,200 miles away. In certain cases they could transport a month’s production of gold and silver from mine to the market.
However, that proved at times inefficient for base metals such as refined copper that required greater weight (150 pounds) transported to make it the equivalent value of an ounce of gold or 15 ounces of silver.
The use of 20-mule wagon teams was integral in the transport of coal and timber across Arizona. These teams also collected ore destined for refining. The total weight of a mule train including mules, wagons, water, and ore could average between 25 and 30 tons.
Pulling wagons on flat terrain, mules could cover 30 miles a day in contrast to horses and oxen that could average only five miles a day. But that method had its limits because of the low tonnage that it could haul over distances.
The early years of mining in Bisbee saw a richer quality of ore that offset the high cost of mule-drawn wagons. As the quality of ore decreased an alternative was necessary to cut expenses. The Southern Pacific Railroad’s arrival in Arizona in 1879 heralded a turning point in the transport of ore to refinement and market.
It meant greater speed and efficiency, and lower cost than traditional methods of transport. For example, it cost $6 per ton to transport freight by mule between Bisbee and Fairbank. By rail it cost $1.
Additional early means of transport included inclines used to transport ore from mine to railroad such as at the Longfellow Incline in the Clifton-Morenci District. The ore ran from the top of the Longfellow Ridge down to the ore bins at the base of the canyon and was picked up by the Coronado Railroad on its way to the smelting works at Morenci.
The Copper Queen Mine used traction engines to carry ore and coke from Bisbee to the smelter in Benson.
Although early surface transportation was later supplanted by rail and truck, it contributed to the expansion of mining during the territorial years in Arizona.