Cordelia Kay sat erect on her horse as she inspected her mines in Mineral Park near Kingman. Belying her profession as a hard-rock miner, she was impeccably dressed, including a fashionable hat perched precariously on her upsweep hairdo.
Through the years, she had mined a variety of valuable ores including silver, turquoise, copper, gold and zinc. She was a respected member of the town that at one time boasted the largest population in Northwest Arizona – 700 hardy residents. Surviving two husbands and three of her six children, she had become not only a successful miner but also an astute businesswoman.
Born Oct. 14, 1854, in White County, Illinois, Harriet Cordelia Chapman was 4 years old when her family headed to El Dorado County, California, where she later met and married Lambert Collier Welbourn, almost 30 years her senior. L.C., as he was known, brought his 20-year-old bride to Mineral Park in 1874 where he had been prospecting for several years, even serving as Mohave County sheriff in 1872.
Mineral Park came into existence in 1870 with the discovery of silver 17 miles northwest of present-day Kingman. The mining camp was filled with hundreds of cedar trees that were soon depleted as prospectors flocked to the area and felled the trees for shelter, cooking, and warmth. The profusion of minerals in the water made it undrinkable, but gave promise to what might lie beneath the hardened desert floor.
Cordelia and L.C. worked their claims, heading out for the mines each day to toil under the sweltering sun in the summer and shivering winter winds that swept through the valley. An 1882 article in the Daily Alta newspaper noted that one Welbourn mine “carries antimonial and ruby silver, and is without doubt as fine a specimen as we have seen in this camp.”
Cordelia and L.C. enjoyed only a few years of marriage before L.C. became ill. He left his wife in Mineral Park in 1883 and died in St. Louis, Missouri, at about age 60. Cordelia became the sole owner of their profitable Arizona mines.
Shortly after L.C. left Mineral Park, Cordelia returned to California where she met Englishman John Kay, who was mining near Calico. The couple married Feb. 28, 1884, and returned to Arizona the following year to work Cordelia’s claims. One of the mines, the Setting Sun, produced a ton of ore in 1887 with other strikes quickly following.
In 1885, Cordelia gave birth to Elijah “Lige,” followed by twins George Cleveland and Cordelia Rebecca in 1886. George lived only seven days and Cordelia Rebecca succumbed 19 days after her birth. Lyon was born in 1888 and Lucky in 1891. The birth of a daughter in 1893 heartened Cordelia to name her Golden “Goldie” Silver Queena, incorporating much of what she hoped to accomplish.
It was Lucky’s birth that almost killed Cordelia and cost the Kays a fortune before Cordelia recovered. To keep the family afloat, John started the Pioneer Saloon promoting it as “the neatest saloon in Mineral Park” and a place “for a sociable game of cards.” Once Cordelia regained her health, she bought and ran a restaurant at the nearby C.O.D. Mine until the family got back on its feet.
By 1902, John and Cordelia were again mining. When the weekly Kingman publication, Our Mineral Wealth, credited the Kays with finding one of the most lucrative silver strikes in the area, the ore containing over 3,000 ounces of silver per ton, the article lauded Cordelia for her part in the discovery. “The tenderfoot may think we mean that she hired the work done, but not so. Mrs. Kay cut the fuse, bit the cap, tamped the powder and returned into the smoke to see the result of the shot.”
Cordelia had a knack for finding turquoise, called Kingman Blue, particularly at her Ostrich Copper Mine. The Mohave County Miner reported in 1909 that she was in San Francisco where she “sold more than $3,000 worth of turquoise. ... She recently entered into a working agreement with a company and is getting out the gemstone on a marketing basis.” When she sold part of her claim in 1912, it was reported she made a fortune.
Copper was the Kays’ next big find, with exceptionally high yields. Lige, Lyon, and Lucky Kay were now part of the family operation with claims named after each of them along with the Golden Hammer, Golden Horseshoe, Morning Sun and New Moon mines.
Cordelia and John made their marks with hard work and keen intellects. John died in 1924 at age 80 and is buried in the Kingman Mountain View Cemetery. Cordelia also outlived her eldest son, Lige, who died in 1930 at age 45.
Seventy-eight year old Cordelia died June 4, 1933, at the home of her daughter in Kingman. Her obituary noted, “Few women could have done the work that she did and lived thru the strenuous time.” She is buried beside her husband and son in Kingman.
Lucky stayed with the mining industry until his death in 1948. Lyon eventually left mining and died in 1960. Goldie, whose name gave great promise of the fortunes to be made, died in 1981.
As Karin Goudy reported in the Nevadan in 1987, “In an age when mining can only be profitable for big corporations, and sometimes not even for them, it is interesting to look back on the success of a small family mining operation. In many parts of the world it was considered very unlucky to have women anywhere near a mine, let alone inside working a claim. It is obvious that those parts of the worlds never heard of Cordelia Kay, the lady miner from Mineral Park.”
The town of Mineral Park no longer exists.
Jan Cleere is the author of several historical nonfiction books about the early people of the Southwest. Email her at Jan@JanCleere.com.