On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Lost Mule Finds Gold

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A lost gold mine is actually a misnomer. Any gold strike (discovery) or diggins' that has been worked and improved upon to the point of being called a "mine" is not easily lost. It might be purposely covered over or hidden so as to make it difficult to find, but not usually lost, at least not to begin with.

In most lost mine stories, what is usually lost is the prospector, maybe, even a pack burro that happens on to gold find (strike), it's then its location gets lost, due to one's being lost. That is easy enough to do in the ever-changing scenes that make up the vastness of the desert. Remembering exactly where the gold strike was can test the recollection of even an experienced prospector. Here is a little different twist to the lost and found gold mine tale.

In 1862, about sixteen miles northwest of the dusty town of Yuma, AZ, a wagon train of travelers bound for California camped overnight west of the Colorado River, just north of the Mexican border near the Cargo Muchaco Mountains. These small dark brown mountains are like a beacon of contrast rising up out of the white desert sand dunes.

Story has it that one of their pack mules strayed from camp in to those foothills and after a lengthy search, the mule was finally found. Lo! and behold, one of the travelers picked up a good size nugget right on the spot where the mule was standing—just like she had given birth! Naturally, that has to be the beginning of any subsequent mining town called, "Lost Mule" or "Mule Nugget".

Nothing came of the gold find until 1884 when a trackwalker for the Southern Pacific Railroad found more surface-gold and that started a real stampede of prospectors in the Cargo Muchaco Mountains.

After filing a claim, certain mining investors piped water from the Colorado River and set up a working stamp mill in the Cargo Muchachos. The mining site quickly grew in to a town of more than 400 people. Soon it boasted of having saloons and brothels, a hotel and its own post office. It even sported lectric' lights! Dozens of stamp mills were pounding the rich ore and rumbling the town. For a time in the 1890's the boomtown was the most important gold mining camp in California.

The growing community was run like an iron-fisted company store. Prices of goods were high and wages were three dollars a day, so every miner owed the company store. Boarding houses were shabby and the hotel came to be known as the "hog pen." Working conditions were very dangerous. In fact, the mines in the Cargo Muchachos have been called the most hazardous in the Southwest. Cave-ins and fires were common, claiming the lives of numerous miners.

But, if life was hazardous in the mines, it wasn't much safer in the town saloons. In December of 1895, two drunken miners were gunned down in Wilson's Saloon. The next year it was the scene of a fight over a prostitute and another man was shot and killed. The presence of a local constable seemed to compound the problem. Sheriffs shot and killed two miners in what was termed "self-defense." All told, nearly a dozen men were shot to death over a period of five years.

In search of good ore the mine shafts were dug down a thousand feet but by1896 the production of the mines consisted of low-grade ore and profits were dwindling. By 1905 mining had ceased and by 1910, the once booming mining town became a ghost town.

So what is the name of what was once San Diego County's toughest mining camp? Well it is not the "Lost Mule" or "Mule Nugget", that would have been too colorful and memorable—plus mules don't get no respect—no how. Over the years, there were several working mines. It seems that the most productive mining operation in the Cargo Muchachos Mountains was the "American Girl Mine". Such prestige made it the most worthy of historical respect. In fact, to this day it is still the main site of any gold mining activity in the area. Imagine! The toughest camp ever in the history of San Diego County was the "American Girl!" Right? Wrong. No, it was known, and is still known by the name of its ghost town—Tumco! The acronym is as drab as "The United Mines Company".

If you take Highway Interstate 8 east of El Centro, California, you pass through the Imperial Sand Hills. As you look off to the left you can see a small group of mountains that rise up dark brown. These are the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. The mining town in these mountains was originally known as Hedges and then later changed to Tumco.

Today almost nothing remains of Tumco—except for a few old buildings in poor shape, a boot-hill cemetery, crumbling adobe walls and some very dangerous, collapsing, mine shafts that drop a thousand feet or more. These dangerous shafts have cost the lives of a number of inexperienced explorers and daredevils. So be careful if you go exploring and prospecting there. And, keep on the look out for a lost mule. If you find her, look closely where she stands, maybe she is protectively standing over a gold nugget!

© Ed Keenan

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