In 1862, Henry Wickenburg, a former California Goldrush prospector, traveled with several other men to look for gold in Arizona. In 1863, he came across a quartz outcropping containing gold. A claim was soon staked and Wickenburg began to work the mine by himself. He named his mine for the many vultures in the area. Before long, however, Wickenburg decided he didn’t want to do the physical work himself and allowed other miners to work the Vulture Mine for a flat fee of $15.00 a ton. Soon, a community developed around the mine, which became known as Vulture City.
In 1866, Henry sold an 80% interest in the mine for $85,000, in exchange for a $20,000 down payment, with the balance to be paid via a promissory note. He moved northward, setting on a ranch site near the town which bears his name today. Another man who came to the area at about the same time was Jack Swilling. A former Confederate officer, Swilling was a visionary who seized the chance to clear out the ancient irrigation canals the Hohokam Indians had dug generations ago near the Salt River Valley. Henry Wickenburg helped to finance the “Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company” in the fall of 1867. The Ditch Project, which later became the Salt River Project, led to the development of central Arizona’s agricultural communities, including Phoenix, as well as providing water for the operation of the Vulture Mine.
By the late 1860s, the Vulture Mine was described as “the largest and richest gold mine” in Arizona. Between 1868 and 1871 the Vulture Mining Company poured money into developing the property and workmen built an office, dwelling house, and a store. At the mill site, they put up offices, a warehouse, a boarding house, and several other buildings. A 12-acre garden was planted along the river to raise vegetables to support about 150 men who were working at the site.
Though the mine was doing well, it was isolated and vulnerable to Indian attacks. In its earliest years, the miners were fortunate because they had little trouble, but that changed in 1868 when the Apache began to harass the miners, forcing the Vulture Mining Company to employ men to escort ore and supply trains traveling to and from the mine. In 1869, most of all the animals were stolen and in September, three men were killed. Apache raids weren’t the only problem at the mine, as many of the miners, millhands, and teamsters were known to be guilty of “high grading,” or stealing of gold ore.
By 1872, the mine’s principal ore body was worked out and during the financial panic of 1873, the Vulture Mining Company, which was heavily in debt closed down the mine and the mill. Up until this time, Henry Wickenburg remained a partner in the operation, though the company never paid on the promissory note, claiming that Wickenburg did not have a clear title to the property. Unfortunately, Henry Wickenburg would not share in the wealth the mine produced.
Over the next several years, there were several attempts made to reopen the mine, as several mining companies probed deeper and worked the old mine tailings.
The building of the Southern Pacific Railroad from Yuma across southern Arizona rekindled more interest in the Vulture Mine as transportation costs had been a major factor in the Vulture Company’s costs. Though the railroad was about 50 miles to the south, investors saw the possibility of branch lines and the future of the mine brightened. In 1878, in walked the Central Arizona Mining Company along with new workmen. Bn 1880, Vulture City boasted an 80 stamp mill crushing its ore, an assay office, blacksmith shop, several boarding houses, carpenter shop, cookhouse/mess hall, laundry, offices, saloons, stores, multiple small homes, a school, and warehouses. A new pumping plant along the Hassayampa River moved water along a pipeline to the mine. A post office opened in Vulture City on October 4, 1880, with Henry Wickenburg as the first postmaster.
Though the Central Arizona Mining Company had high hopes and predicted positive returns to its investors, they suffered management and financial problems and 1883 was the last year of major operations when the mine produced slightly over $210,000 but paid no dividends to its investors. At this point, Vulture City consisted of several stores, a Wells Fargo office, post office, school, and several houses. One writer of the time described the settlement as “a neat village” and praised the town for its free reading hall and Literary Society. In 1884, the Central Arizona Mining Company closed its operations and leased the property. With high debts, the company soon became embroiled in litigation.
In March 1887, famed Leadville, Colorado silver mining millionaire, Horace A. Tabor, purchased the Vulture Mine. For the first time in its history, the mine had an experienced and financially secure owner. However, exactly one year after his purchase, Tabor was stunned by the robbery of a gold shipment on the road from Wickenburg to Phoenix. On March 19th a gang attacked and killed the mine superintendent and two guards, before making off with a gold bar valued at $7,000. Tabor immediately announced that he would pay a $1,000 reward for each bandit captured and the return of the shipment. Territorial authorities also posted a reward and a Maricopa County posse gathered to pursue the robbers. Within just a few days, the posse tracked the bandits, killing one of them and recovered the gold.