Captivated By Copper
Rock&Gem Magazine|February 2021
Soldiers’ Discovery Leads to a Century of Mining at Pearl Handle Open Pit
By Bob Jones

There once was a small town along Mineral Creek in Arizona’s Dripping Springs Mountains called Ray. Today the town is gone swallowed up by the huge Pearl Handle Open Pit copper mine, also named Ray. This huge copper deposit was discovered in 1846 and has been steadily mined since 1911.

The Ray mine started as an underground copper mine. Miners working the area followed veins of copper sulfides, chalcocite, and covellite, along with native copper and copper silicate chrysocolla. The mine’s initial discovery is credited to soldiers of the Army of the West (Mexican-American War), and this discovery caused others to prospect for more wealth.

When you look into Arizona’s well-known mines, it is interesting to note how many were found by soldiers based in this vast desert land. The best known of these is Bisbee, where a soldier picked up a specimen of lead carbonate cerussite that lead to the discovery of copper in the Mule Mountains. Not far north of Ray is the Magma mine, in Superior, Arizona, and another rich copper deposit nearby is the now mined out and once rich Silver King mine found in the 1800s by a soldier named Sullivan, who was part of a crew building a new road. The funny thing is Sullivan couldn’t find the silver mine when he retired and returned to Arizona. The Silver King was eventually found again and produced superb native silver specimens for a few years.

THE EARLY YEARS

In 1911 Ray was developed as an underground mine with, as I mentioned earlier, miners following veins of copper sulfides. Extensive mining eventually caused some collapses, and by 1952 development of an open-pit took shape. By 1953 the once vast low-grade deposit, now named the Pearl Handle Open Pit, was producing. Early in its operation, the discovery of fine copper mineral specimens in quantity occurred, and even today, as the Pit continues to expand, high-quality collector specimens are encountered occasionally. During those early days in the 1950s of excavating the Pearl Handle Pit, the first significant amount of copper minerals was found in a most unusual deposit just below the surface.

With the desert well-known for a zone of caliche soil just below the dirt surface, as water seeps into the ground, it picks up various minerals like calcium carbonate, iron oxide, and others, including copper salts. When the hot sun bakes the ground, the rainwater moves back toward the surface and evaporates, leaving behind the same dissolved minerals as a thick, hard, white cement-like soil layer called caliche. This information was all explained to me by Arthur Flagg, curator of the state mineral museum.

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