This chunk of chalcanthite was collected at the Middlemarch Mine in Cochise County. Photo by Keith Krizan

Early July is a good time to explore Middlemarch Mine on Middlemarch Road in the Dragoon Mountains. A march was defined, in medieval Europe anyway, as a borderland, distinct from a country’s heartland by geography and governance. Marches were established by kings and queens to form buffer zones. The title Marquis is derived from these areas.

My march to Middlemarch begins in Sonoita. When you crest the Whetstone Gap, heading east on SR82, you are confronted with the sight of the Dragoon Mountains. Hazy and light colored in the monsoon afternoon sun, they look for all the world like the mounted infantrymen for which they are named, with muskets and blunderbusses. They stand guard between the San Pedro River Valley to the west and the Sulphur Spring Valley to the east. It is not obvious from this distance where they yield a way through. 

Mustang Corner lies at the intersection of SR90 and SR82 in Whetstone. Two gas stations/convenience stores anchor the corners. One is modern and working, the other defunct and empty, a sort of ghost town. 

From Mustang Corners it is all downhill. Past the Pipeline Road that I once explored, and where I found an excellent piece of fossilized coral, and past several RV parks, you go down and down until you reach the low point of the trip. At an elevation of 3870’, SR82 crosses the San Pedro near where the Babocomari River, which has its headwaters in Elgin, forms a confluence.

The road then gains in elevation as it intersects SR80. Turning south on 80, it is a short distance to the road I seek. Turning east and faced again with the Dragoons, I wonder which gap it is in the high mountains where the road exists to get me through to the other side.

Middlemarch Road, even after the pavement ends one mile ahead, is as wide as an Interstate. Graded and well maintained, it is a quick, if dusty, ride to where it gradually necks down to a narrower trail. The road is crisscrossed with cattle guards and washes. The washes have been freshly graded to push away vast amounts of sand and gravel deposited onto the road by the rainfall provided by the recent string of lightning storms that I watched dance over these mountains the past few nights.

The road to Cochise Stronghold goes off to the north at mile marker 10 as you enter the Coronado National Forest. The Stronghold and Council Rocks are where the Apache Chief Cochise negotiated a peace treaty in 1872. These places lie north and west of Skeleton Canyon, in the extreme southeastern corner of the county. 

This canyon, on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains is where, 14 years later, Geronimo would surrender, along 27 other men, women and children, effectively ending the Indian Wars in America.

What was it about these Sky Islands, the cool, wet mountains in this hot and rugged land that made them the last redoubt in the United States to be dominated by the inexorable push of European power?

When you finally come over the top of Middlemarch Pass, between mile markers 13 and 14, there is a decent view over the Sulphur Springs Valley to the Chiricahuas. Another valley, another watershed that flows into the Wilcox Playa where thousands of Sandhill Cranes winter over. Snowbirds.

Below the pass, a wash goes off to the northwest. This is Middlemarch Canyon. Less than a mile in is the mine. Minerals were discovered there in 1895 and worked from then until the 1950s, producing more than 5,000 tons of ore. The principal metals were copper, zinc, silver, gold, and lead. 

What is left behind are the remnants of a milling operation where a crusher existed. An adit, or mine opening, sits above the stone and concrete foundations.

One day last winter, my wife and I decided to enter the mine. I am not encouraging anyone to do the same, as it foolish and dangerous to enter an old dig. After a belly crawl past the narrow entrance, we were able to stand and walk along a shaft, sloshing through several inches of water. A hundred feet or so in, there was a high-ceilinged room with a wooden ore chute. There were drifts off this room, one of which contained the remains of core bores. Another drift appeared to be a bottomless pit of clear water, and one drift had ladders that led to upper levels of the mine. There was ample cribbing and a wooden platform that held what looks like a massive pneumatically driven winch, piping and gears intact. 

We paused and ate some lunch here. We searched and found the chalcanthite we were looking for, also known as copper vitriol, blue stone, and sulfate of copper. The name is from the Ancient Greek for copper flower. It is a small and delicate bloom, colored an ethereal shade of blue.

On our way out, two of our three flashlights gave up the ghost, but we made it fine. One more belly crawl and we were in the waiting daylight. We were at the end of a long and winding road, holding our small treasure.