Tuesday, February 26, 2013



Before arriving in Tucson for the annual rock show I usually spend a few days camping around Apache Junction, the easternmost community of metropolitan Phoenix.  I enjoy the area due to the nearby Superstition Mountains.  This range is one of best-known, at least in name, of any mountain range in the U. S.--presumed home of the Lost Dutchman Mine.  Local legends, take your pick, have it that a very rich gold mine exists in the mountains and/or soldiers buried several bags of gold and/or the local Apache Tribe knew the location of a rich gold mine.  Some variations of the story combine all three theories, and even add several other elements.  Perhaps the best known of the many versions involves members of the Perlata Family “discovering” the mine that “belonged” to the Apache Tribe.  These local Native Americans attacked the Perlatas around 1850 and killed all of the family miners.  Gold seekers have been looking for the lost mine almost since that time!  Among the early seekers was a German immigrant named Jacob Walz or Waltz (or several other spelling variations) who became a “dutchman” as people corrupted Deutsche (people of Germany) to Dutch (as in Pennsylvania Dutch).  At any rate, as the story goes, Jacob rediscovered the old mine after befriending some member of the Perlata family only in turn to fall ill.  On, or near his deathbed, Jacob drew a crude map to the mine for a Julia Thomas.  

Another version of the story has been put forth by local, and noted, author Tom Kollenborn in the 14 January 2008 edition of the AJ News (www.ajnews.com): “The old “Dutchman” Jacob Waltz died in Phoenix at the residence of Julia Thomas at about 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, October 25, 1891. The circumstances associated with his death are as follows. Julia Thomas and Rhinehart Petrasch were attending to Waltz during his final hours. Pneumonia and silicosis had complicated his breathing and Waltz was struggling for air early that morning. Thomas and Petrasch were awakened by the sounds of his struggle and knew the end was near. Julia and Rhinehart rushed out to look for a doctor. Why both of them left Waltz’s side in a moment of crisis is not known. As they exited the house, Richard J. Holmes and Gidon Roberts were walking up the street and Julia asked Holmes to look after Waltz until they returned with the doctor. When Thomas and Petrasch returned with a doctor, Waltz was either dead or succumbed shortly thereafter. Holmes immediately explained the situation to Julia Thomas. He said Waltz had given him the materials in a candle box beneath his bed. Holmes gathered up his newly acquired possessions and left the Thomas’ residence. Holmes’ acquisition of Waltz’s candle box outraged Julia Thomas. According to Holmes and Thomas the box contained about forty-eight pounds of high-grade gold ore. It was estimated the gold contained within the candle box was worth about $4,800.

Weavers Needle, a prominent landmark in the Superstition Mountains.  The Needle is not a volcanic neck but an erosional remnant of indurated volcanic tuff.
Julia Thomas accused Holmes of being a thief. Roberts swore Waltz had given the candle box to Holmes. The local courts did not see it Thomas’ way and Holmes ended up with the candle box of gold ore. This created a schism between the Petrasch and the Holmes families and this schism has survived for more than a hundred years among storytellers of the Dutchman’s lost mine.”
All versions point to the next step and that is Ms. Thomas headed to the mountains looking for gold.  She did not succeed but apparently did the next best thing and begin selling lost mine maps!  By some accounts the sale was successful and Ms. Thomas collected a substantial sum of money.   

Evidently none of the map purchasers found much since people still are looking today for the mine/gold and some local shops even have lost mine maps for sale—they seem to be versions of local lore and opinions and none seem autographed by Thomas or Waltz!  In most cases a well known landmark, Weavers Needle, features prominently in the stories and maps.  
As an added intrigue, several deaths seem associated with the many prospectors, including some of violence at the hands of others (or gremlins who guard the gold).  In late 2009 I remember a story in the Denver Post about a local Denver resident who disappeared while hunting for the mine.  More recently the remains of three prospectors who disappeared in 2010 were discovered in January2011.  Whatever the case, thousands of people each year still hunt for the treasure, and over the years several tens of books have been published describing the Lost Dutchman Mine.

West end of the Superstition Mountains as seen from AZ SR 88.  Layers of volcanic tuff comprise the mountain face.

What is probably more interesting, at least to a geologist, concerns the history associated with these mountains.  Although some remnants of Precambrian igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks are present in the Superstitions, the majority of the rocks exposed in the range are volcanic in nature, including thick layers of welded and non-welded tuff, and rhyolitic lava, spewed from massive supervolcanos.  As each of these large volcanoes sort of blew out their insides they collapsed and calderas formed (www.gemland.com).  There were at least three, perhaps more, of these supervolcanos in the area of the Superstition Mountains; each caldera was around 10-12 miles in width with varying geologic ages:  Superstition Caldera (~25 Ma), Goldfield Caldera (~15 Ma), Tortilla Caldera (~15 Ma).  Today, after extensive erosion, all that remains of these calderas are immense thicknesses of tuff and rhyolite. The entire area has been referred to as the Superstition Cauldron Complex (Sheridan, 1978).  

Other volcanics as young as ~3 Ma are present and the range itself owes it elevation to late Tertiary Basin and Range faulting and uplift.
The easiest place to observe the mountains is from the Apache Trail, highway AZ SR 88, and running from Apache Junction to the Apache Lakes on the dammed up Salt River.  It is a beautiful drive and there are great exposures of the volcanic rocks along the road.  The traveler also is blessed with a fantastic view of the west end of the Superstitions (5057 feet).  At Tortilla Flats, about 13 miles up the road, the pavement ends at  Canyon Lake; however, a good gravel road continues for tens of miles. 

Stacked units of volcanic tuffs and rhyolite, Superstition Mountains.  Photo courtesy of Charles Ferguson and the Arizona Geological Survey.

Map showing location of Superstition calderas.  Sketch courtesy of Gemland.com.
SR 88 is also the approximate boundary between the Superstitions and the Goldfield Mountains to the west.  The rocks in the Goldfields are similar to the Superstitions as they are part the same volcanic environment, the Superstition Cauldron Complex.  It is in the Goldfields that almost all of the gold and silver in the area has been extracted---not in the fabled Superstitions! 
In 1892, a year after the death of Jacob Waltz, four prospectors from Mesa, Arizona, searched the area west and north of the Superstition Mountains. They found the crumbling remains of mine shafts in a very old mining camp believed to have been from activity of the “Old Spanish”.  And, they found gold—in small quartz veins that had experienced hydrothermal activity.  Over the years the many mines and claims (Mammoth, Bull Dog (thought by some to be the Lost Dutchman), Black Queen, Old Wasp, Bluebird, Mammoth 2, Tom Thumb, Golden Hillside, Fair Strike, Copper Crown, Palmer, Treasure Vault, High Flyer, Gold Bond, Lazy Doc, Gold Strike, Iron Horse [Lucky Boy] Queen, Black King, Tom Thumb) yielded about 61,000 ounces of gold and 22,000 ounces of silver (Wilburn, 1987).  Today the “ghost town” of Goldfield, once home to stamp mills and several thousand people, is being reborn as tourist destination.  Some mine dumps seem accessible along SR 88 and I have collected small amounts of blue chalcedony but not much else.

ADDENDUM 5 April, 2014:  Today I was at a used book sale and picked up a copy of Roadside History of Arizona (1987) by the noted historian Marshall Trimble.  I found an interesting paragraph:  Many historians believe the legends behind the mythical Peralta Mine in the Superstition Mountains actually had their origins in Black Canyon (Bradshaw Mountains north of Phoenix on I-17).  A Peralta did have a mining claim in the area, and he was supposed to have sold them to an accomplice of James Addison Reavis, the "Baron of Arizona", providing the basis for Reavis's fictional tale about a Peralta who was heir to a vast land grant in central Arizona.  Storytellers and seekers of lost treasurer later moved Peralta's mine from Black Canyon to the Superstition Mountains.   So, stay tuned and perhaps next year new info will turn up! 

In late 2012 authorities located the remains of the Denver gold seeker noted in above paragraph as disappearing in 2009.


Sheridan, M. F., 1978, The Superstition Cauldron Complex in Guidebook to the Geology of Central Arizona: Arizona Bureau of Geology and Mineral Technology, Special Paper 2. 

Wilburn, J. D., 1997, Goldfield Mining District Geology and Ore Deposits: privately printed.