An Eye-Opening Night in an Old Ghost Town

Ruby, Arizona, used to be a mining town, built after the first strike to its ore in the 1870s.  Along with a shaft mine—that produced gold, silver, and then lead and zinc—came the company town, including a handful of houses, two barracks, a nine-bed hospital, a cement jail, a school for up to 150 children, a mercantile that made and sold ice cream (in southern Arizona!), two cemeteries, and “snob hill” where the general manager lived.  

Work at the mine paused during the Depression, then restarted, and finally shut down in 1940.  After the mine and the town and the surrounding land had been bought and sold a good number of times, it was purchased by several partners, including a couple of wildlife biologists. 

They arranged with the AZ Dept of Fish and Wildlife to begin the progress of protecting and restoring the land from damage due to mining and to cattle grazing. They’re also interested in cultural preservation of the buildings and the history of the people who lived and worked here, and they open the area to U of Arizona archeology students for special retreats.

These new owners bring in cash with a limited amount of tourism on their land via day permits—tourists walk around the old town carrying a photocopied map with descriptions written by a 90-year-old local, and they picnic around two ponds and the large flats of tailings that look like a sand dune.  

The owners also sell one or two camping permits, limited to one night only, beside one of the ponds here in the center of the old town.  Last night we were the only RV here; a father and son camped in tents on the other side of the pond.  

We first spent the day wandering among the derelict buildings and peering at the mine shaft and walking over the sand field of tailings.  It’s a cool place. 

What I’ve been thinking about regarding the history here is the relations among the incoming White people, Native Americans, and the Mexicans, especially seeing as how Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912 (the last of the contiguous states). Even then, this far south—this far away from any other town—the land and people were very much wild. For instance, when there was no more room in the concrete jail, prisoners were tied to mesquite trees.

During colonization, Buffalo Soldiers were brought in to negotiate with natives because natives considered them more trustworthy, but people killed each other anyway, and eventually we settlers took all the land. And we built mines and mining towns, and we provided fancy homes for White administrators, cookie-cutter homes (as we saw in Ajo) and barracks (here) for Mexican laborers, and nothing but the finger to Native Americans who also worked the mines.

And here’s where history and the present meet. The town’s caretaker, Leslie, told us a few stories from her years of living and working alone here, just four miles from a well-known border crossing.  Here’s who she’s met in that time, over and over. 

Teenagers, having fled attempted recruitment by drug cartels in Mexico, showing up at her door barefoot, thirsty, having been robbed and abandoned in the mountains by Coyotes.  Abused women, alone and desperate and crying.  Groups of scared people, left by their guides, lost and looking for water.  

When she first moved here, Leslie offered help outside her house (of course, it’s illegal to allow anyone in because that’s harboring).  She gave them what she could: water, socks, first aid (she’s been both a firefighter and a nurse). 

But, 1) word got out among migrants that she was a reliable source of relief, so they started looking for her in increasing numbers, and 2) wildlife cameras revealed way more migrants around her house than anyone had expected. So, her position as caretaker of this ghost town (and as an unharrassed person with border patrol) became dangerous, and she had to start saying, “No, I don’t have any water.  No, I can’t help you with your bleeding feet.”  She still helps people on the road though, and she told us about several relief groups whom she welcomes on the land who search for and help people they find.

I won’t go into detail about the men whom she locks the gate against, the ones who show up in camo, toting sniper rifles and wearing MAGA hats, who cuss at her and wave their weapons and say they want to do “what the border patrol men won’t.” If they won’t leave their weapons off the property, she won’t let them on it, and they call her a commie for that. I originally wrote a long-winded rant about men like this, but I deleted it. You know how I feel.

While we were digesting these stories, Leslie came by the campsite before sunset and treated us to her lovely guitar-playing and a few more stories, and we became friends. She’s an amazingly optimistic person, living alone out here in what’s still the Wild West.

Later, we walked Banjo up to the bat lookout bench near a mineshaft opening.  It was a beautiful evening with coots splashing in the pond, doves calling to each other, a vermillion flycatcher flitting over the water, and white-tailed deer bedding down in the tall grasses.  

The next morning we walked a mile through the hills to the old cemetery, and along the way we saw water bottles and clothes left by migrants passing through.  

Seems like we had the entire town of Ruby to ourselves that night and early morning, but I do know there was one Good Samaritan up in the caretakers’ house—and maybe several people in need of care sleeping in the abandoned mine entrances, being as quiet as ghosts.

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