When you’re driving south on US-95 from Quartzsite to the Castle Dome Mines Museum and Ghost Town, and GPS tells you to turn onto an ungraded gravel road straight into the Yuma Proving Grounds - the place where they prove that the weapons work - and you see signs on both sides warning you about unexploded ordnance, don’t be alarmed. That’s just how you get there.
We turned onto the road, which was unnamed (of course) and looked at each other and shrugged. We’d take it for a bit and if it didn’t look like it was leading anywhere, or we started seeing signs that said “GO BACK NOW OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU,” we could just turn around. Fortunately Mae had all-wheel-drive, so while the ride was a little bouncy we weren’t worried about getting stuck, just a little concerned about the potential of being blown to smithereens. Our concerns were slightly abated when we also saw signs for Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. One of these things is not like the other...
We weren’t on that “road” for too long before we turned left onto a slightly less-ungraded gravel path named Castle Dome Mine Road and knew we were going the right direction.
It was spooky, an atmosphere that was enhanced by the gloomy weather. Castle Dome, the formation for which the mine and city were named, loomed in the distance like the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The saguaros stood guard at random intervals, another warning to stay on the path. We were in what is supposedly the sunniest, driest part of the country and stepped out of the car into puddles of red mud and the sound of rain on tin.
Sunny and dry my ____
Barb and Josh greeted us when we stepped into the museum. The couple are travelers, taking their RV to whichever museum or park needs them next.
“We’re not fans of big groups of people,” they said, so they’ll work in places like Castle Dome City or one of the less popular National Parks (no Zion for these two). If they have to drive through a big city they do it at night, when everybody except for them and the truckers is asleep. That nomadic lifestyle is an increasingly popular career choice for anyone afflicted with wanderlust; the romance of freedom from anything permanent is enticing, but this couple’s been doing this long before travel blogging and remote work was a “thing.”
This museum is the perfect place for them. It’s so far off the grid the only power is solar-generated. On the day we visited the batteries were dead.
We stepped out of the darkened museum entrance into a mining town from the 1800s. A wooden plank sidewalk kept us out of the mud and led us around a fountain to a school, a bank, a church, five saloons, blacksmith and machine shops, a hotel, a barber, and a dress shop. The drizzling rain lent a nostalgic, almost eerie air as the wet planks led us from one building to the next. Smudge pots sat, rusted and discarded by a fence, and there were cans of food in the mercantile. Pieces of everyday life were everywhere, most of them scavenged from the surrounding desert and abandoned mines. There’s even a pair of Levi’s that’s more than 100 years old. The barbershop, reserved for veterans and active military to leave their marks, was covered with signatures blanketing nearly every surface.
There’d been silver mining in the area for centuries, both by Native Americans and the Spaniards, but it was quiet for awhile until 1863, when Hermann V. Ehrenberg and Jacob Snively established the Castle Dome Mining Company. Eventually there would be 300 mines, ranging in depth from 15 feet to 700 feet, and the city that sprung up around them grew to more than 3,000 people, making it bigger than nearby Yuma. The population explosion was short-lived, though. The post office opened in 1875 and closed a year later.
By the early 1900s the silver was harder and harder to find, but lead was still plentiful and the mines produced over 9 million pounds for the government during World War II alone. By 1950 the school had closed, and after that the mines were only open if the price of silver was high enough. In 1979 the mines were officially and finally shuttered, making Castle Dome the longest operating mines in Arizona. It was a Western mining town boom and bust that just stretched on longer than most.
Some of the buildings are original but others are recreations. The artifacts, while true to the era, may not have all been found on-site, but since opening the museum in 1998 owners Allen and Stephanie Armstrong have painstakingly worked to recreate this piece of Old West history as authentically as possible.
The mining camp is separate from the town, so we said goodbye to Barb and Josh and parked closer to the Mining District. That darn rain dampened our prospects (two puns for the price of one!), so we took a shortened tour of the old Spanish mines, Rita’s camp, Doc Hall’s office, the post office, and the graveyard.
Back in Mae Sorento, we took Castle Dome Mine Road the whole way to US-95, which was blessedly paved the last three miles, and with the exception of the completely white zeppelin tethered in an area where photographs are not allowed, the drive was uneventful. After our exhausting day of low visibility and switchbacks and constant rain, we were ready for some smooth tarmac and straight lines.