The origins of the Tohono O'odham people are linked to their homeland, the Sonoran Desert. Thousands of years ago, their predecessors, the Hohokam, settled along the Salt, Gila, and Santa Cruz Rivers. The Hohokam were master dwellers of the desert, creating sophisticated canal systems to irrigate their crops of cotton, tobacco, corn, beans, and squash. They built vast ball courts and huge ceremonial mounds and left behind fine red-on-buff pottery and exquisite jewelry of stone, shell, and clay.
Following their ancestral heritage, they became scientists of their environment. They used and continue to use meteorological principles to establish planting, harvesting, ceremonial cycles. They developed complex water storage and delivery systems, learning to make the best of their environment, migrating with the seasons from their homes in the valleys along the Santa Cruz River to their cooler dwellings in the Silver Bell Mountains. On their Oidag in the valleys, near the washes that crisscrossed the land, they raised a tapestry of crops, including tepary beans, squash, melon, and sugar cane. They gathered wild plants such as saguaro fruit, cholla buds, and mesquite bean pods, and hunted for only the meat that they needed from the plentiful wildlife, including deer, rabbit, and javelina.
Mining in the Silver Bell Mountains can be traced to as early as 1865 with various claims in the area for silver and copper. The most prominent of these was the Old Boot Mine. Prospectors were attracted to the area by high-grade silver minerals, but copper was also found.
In early 1873, Charles O. Brown, of Tucson, and others made frequent prospecting tours in the Silver Bell Mountains where they discovered many of the abandoned mines. Subsequently, Brown, along with Tully, Ochoa & Company, and E. M. Pearce became interested and by November, they put a force of men with mining and smith tools to work on the Old Boot, which is also known as the Mammoth Lode.
During the 1870s, the area of the Silver Bell Mountains was referred to as the Silver District or Silver Mountains. In 1874, Brown and Pearce opened the Young America Mine where a smelter was also established to cut down on costs. Ore was shipped from these mines by mule to Yuma and then to San Francisco. Twenty men were working the Young America during this year. During the rest of the 1870s, the Old Boot and the Young America were the most noteworthy of the mines here. In 1879, the district’s name was changed to the Silver Bell District.
[Pictured at right is Charles O. Brown, a leading citizen of Tucson who led efforts in opening the Old Boot and Young America Mines in the early 1870s in the Silver Bell Mountains.)
The first community of Silver Bell was founded when Arizona was still a territory of the United States. Miners had been living at this location working the Old Boot Mine (also known as the Mammoth Mine), the first major claim in the Silver Bell Mountains, dating to 1873 under the leadership of Charles O. Brown of Tucson.
When the Imperial Copper Company was formed in 1903, the town of Silver Bell was created. Consisting of shacks, tents and lean-tos, this community rapidly grew to 1,000 by 1905. It included a post office, mine offices, railroad, a Wells Fargo station, company store, hotel, general merchandise store, a school, several saloons, billiard parlor, two bakeries, a dairy, two firehouses, theater and an auto stage (i.e. motorized stagecoach or bus).
Glenn Everett Baker, a prominent citizen of Silver Bell at the beginning of the 20th century, was born in Niagara, New York, on January 29, 1871. During his high school years, he left Niagara to join his uncle in Georgetown, Colorado, who was in the mercantile business. The business expanded to include hotels. Meanwhile, Glenn resumed his high school studies in Georgetown.
Glenn became the manager of the Barton Hotel in Georgetown when his uncle opened another hotel. However, Glenn’s uncle went broke, losing his hotels. Glenn used his expertise gained in business to obtain work in various mining camps. He was quite involved in gambling and from his winnings would move on to other locations. Glenn cleared $15,000 in one game. If he could not win at gambling, he would work until he earned enough to move on. He literally “gambled his way west.”
During his travels, he noticed a freight wagon train with “Silver Bell” printed on it, which fascinated him. He headed in the direction of the Silver Bell Mountains and arrived in the Arizona Territory in 1892 by stage.
He arrived at Silver Bell in 1902. The camp was composed mostly of Mexican workers. The talk among the locals was that this “gringo” wouldn’t last until morning. He climbed a hill, entered a tent, and went to bed. In the morning, January 15, 1902, he learned that a knifing had taken the life of Jesus Alvarez. Regino Geral was cleared of the charge of murder due to self-defense.
At Silver Bell, Glenn went into the mercantile business, acquiring a very large building, leasing space for a barber shop, hay house, shoe shop, Chinese laundry, and a restaurant. He was also involved in what he called the “amusement business,” his terms for “salon, gambling, and girls.”
The Imperial Copper Company paid Glenn $50 a day to manage the circus which would come to Silver Bell for 4 – 5 days at a time.
The train from Red Rock brought water to Silver Bell. There was a water plug by the store. Glenn hired boys of Silver Bell to haul water in 5-gallon cans to individual houses and sold the water. Boys carried two water cans on sticks over their shoulders.
Glenn also did some prospecting on his own, and when the prospecting bug hit him, he would hire boys to get burros for him, 25 cents a burro if they came from the camp, 50 cents if they had to get them from outside the camp.
At some point, Mr. Baker left Silver Bell for Cananea, Mexico. While there, he went to work in the mill at the copper mine there. On his first day, he was working on a mechanized saw. The first piece of wood that he loaded flew up and hit him, breaking his arm. Because he was not able to perform any labor, the mining company asked him to be a supervisor, which paid him $10 in gold per day as opposed to $3 as a laborer.
The company would not promise his safety if he got into difficulty with the laborers. The company kept a corral well stocked with good horses, bridles, and saddles. If he needed to make a getaway, he had the choice of any horse he wanted, but was on his own to make for safety back to the United States.
After working a short time as a supervisor, he decided that it was too cold and drafty working there and returned to the “amusement” business. He became a dealer in a gambling house, earning $10 a day. Soon, however, he left Cananea and went to Helvetia, Arizona where he ran a floating crap game. He eventually made his way back to the Silver Bell Mountains.
After the close of the Silver Bell mines and town, Mr. Baker continued to live in the area, working his mine claims. He spent his last days living in one of the bunk houses in the modern town of Silver Bell, where he died on February 7, 1963. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson.
[Virginia O. "Geno" Jameson, 1915-2005, lived at Silver Bell from 1957-1979. Her husband, Donald R. Jameson, served as General Manager at ASARCO's Silver Bell Mine from 1959-1979.
Geno was an active member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, the Arizona Historical Society, Pathfinders and the Tucson Symphony Women’s Association. However, life at Silver Bell was paramount in her heart, always thinking and talking about the friends, events and times she and her husband had there.]
When Silver Bell boasted a population of 5,000 or more people, Pima County created the Silver Bell School District #19. This photo is from the Arizona State Library public archives.