Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Rise and fall of mining creates a ghost town

Photo from the Arkansas State Archives collection.
By Brian Irby, archival assistant

Arkansas has a long history of mining. Some of the first European Americans to visit what would later become Arkansas were searching for mines. Often mining operations are a boom and bust economy. The economy booms when the mine begins producing ore; then the economy collapses when the mine is played out. When this happens, towns that rely on the mine for jobs dry up and disappear, leaving a ghost town full of empty buildings dotting the landscape. One of the most notable ghost towns in Arkansas is Rush, a town that appeared in the 1880s and thrived until the local zinc mining operations ended.

The origins of the mine are obscure, as there are numerous versions of the story. One version said it was found by prospectors who were following the “sign of the turtle,” images of turtles drawn by Native Americans on trees to indicate silver mines in the area. Whether or not there were turtle signs in the area is unclear from the early reports. What is clear, however, is that John Wolfer, J.W. McCabe and Bob Stulzer, three prospectors following legends of silver mines hidden in the Ozark Mountains, found the mine in 1880. Enthusiastic, they believed that they had at last found the lost silver mine. Little did they know that what they found was not silver, but zinc.

The trio built a smelter near the mine. As they hauled the first batch of ore out of the mine, they loaded it in the smelter and then waited for the molten silver to begin to flow. Unfortunately, instead of silver, the smelter’s smokestack started belching blue-colored clouds from the zinc oxide fumes that were building up inside the smelter. Crestfallen, the men chose not to give up. They commissioned a geology report that indicated there was silver in the mines in addition to the zinc they had found earlier. Additionally, the report estimated that the ore would sell for $8 a ton. Ultimately, though, hopes were dashed: The mine never produced silver. In the end, the three prospectors decided to attempt to sell their claim for a can of oysters, valued at $2.50. The prospective buyer rejected the deal.

Meanwhile, other miners decided to develop the zinc mines. The Yellville Mountain Echo reported in 1890 from Rush, “Railroad and mining is all the talk here now. Some of the mine owners are returning, and others are expected soon.”

Mining companies from throughout the midwestern United States flocked to Rush to invest in the mining operations. Land speculators also joined in the operation, snapping up land patents and then leasing the land for mining companies. By 1898, the Morning Star Mine was producing four tons of zinc ore a day. This netted a profit of from $500 to $1,000 a day. In order to spotlight mining operations in Rush, miners hauled a large boulder of solid zinc weighing 12,750 pounds to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

As the mining operations began to take off, it became clear that the downside to mining in the Ozarks was the terrain. Climbing the hills in order to get to work was physically taxing. The miners had to haul the ore off the mountain, down into hollows, back up the hills, back down into the hollow, then haul it to the White River where it was placed on a boat and shipped to Batesville to be smelted.

Despite the Buffalo River being close in proximity, the river was never deep enough to allow them to load the ore onto barges. Instead, the ore had to be transported to the White River, several miles away.
As the mining camp grew larger, the elements of what would become the town of Rush became more apparent. To formalize the town, the Edith Mining Company, one of the mining companies operating in the area, laid out the formal boundaries of the town of Rush, naming it for the nearby Rush Creek. By 1900, the town sported two hotels, a hardware and blacksmith shop, and a general store. Things accelerated in 1914 with the beginning of World War I because the war demanded increasing amounts of zinc for the manufacture of bullets.

By 1915, businessmen recognized the need to expand the small town to make way for more accommodations for miners, including the addition of stores and other modern conveniences. The Buffalo Zinc and Copper Company bought large chunks of the local territory with the purpose of widening roads and establishing more town lots. In order to induce stores to open in the small hamlet, the Buffalo Zinc and Copper Company offered lots for free for enterprising businessmen. In an article advertising the new settlement, the Yellville Mountain Echo bragged that the Buffalo River was free of “malaria, and which is navigable a good portion of the year, [and] will always furnish an ample water supply for every practical purpose.”

As a result, more people settled in Rush in order to work in the mines. By the end of 1916, Rush had grown large enough to be incorporated into a town. As the war continued, the town’s population swelled to between 4,500 and 5,000 people, making it the largest town in northern Arkansas. There were few women in the town. Most of the men living there were short-term residents. One of the hotels in town, the Kirkland Hotel, could accommodate 50 guests per night, which ended up not being enough capacity. Additionally, guests were offered “comfortable rocking chairs” in the hotel’s office if there was no vacancy.

Despite the efforts to make Rush into a town, the mining business is fickle, and miners did not expect to set down roots. When the mine eventually played out, they packed up and moved to the next mining boom town. As a result, very few residential buildings were built – most miners lived in tents with their families. There was not a church building or a permanent cemetery in which to bury loved ones. It was expected that if families were inclined to go to church, they would travel to a nearby town.

Besides the rivers, transportation to other towns in the area remained poor. In order to remedy this, the local communities banded together to improve the roads. Since the mines relied on good roads, and workers relied on the mines, it was not difficult to convince them to contribute to establishing good roads. One instance of this community effort occurred on Oct. 24, 1916, when all businesses in Rush closed in order to encourage workers to spend the day working on the road. In addition, the town’s women were encouraged to bake goods for the workers for a “dinner on the ground.” On that day, 75 men worked together to improve the road.

Despite the difficulty of the terrain, there were surprisingly few mining accidents. The exception, however, occurred on June 10, 1916. Miners were working in the Ben Carney mine when suddenly a 30-ton slab of the mine’s ceiling collapsed, trapping several miners and killing two. Among those survivors who were trapped was Jim Moore whose right arm and both legs were trapped under the rubble. For more than three hours, fellow miners labored to free the survivors. They used jacks to lift the rubble off Moore while the trapped miner stayed still and calm, directing the work. Astoundingly, this was the only major mining accident at the site for over 40 years.

With the end of the war came the decline in demand for zinc. This meant that Rush’s days were numbered as a town. When the price of zinc plummeted, many mining companies pulled out of Rush. Slowly, the men who worked the mines left town, never to return. The Morning Star, the flagship mine in the area, closed in 1930. Over the years, as the town’s population dwindled, mine workers attempted to form their own companies, but these efforts failed. In the 1950s, the town’s post office closed. The last mine closed in 1962, leaving only a handful of people still living in the town.

Today the Rush ghost town is administered by the National Parks Service as part of the Buffalo River Natural Park. All that remains of the once thriving town are vacant buildings, fenced off to protect them from vandals, and the empty mines, also now boarded up to keep the curious out. All of these can be seen while hiking the trail that runs along the old path that the miners used in their daily tasks. They are the only remnants of a bygone era.