The Spanish explorer Don Francisco Vasques do Coronado and his expedition entered Southern Arizona from Mexico in 1540 in search of gold. But instead of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, which legend said existed somewhere to the North, the trailblazers found nothing but a vast country of grassy hills, cactus, lizards, and scattered, rugged mountain ranges. They rise like islands in a sea of desert. Their heights pierce the rain and snow clouds, capturing the snow and rain that are the lifeblood of cities, industry, and agriculture. In the arid Southwest, water from the highlands makes possible a wide range of activities in a land that would otherwise be barren.
Located in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, lies the Coronado National Forest. The forest covers 1,780,196 acres. Elevations range from 3,000 feet to 10,720 feet in twelve widely scattered mountain ranges or "sky islands" that rise dramatically from the desert floor, supporting plant communities as biologically diverse as those encountered on a trip from Mexico to Canada. Views are spectacular from these mountains, and you may experience all four seasons during a single day's journey. Spend the morning wandering among giant saguaros and colorful wildflowers, have a picnic lunch under the brilliant golden leaves of a cottonwood tree, and play in the snow in the afternoon. Interpretive trails in and around historic and prehistoric sites allow you to experience the past in the mountains of southeastern Arizona. Eight wilderness areas encompassing 338,536 acres offer you solitude and primitive recreation.
The Coronado National Forest consists of twelve mountain ranges of 1.7 million acres of Southern Arizona and New Mexico, and offer an unusual range of vegetation types and climates. In only one hour, a visitor can drive from the hot, arid desert to the cool pines. From the rolling grasslands to the high mountain conifer forests, there is an exceptionally diverse selection of flora and fauna. The elevations of the twelve mountain ranges span from 2,400 feet up to 10,500 feet. Access to the recreational areas include Tucson International Airport, Interstate highways of I-10 and I-19, many State highways and routes, and forest roads lead into all areas of the Coronado National Forest.
Americans are fascinated with the history of the West, with its stories of adventure, hardship, perseverance, failure and the occasional spectacular success. Mining is part of the story. These pages tell of one mining venture in the Santa Rita Mountains of the Coronado National Forest, and what the Forest and dedicated volunteers are doing to preserve its history.
Kentucky Camp History
Late in the 19th century, the east slope of the Santa Rita Mountains bustled with the activity of hundreds of miners. Gold had been discovered in 1874, in what became known as the Greaterville mining district. It proved to be the largest and richest placer deposit in southern Arizona.
Placer deposits consist of gold mixed with sand and gravel. The miners quickly discovered that water was more precious than gold. In most placers, they could wash the sand and gravel with water to separate the gold, but the arroyos of the Santa Rita Mountains were dry. Miners hauled sacks of dirt to the few running streams, or packed water to their claims in canvas and goatskin bags, on the backs of burros. The rich deposits that could repay these efforts were worked out by 1886, and the miners gave up and moved on.
However, in 1902 a California mining engineer named James Stetson thought he could solve the water problem. He conceived a grand scheme to channel seasonal runoff from the Santa Rita's streams into a reservoir that would hold enough water to last ten months. With that, he could keep a mine operating. Stetson convinced a wealthy Californian, George McAneny, to invest in the plan, and with other investors from Tucson they formed the Santa Rita Water and Mining Company to bring it to life. After extensive prospecting in the Greaterville district, Stetson and McAneny decided to begin mining in Boston Gulch. Nearby Kentucky Gulch was selected as the site for the mining headquarters, and from 1902 to 1906, the buildings at Kentucky Camp served as the offices and residences for company employees. The origins of the names "Boston Gulch" and "Kentucky Gulch" are obscure - perhaps they were named for the homes of miners who worked the gulches in the 1870's.
Tragedy struck in 1905. The day before a meeting with stockholders, Stetson died in a fall from a Tucson hotel window. McAneny's finances and health deteriorated, and although the other partners tried to keep the operation going, it was abandoned by 1912. The buildings and land were purchased by an attorney for the McAneny family, and were used as a cattle ranch until the 1960's, when it was sold to ANAMAX Mining. The Coronado National Forest acquired the site through a 1989 land exchange. To satisfy public interest in the history of mining, the Forest is working with volunteers and other partners to preserve and interpret Kentucky Camp.
The Buildings of Kentucky Camp
The five buildings which remain at Kentucky Camp were built around 1904. The largest was probably used as an office by the Santa Rita Water and Mining Company. Later, it became the main ranch house. A small building behind the office was used to process gold samples, as evidenced by liners that came from an assay furnace. A large barn lies in ruins opposite a small house where Stetson may have lived, and another small house lies at the far end of the site.
If you would like to help with the preservation of Kentucky Camp, the Friends of Kentucky Camp is a private, non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining and restoring the site. Information on joining, and on scheduled workdays, can be obtained by writing:
If you are interested in history and archaeology, there are many opportunities to have a delightful holiday working on an archaeological excavation or restoring a historical structure. You can download a catalog of volunteer opportunities with the Forest Service at the Southwestern Archaeology website, or contact:
Preserving Kentucky Camp
Kentucky Camp is now a part of the Coronado National Forest, and is being restored for interpretation of mining camp life. Since 1991, the Forest has been stabilizing the buildings - repairing roofs and walls to prevent further deterioration. Much of the work was done by volunteers, working under the auspices of the Forest Service Passport In Time program and the Friends of Kentucky Camp. You can view a comprehensive list of upcoming Passport in Time projects by clicking here, and you can learn about what has been going on recently by checking out the Kentucky Camp Chronicle online.
The Forest plans to restore the buildings to the way they appeared during the mining era. Until Kentucky Camp is restored, you should keep certain things in mind if you visit the site. The buildings are old and deteriorated, and should not be entered. Floorboards may give way. And, please do not remove anything from Kentucky Camp. Although they may appear old, broken and abandoned, all the artifacts will be used in reconstructing life at the camp.
Getting to Kentucky Camp
Kentucky Camp is located about 45 miles southeast of Tucson, Arizona. It is accessible by sedan, with the last five miles involving travel over dirt roads. Immediately following a rainstorm, dirt roads may be muddy. Visitors are encouraged to call the Nogales Ranger District, (520)-281-2296, for information on current road conditions.
To get to Kentucky Camp from the north, take Interstate 10 to Exit 281. From Exit 281, follow State Route 83 to the Gardner Canyon Road, and turn right (west),
To get to Kentucky Camp from the south, take State Route 83 north from Sonoita and turn left (west) on the Gardner Canyon Road.
From the Gardner Canyon Road, follow Forest Road 163 to Forest Road 4113, and turn right on Road 4113. Follow the road to the parking area by the gate; walk through the gate and down the hill to Kentucky Camp, about 1/4 mile. If the walk would be difficult, arrangements can be made to drive to the site by calling the Nogales Ranger District, (520) 281-2296.