INSPIRATION AND VALIDATION
Years ago, I began doing research for my novel CHASM CREEK. I’m not sure I even knew I would someday write a novel, but I was intrigued by the history of the town I found myself living in: Cave Creek, Arizona, in the foothills about 30 miles north of Phoenix. It’s main street was, and still is, quaint and western-themed: an eclectic mix of art galleries, gift stores, coffee shops, and plenty of restaurants.
I picked up a copy of Frances C. Carlson’s book, Cave Creek and Carefree, Arizona – a History of the Desert Foothills at the Cave Creek Museum gift shop. Descriptions of 1880 Cave Creek—a wagon road, a bubbling spring, a pond near the banks of the creek, proximity to Fort McDowell—fed my imagination. As I researched historic gold mining camps in Arizona, my fictional town of Chasm Creek took shape.
Miners worked hard for their potential riches. They dug rock out of the hills looking for streaks of gold ore. In the first step to remove the gold, most miners used arrastras (circular pits lined with stone; a horse or mule was used to pull a large boulder around to crush the rocks. The gritty remains were then further processed to separate out the gold). When bigger mining operations arrived in the area, stamp mills were constructed. A stamp mill was much more efficient when it came to large amounts of ore.
I tried to form a mental image of the mills I read about. It wasn’t easy, as I had never heard of them before, had never seen one. Fortunately, the Cave Creek Museum had a model stamp mill that could be operated by a handle pushing the gears. It gave me a frame of reference.
In my novel CHASM CREEK, a 10-stamp mill overlooks the town from high on a mountain. It runs 24-hours a day, crushing the ore the miners dig out of their claims. A wood-fired engine powers the mill and lifts the stamps (think of the ink stamps used for crafting but giant sized, made of iron, and attached to shafts over 10- feet long). The stamps pound the ore, crush it to the consistency of sand, then wash it to separate the heavier gold. The noise is unremitting. It echoes down the canyon in which CHASM CREEK is located, spewing soot and smoke.
I imagined a sound loud and rhythmic. When one of my characters, Esther Corbin, moves into town, she “took comfort in the rhythmic pounding of the stamp mill . . . it seemed a giant, soothing heartbeat echoing through the canyon.”
But I was still imagining. I was extrapolating from a 3-foot high crank-operated model in the Museum’s foyer.
Then I read an article in the Arizona Republic, announcing a celebration of the reconstruction of the Golden Reef stamp mill, an actual 10-stamp mill that had been in operation in the Cave Creek mining district in the 1890s. A stamp mill had been located at the Golden Star Mine, the first large-scale mine in the Cave Creek area, in the 1880s. The mine was originally owned by William B. Hellings, a successful entrepreneur from Phoenix. By the 1890s, Hellings had sold out to W. A. Bondurant who changed the name of the mine to the Golden Reef and purchased a new ten-stamp mill. This is the one acquired by the museum. With much volunteer effort over 5 years and a lot of generous contributions, it was moved it to the museum grounds from nearby Continental Mountain. And reconstructed. Operational! You could go and see it work!
This news brought much exhilaration tempered by trepidation. By now, my novel was scheduled for publication. It had already been edited and advance copies sent out. It was too late to change anything! What if my imagined 10-stamp mill was nothing like the real thing?
I drove to Cave Creek to find out, to see the 10-stamp mill in operation. I would learn if what I had imagined (and incorporated into my novel) held any similarity to the actual functioning mill. The reconstructed mill’s motor acted up. The volunteers consulted, stared, tried again. I waited. And waited. I drove over to the Dairy Queen for lunch. Then I returned. I stood at the bottom of the mill with camera in hand. And waited some more. I would stay until the volunteers gave up but they did not give up.
Someone eventually arrived with a small but essential part for the motor and they cranked it up, to applause and cheers. The large wheel on the side lurched to life. The long shafts lifted their stamps then crashed them down with enough force to pulverize rocks into sand.
It sounded like a heartbeat.
(Listen to the stamp mill HERE)