In January 1879, a cowboy by the name of John T. “Jerry” Dillon discovered a silver-lead deposit in the rugged Empire Mountains about 30 miles southeast of Tucson. Dillon worked on the Empire Ranch, owned by brothers Walter and Ned Vail and their English partners Herbert Hislop and John Harvey. As the ranch partners and Dillon prepared to file a joint claim, Harvey asked Dillon what they should name the strike.
“The whole damned hill is a total wreck,” retorted Dillon, “with big quartz boulders of ore scattered all over the hillside.” “The Total Wreck,” Harvey blurted. ” That’s a good name.”
In April 1880, the Southern Pacific Railroad laid tracks to nearby Pantano, and within a year the partners had formed the Total Wreck Mining and Milling Co., with the brothers’ Uncle Nathan Vail as a primary investor. The Empire Mining District soon sprang up around the Total Wreck and such lesser mines as the Montana/Black Diamond, Gopher, Copper Chief and Prince.
In 1881 Nathan financed construction of a good wagon road between Pantano and the mine, 7 miles to the north. To supply extra income, the Vails operated the route as a toll road. The claim soon proved rich in horn silver and lead, with associated molybdenum and zinc. The Empire Mining and Development Co. built a 70 ton mill, connected to the mine by a 600 foot aerial tram. The workings eventually comprised some 5,000 feet of shafts and tunnels extending some 500 feet underground. To develop the mine while keeping it in the family, Nathan referred nephew Ned to the superintendent of the Contention mine in Tombstone to learn assaying.
Water, which was critical to the success of the mill, was in short supply. The Vails purchased a tract of land bordering Cienega Creek, just 2 miles from the mine, and installed a six inch pipeline where they pumped water to two 50,000 gallon redwood storage tanks on the hillside above the diggings.
To fuel the mill, Nathan Vail hired woodcutters to cull thousands of cords of wood from the west side of the Whetstone Mountains. In June 1883 Apaches attacked the woodcutters’ camp, stole their mules, and killed six hired Mexicans, among the first internees in the Total Wreck Cemetery.
By 1883 the town had grown to about 300 people, with 50 houses, three hotels, three stores, four saloons, a lumberyard, butcher shop, assay office, bank, brewery, blacksmith, carpenter, school, shoemaker, dressmaker’s shop and upward of eight Chinese laundries.
In its peak years the mine recorded spectacular specimens of ore. Unfortunately, the rich ore soon ran out. By 1887 the Vails shut down the mine, and most people moved on. A few years later Pima County sold the mine for delinquent taxes, but Walter Vail purchased it back. In 1907 C.T. Roberts leased the mine and found new ore bodies and the mine produced intermittently until around 1920. The district was worked in the 1940’s for zinc to make batteries for the war effort. By 1950 the mine and town were deserted. Estimates of life-of-mine production vary but range as high as $1,178,000 (roughly $34 million in today’s dollars).
Today Total Wreck is virtually unknown, except for mineral collectors, who prize its yellow-orange crystals of wulfenite, black mottramite and bright blue chrysocolla.