Benson was established in June 1880 by the Southern Pacific and became an important maintenance center for the railroad and the shipping point for the Bisbee and Tombstone mines, neither of which was served by rail. The town was less than three months old when, according to the Tucson Citizen, “the first shipment of copper bullion from Bisbee (arrived) in Benson, where it (was) shipped to San Francisco.” It was transported to Benson by mule-drawn wagons, weighing 43,003 pounds.
Mining and transportation entrepreneurs Gilmor and Salisbury viewed Benson’s local business climate with interest. They determined that building a spur line from Tombstone to Benson could make them a fortune. For reasons that remain obscure — perhaps the government nixed their petition, or they were unable to raise investment capital — the proposition did not come to fruition. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that a spur line was constructed to Tombstone.
Gilmor and Salisbury turned their attention to yet another moneymaking scheme; they would build a smelter in Benson. Despite the facts that Bisbee and Tombstone mines had their own smelters, and that reduction works were in evidence at nearby Charleston and Contention City, the two men were determined to compete. Their mine would be a custom smelter, providing unique services not offered by their competitors.
By the summer of 1882, the smelter was up and running. One report claims that as many as 350 men were employed. By October, however, the smelter had ceased operations. “It was anticipated that it would be the finest paying concern in the territory,” wrote the Arizona Daily Star, Jan. 12, 1883, “and for a time it turned out as such.” But unfortunately, as the Star noted, “one of the most necessary ingredients to run a smelter satisfactorily is an unlimited amount of fluxing iron ore,” and, apparently, Gilmor and Salisbury were unable to obtain it. From then on, the smelter began a long history of on-again, off-again operations, and ultimate failure.
A decade later, following a string of fallow years, local residents were hopeful when the Benson Press announced, “the Rogers Brothers… recently purchased the Benson smelting plant at (a) sheriff’s sale…” Apparently, they had not intended to resume operations because within a few months the property was sold to E.B. Young of San Francisco. Young also did nothing with the smelter, and it sat idle.
Yet another decade passed when, on April 13, 1903, the Press proclaimed that “within 90 days the first furnace of the Empire Smelting Company of Benson will be ready to blow in. From then on the people of Benson will hear the workman’s whistle at the smelter…”
Although there was optimism from the newspaper and grandiloquence in the new company’s name, the operation did not fulfill its promise. Of five proposed furnaces, only one was blown in. The smelter was outdated and inefficient, and business was not sufficient to ensure its future.
At the same time, Bisbee’s mining interests had consolidated their smelting operations at Douglas — a much-ballyhooed planned community — and the Benson facility had no hope of competing. Shortly after its opening, it closed its door.
During the 1920s, New York’s Guggenheim family made noises about purchasing and rejuvenating the facility, but nothing came of it. Someone, however, made claim to the slag dump. Several tons were shipped to El Paso for refining, and a respectable profit — perhaps the first made from the smelter — was realized.
The site changed hands many times, until acquired by Benson banker A.G. Smith. Then, the Great Depression came and, in 1934, the property was sold for delinquent taxes. Its purchaser was Adolph Siek, who dismantled the smelter and sold much of it as scrap metal.
During the Depression, as countless unemployed Americans rode the rails in search of jobs, the Benson smelter site became a hobo jungle. Despite the chagrin of local residents, this encampment for weary travelers may have been the smelter’s most enduring use. Today, the site is dotted by crumbling foundations, odd chunks of slag, assorted debris and an overgrowth of mesquite.
— W. Lane Rogers. Photo courtesy Fort Huachuca Museum.