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Two Tucson Meteorites

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The two meteor fragments were used as blacksmith’s anvils in the Tucson Presidio in the 1700s and were highly valued. Early Tucson visitors invariably commented on them as curiosities.

All early reports say that the meteorites were found in the Santa Rita Mountains. Just how they came to be in Tucson in not clear. In the 1700s, transporting them from the mountains would have been difficult. There were no four-wheeled wagons, only two-wheeled carts drawn by oxen or mules.

The Ring Meteorite was used in the military blacksmith shop within the Presidio walls, and civilian blacksmith Ramon Pacheco used the Carleton Meteorite as an anvil in his shop.

Brig. Gen. Bernard John Dowling Irwin discovered the Ring Meteorite in Tucson while on assignment at nearby Fort Buchanan. He wrote:

“In 1857 I found the large meteorite lying on one of the by-streets, half buried in the earth, having evidently been there a considerable time. No person claimed it so I publicly announced that I could take possession of it on behalf of the Smithsonian, and forward it whenever the opportunity offered. Mr. Palatine Robinson, near whose house the iron was, assisted me in getting it to Humosilla [Hermosillo]. There was some expense attending its hoisting into the truck wagon that took it down to Sonora which I paid to Mr. Robinson. Mr. Agustin Ainsa agreed to take it or to have it taken to Guaymas, Sonora for fifty dollars.”

The general left Tucson for service as a medical officer in the Civil War and lost track of the meteorite for several years.

Agustin Ainsa married Emilia Ynigo, whose family owned a ranch near Hermasillo, and the meteor remained on the Ynigo ranch for almost two years.

Then, in 1863, the Ring Meteorite was sent to Washington, D.C. Ainsa took full credit for discovering and transporting it. Based on the claim, Dr. Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution, announced that the meteorite henceforth would be known as the Ainsa Meteorite. When Irwin received the news, he was furious and wrote the Smithsonian a long, angry letter describing his part in finding the Ring.

Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s secretary, tried to placate Irwin by proposing that the specimen be called the Irwin-Ainsa Meteorite. That further enraged Irwin, who wrote a pamphlet on the discovery of the Meteorite and accused Ainsa of dishonesty.

To resolve the dispute, the Smithsonian dropped both names and called the specimen simply the Tucson Ring.

The Carleton Meteorite rightly should have been named after Ramon Pacheco since it was used as an anvil in his blacksmith shop until 1862. That year, General James H. Carleton, commander of the California Column, recaptured Tucson for the Union and ordered the meteorite seized and sent to San Francisco as a memorial to his march.

Pacheco said Carleton offered him a quartermaster anvil in exchange, but he never received one. The Carleton Meteorite did not join its famous companion at the Smithsonian until 1941.

About that time, a Tucson Citizen article erroneously blamed Irwin for not making good on the promise to replace Pacheco’s meteorite with an anvil. That aroused the anger of both Irwin and the Smithsonian, once again.

In 1976, the Smithsonian Institution lent the Tucson Ring for the opening of Grace Flandreau Planetarium at the University of Arizona. University President John Schaefer made a formal request to the secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley, for permanent loan of the meteorite but was turned down.

The Tucson Ring weighs 1,370 pounds and has a maximum exterior diameter of 48 inches. The Carleton fragment weighs 622 pounds, is 48 inches long, 15 to 19 inches wide and two to five inches thick.

Richard Willey, former director of the Flandreau Planetarium, who has spent the past 25 years studying the Tucson meteorites and searching for other fragments, generously contributed his expertise to this article.

— Photos courtesy Smithsonian Institution; research by Jane Eppinga. © Arizona Capitol Times.

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