In the realm of ghost towns, it’s rare for a location to experience a boom and bust, and then an entirely separate second boom and bust. It’s also rare for the residents of such a community to remain dedicated to their former home, decades after leaving it. But, such is the case for Silver Bell.
A former mining town, Silver Bell thrived at multiple points during the 1900s, and a monument will soon be erected to honor that legacy thanks to the recently formed Silver Bell Historical Society.
“When people started talking about a reunion, I said ‘Sure, let’s do it.’” said David Cleaver, president of the nonprofit society. “I figured we might have a picnic in Marana or something, but this thing just took on a life of its own. As of today, we have about 200 people who’ve signed up for the reunion and dedication.”
Tucsonans probably recognize the name shared by multiple locations throughout the Marana area, named after the Silver Bell Mountains. The mountains, in turn, are named after the Silver Bell Mine, a copper mine some 20 miles west of Marana. Like many locations in the turn-of-the-century southwest, the promise of mining riches led to a small, close-knit community.
Silver Bell actually held two slightly different names for each period of its existence. Originally, miners founded the town of “Silverbell” which lasted from roughly 1900 until the 1930s. The original community included nearly everything which springs to mind at the thought of a classic Arizona mining town: the newly constructed railroad allowed industry to flourish; a general store and saloon stood near the town center; people from European, Chinese, Mexican and Native American ancestry all lived and worked in the area.
But such is the capricious world of copper mining in Arizona, when ASARCO mining ceased operations in the town in 1930, it became abandoned in a few short years. Without a reliable source of water and a sudden lack of industry, the town that once held upwards of 1,200 people in 300 homes languished.
“When the mining left, it was devastating for a lot of the people that were there,” said Jim Hunter, treasurer of the Silver Bell Historical Society.
But that is only the beginning of the story for Silver Bell. The members of the historical society lived in Silver Bell during its second incarnation. Once ASARCO shifted back to mining the area in 1952, the community was reborn, and lasted until 1984. It was a far more modern incarnation, though many of the houses didn’t have phones until the ’60s.
“It was the kind of place where you never worried about locking your door,” said Bob Hunter, a member of the Silver Bell Historical Society Board of Directors, and Jim’s brother. “The desert was our playground, and most everyone who is part of this reunion has some really fond memories of growing up out there.”
The members of the historical society say the fact that so many people are coming back for the reunion—some flying in from places like Utah and Kentucky—show just how idyllic and beloved Silver Bell was, despite being a small, dusty patch in the desert.
“What was special about the place is that we were really in the middle of nowhere,” Jim said. “It was about an hour drive from Tucson. That made it very self-contained. It was a homogenized, close-knit community.”
For instance, Cleaver said when President Kennedy was assassinated, he can remember the entire community gathering in the ballpark, holding hands and singing songs like “Amazing Grace.”
“It really just showed how united we were.” Cleaver said.
Bob recalls being a “desert rat” kid, running through the wilderness carefree, although he was probably stepping right next to snakes. At the time, the roads didn’t even have official names, and many of the residents only knew each other by the general areas they lived in. The children ran around with flashlights at night, finding old mining claims. The siren for the mine workers also served as the town’s de facto alarm clock. Residents traded with the nearby Tohono O’odham reservation. Going to Tucson was to visit the “big city.”
Of course, an important part of Silver Bell’s history is the second demise, when ASARCO moved operations once more. The town lost its main source of industry again, and many of the houses, which were prefabricated, were moved closer to Tucson. Now, virtually nothing physical exists of Silver Bell, save for a few derelict ruins.
While preserving the history of one’s hometown is personally important, the members of the historical society say they probably aren’t the only ones with this kind of history.
“I have to believe our story, while we like to think it’s unique, might not be so much, considering mining in Arizona,” Jim said.
However, Cleaver and the Hunters said ASARCO has been very helpful in supporting this reunion, even offering to construct the memorial monument and plaque, which includes pieces of the original railroad that lead to Silverbell.
In a sense, Silver Bell is currently experiencing its third revitalization, the “virtual” Silver Bell.
“Facebook has been an incredible tool in all of this,” Cleaver said.
The Silver Bell Historical Society’s website is filling the remembrances, many of which formed on social media through previous residents reconnecting and chatting. While some might consider it simple reminiscing, the historical society views these conversations as important steps in recollecting their past and gathering information on what the town used to be.
After the reunion and monument dedication, the historical society plans on moving a generation back, and looking to preserve the stories of the original Silverbell.
“A lot of people now have no idea the town was even a thing,” Bob said. “But if they’d preserved buildings from the old Silverbell, it’d be just like modern-day Tombstone.”
The members of the historical society feel that, regardless of the events at the reunion, the most important thing is to gather hundreds of former residents— some who haven’t seen each other in 50 years—and share their stories in the same place they lived them.
“Nothing’s left of the town, but most of the mountains look the same,” Bob said. “We’ll be partying right where we used to.”
The Silver Bell “Grand Reunion” will take place from Friday, March 8 to Sunday, March 10. The events are a dessert social at Hope City Church (5729 E. 22nd St.) Friday, March 8 at 6 p.m., a Silver Bell Mine Tour (25000 W. Avra Valley Road) at 9 a.m. and dinner at Lil Abner’s (8500 N. Silverbell Road) at 5 p.m., both on Saturday, March 9, and a reunion picnic at Silverbell Lake (4600 N. Silverbell Road) Sunday, March 10. For more information, visit silverbellaz.com