Kentucky Camp Tragedy

Arizona is full of abandoned mining towns from the turn of the last century, when western expansionism was at its height. Most of these old mining towns are now derelict shadows of a place that once had prospects of a bustling city and the promise of a “good life”. These places have been christened as “Ghost Towns”.

It’s usually not just one thing that kills a town, it’s many things that kill it. When the people living in an area have enough reasons to leave, they pack up and they don’t come back. In the desert a lack of water could kill a town just as easily as the shutting down of the mining industry. A plague or disease can rip through a small town and destroy it. A lack of railroad and commerce can also kill a town. What makes Kentucky Camp so interesting is that it had healthy people, crisp and clear water, a nearby railroad and plenty of ore. So why did this little mining town fail?

It failed because of one man’s mysterious death.

Stories about mining towns start with a big bust which draws a crowd to the area, and in 1874 one of the richest deposits of gold in southern Arizona was discovered. This particular deposit was called a placer deposit, which is a mixture of gold, sand and gravel that requires water to separate the gold from the “dirt”. But, being in the desert, it was difficult to get water to a claim without hauling water from one of the few steams in the Santa Rita Mountains. This took time and effort. By 1886, when the richer deposits of gold had been worked out, most of the miners had moved on to other areas.

Kentucky Camp was already starting to flounder, but in 1902 James B. Stetson, a mining engineer from California, thought he could solve the water problem by channeling seasonal runoff from the Santa Rita streams and storing it in a reservoir. This, Stetson believed, would allow Kentucky Camp to continue functioning without the ordeal of making several water harvesting trips by burro.

Stetson took his water channeling plan to George McAneny, a wealthy Californian who had spent some prosperous time in another Arizona mining community called Tombstone. McAneny decided to invest in Stetson’s plan and the Santa Rita Water and Mining Company was created.

The mining site was started in Boston Gulch and Kentucky Gulch served as the location of the mine headquarters– Kentucky Camp– with offices and residences for miners. Everything was going well. The camp had financial backing, water and good prospects on the horizon. In May of 1905 James Stetson scheduled a meeting with Santa Rita Water and Mining Company President G.B. Ineny, company stockholder J.R. Comings and Samuel L. Kingan who was the company’s council member in Tucson. The meeting was to be held at Kingan’s office on May 21st, but James Stetson would never make it to the meeting.

On Saturday, May 20, 1905 James Stetson checked into the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson, Arizona . At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon he went to his room– room 319. Shortly thereafter, a maid cleaning the room below Stetson’s was startled as a body fell from above and struck the window sill of the room she was turning down. When the maid looked out the window to see what had made the noise, she found Stetson’s body lying dead on the cement below.

Local Newspaper The Arizona Daily Star reported that “Stetson’s neck had not been broken nor had his skull been fractured”. Death was said to have been a brain concussion. Though they also indicated that “Mr. Stetson’s hands and left foot were cut and bruised.”

A very sensationalized version of 37-year-old Stetson’s fall from the Arizona Daily Citizen (which later became the Tucson Citizen) claimed that Stetson “was ill and was seized with a spell of vomiting” when he went to his room.

Tuesday at 2:30, a formal inquest was held at the office of Justice-Coroner Richey. The jury visited the location where the body was found, room 319 and also viewed James Stetson’s body. The verdict was that his death was caused by the fall and Stetson’s body was sent back to Oakland, California where he was finally interred.

Had Stetson opened the window to get fresh air and leaned out a little too far? Had the reportedly ill man fallen asleep on the sill and then rolled off? Did he open the window and then faint and fall out? OR was there some sort of foul play involved? Could Stetson have been poisoned or perhaps pushed out his window? No one will ever really know what happened for certain… but it is quite certain that his demise resulted in the collapse of Kentucky Camp.

Financial backer McAneny poured several thousands of dollars into the mining camp, but in 1906 finally closed the place down By 1912 it was completely abandoned. For the next 50-years, Kentucky Camp was a working cattle ranch, then in 1989 the Coronado National Forest Service acquired the site. Since then, forest service members and volunteers have been working to preserve this natural mining camp site. Unlike the infamous (and now demolished) Santa Rita Hotel, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While James Stetson’s unnatural demise and the fall of Kentucky Camp is tragic, Stetson’s connections to the Santa Rita Hotel make his death quite mysterious… because he may have been the first tragedy in connection with the hotel (that I’ve found so far)… but he wouldn’t be the last.

Newspaper Sources:
“James B. Stetson Killed Instantly”, Arizona Daily Star, May 21, 1905, p1.
“Local Paragraphs”, Arizona Daily Star, May 24, 1905, p5.
“Local Paragraphs”, Arizona Daily Star, May 25, 1905, p5.
“J.B. Stetson Who Fell to Death Will Be Buried in this City”, Arizona Daily Citizen (Renamed Tucson Citizen), May 22, 1905, p4.
“Fell From A Window: Accidental Death of a Mining Man in Tucson”, The Arizona Republic, May 21, 1905, p1.

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3 thoughts on “Kentucky Camp Tragedy

  1. I hadn’t heard this story before…excellent job of writing it too!

    Many possibilities there as to what might have happened…really just conjecture, as there’s no real way of knowing…but it still makes for a very interesting story. I agree with Skatha…those homes that are found where it looks like one day everyone just got up and left leave much to the imagination…just what happened?

    I would really love to be able to visit these places someday…but until then, it is fascinating to read about them!

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  2. I’ve read a lot about various ghost towns throughout the west and I find the creepiest ones are those whose homes appear to be fully furnished still; as if their owners simply walked out on everything. I know that’s not really a common occurrence, but in the few instances it did happen, it’s creepy.

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  3. Skatha, that must be why you want me to visit Steins, NM– that was a mining town where people just up and left their belongings. If I ever make it out that way, I’ll stop by and take some photos– though the site is closed to visitors because of theft of historic artifacts/belongings that were abandoned.

    I think Kentucky Camp was mostly cleaned out. There are some photos on the forest service site (linked in the article above) that show some of the restoration done at the camp… but compared to photos of Steins I’ve seen, Kentucky Camp was really cleared out.

    I just wonder what modern forensics would have had to say about Stetson’s fall from the Santa Rita Hotel…

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