Collecting Pieces of His Past
June 25th, 2016 by Jennifer Brown
Relics of a bygone mining era dot the 80 acres of Richard Billingsley’s home in east-central Arizona. Photo by Mike Teegarden

Relics of a bygone mining era dot the 80 acres of Richard Billingsley’s home in east-central Arizona.
Photo by Mike Teegarden

Richard Billingsley of Duncan County, Arizona, surely has ore in his bones.

Along with his parents and four brothers, Richard grew up in the house where he now resides. It is a modest home outside the town of Duncan, down a dusty road with a view of Steeple Rock—a volcanic butte in New Mexico, just across the Arizona border—where much of the area’s mining history was made.

The Carlisle Mine, one of several mines in the Steeple Rock Mining District, became famous in the late 19th century and was the most productive the mine in the area. Richard’s father, Benjamin Franklin Billingsley III, worked there in the 1930s and ’40s.

Richard’s great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin II, owned a mercantile in Duncan where he did business with the Carlisles in the 1890s.

Richard’s father also built the Ontario Mine, which is part of the Steeple Rock District, in the 1930s.

“Our family was living there in 1946 when I was born,” Richard says. “Off and on through the ’60s and ’70s, all of the family worked in and about the Ontario Mine.”

Richard, who turns 70 this month, and his older brother Les own majority interest in two patented mining properties in the Steeple Rock Mining District: Jim Crow Mine and Billali Mine. They acquired ownership of both properties in the mid- to late-1980s.

The brothers have developed the mines by sinking shafts, driving tunnels, declines and raises to explore for and block out ore zones.

“Over the years, we have erected several head frames with hoisting machinery and other surface plant structures and equipment,” Richard explains.

Production is currently at a halt due to lack of funds for production.

“It takes a lot of money to do anything,” Richard says.

As the mines sit unworked, it is on Richard’s 80 acres of property where his fascination with all things mining is evident. He has acquired more than 60 years’ worth of tools and equipment, much of which is on display and visible from the road in front of his house.

Among the countless items are a rocker shovel, 1-ton and 3-ton ore carts, ore buckets, a blacksmith’s forge, a man-powered drill press, a pneumatic drill and a drifter drill for drilling blast holes in tunneling. There are battery-powered locomotives to pull ore car trains underground, a rock crusher and a water pump recovered from the 200-foot level of Jim Crow Mine. It had been under water for 100 years.

An anvil—which, despite being heavy and hard to carry off—is bolted to the post it stands on to keep it from being stolen.

Richard didn’t start his collection with intention. He found many of his pieces in the mining operations he explored and cleaned out.

“It just kinda came about,” Richard says. “We’d say, ‘We oughta hang onto that’ for nostalgic reasons.”

The tallest piece in Richard’s collec-tion is a 60-foot headframe—the structural frame that sits above an underground mine shaft—still short of its eventual 90-foot stature. It is a project 25 years in the making.

Richard and Les took a contract at a copper mine in Christmas, Arizona, in 1991. Their job was to dispose of machinery. The disassembled headframe was among the trash.

“We asked what it was, and decided we’d better see if they’d sell it,” Richard says.

For years after the sale, the pieces sat in a pile on Richard’s property.

“I decided if I don’t do something with that, someone would take the parts for scrap,” Richard says.

The brothers are reconstructing the headframe in case they want to put it in service or sell it. Some pieces are missing, and they will have to buy more steel to finish the job.

“We don’t have plans or pictures,” Richard says. “It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle.”

People have asked to buy some of Richard’s collection, but he has turned them down.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find things,” he says.

Although much of the machinery collection sits dormant, some of the machinery is functional. The town of Duncan has borrowed ore carts—as well as one of three old fire engines parked on Richard’s property—for local parades.

“I just love old iron, whether it’s vehicles or what have you,” Richard says. “They’re just not making them like that no more.”