Not Mining His Own Business

Wild Bill Mahoney owns Wyatt Earp's patented mining claim in Tombstone. All that prevents him from turning it into a tourist attraction are the dozens of people living on it.

In Tombstone, them's fightin' words. The townfolk are rather up in arms that Mahoney's claiming property they've held title to for decades.

"He wants something for nothing," says Peter Kline, who has put up a trading post at one edge of the old Earp claim. "I said I'd like to see him put one foot on my property."

Former Tombstone mayor Alex Gradillas shrugs and says, "You don't really know what to say to the guy, because he throws all these documents in front of you, and what are you gonna say? 'I think you're crazy'? You're liable to get shot nowadays."

So far, the only shooting has been off at the mouth, and much of it by lawyers. A lawsuit filed against the Mahoneys on behalf of some of these Tombstoners means someone stands to lose a lot--a whole bunch of lots, really. The Mahoneys are already bankrupt, homes are tied up in litigation and title companies are referring all questions to their attorneys.

It's a modern-day showdown starring characters like our protagonist, Wild Bill Mahoney, along with Prospector Steve Tima, Smokin' Irene and Pete-Behind-the-Counter.

And it's all playing out in a place where things aren't always as they seem, where no one is really buried on the Boot Hill tourists pay to visit, and the OK Corral isn't really the site of the old shootout--it just sounds a lot better than "The Shootout in the Vacant Lot Next to C.S. Fly's Photo Gallery."

"I've been through Black's Law Dictionary," Wild Bill says, "'cause I know that what something means to me might mean something different to a lawyer. But my argument goes back to the original argument: 'forever.' It's pretty hard to dance around that one."

If there's anything that binds the folks who own and study mining claims, it's a verbosity arising from their voluminous research. They become miners of documents. And to hear them tell it, patented mining claims are the most powerful titles in the land.

Patented claims are apparently mighty enough to give pause to Diane Bain of the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources. When told how Tombstone basically grew over the Earps' old mining claim, she halts and says: "That should never have happened." She looks puzzled. "Wait--maybe I'm not understanding. That wouldn't happen with a patented mining claim. That's somebody's property."

But Ken Phillips, the department's chief engineer, has heard rumors of this case and is eager to see what it is all about. He pulls out tomes of state mineral districts and leafs to a page showing many of Tombstone's mining claims overlapping the original township site. It is the first time he has ever seen a township on a mineral district map.

"Hmmmm. There's not going to be many places where this happened," he says. "Morenci, maybe. Bisbee. Jerome. It may very well come down to whoever has prior existing rights."

And certainly with Arizona's history as a mining state, you'd think real estate schools would offer a course or two covering the goofy, troublesome area of patented mining claims. Think again.

"Not that I'm aware of," says a woman at Bud Crawley Real Estate School in Phoenix. "I know we don't."

"Not a one," another woman reports from the Arizona School of Real Estate and Business.

"We can't make money on it, is what it is," says a guy at the Professional Institute of Real Estate in Scottsdale. "That's such a specialized area. Nobody cares about it."

Nobody but Wild Bill Mahoney.
When you buy land, your rights usually extend to 40 feet below the surface. Typical mining claims begin at 40 feet below. But when you get a patented mining claim, you get it all--the surface, the minerals, the insects, the antiquities. (A few years ago, a miner in Alaska found a mastodon skeleton on his patented mining claim and sold the bones for $200,000.)

In the 1880s, with all that frontier just a-waitin' to be staked out, patented mining claims rained upon the landscape like Jolly Ranchers from a pinata. The U.S. included the surface since prospectors would usually build a blacksmith's shop, maybe even a shack to live in, somewhere near their mine shaft. Many of them, though, amounted to homesteads: "Most people had no idea what was down deep underneath," says Tucson attorney John Lacy, an expert in Arizona mineral and water rights.

Still, applicants had to show some amount of mining activity there and make certain improvements. "If you go to that much trouble to patent a mine, it's usually because you think it's got more value to it than your other mines," says Bob Palmquist, another Tucson attorney who is well-schooled in all things Earp.

The First North Extension of the Mountain Maid mining claim is two blocks from the OK Corral. It includes a home whose owner can rightly claim that Virgil Earp slept here. U.S. 80 pythons through the claim on its way to Bisbee, and there is a well-trafficked Circle K. But the silver lode the Earps apparently were banking on never materialized on this claim.

"It was a dog," says Hollis Cook, park manager for the old Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone, now a state museum.

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