by Richard Busch

Lithosphere (January 1995); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

What Arizona town is named after a misspelled rock? You already know the answer, of course. It's Quartzsite!

My interest in Quartzsite was piqued many years ago while looking for interesting things on a map of Arizona. There, on the "left edge" of the state, where Interstate 10 crosses Highway 95, two annotations caught my eye. The first was the town of "Quartzsite" itself, which surely was a misspelling. The other was the historical artifact in "Quartzsite" labeled the "Hi Jolly Memorial." As a budding geologist, the misspelling irritated me; however, "Hi Jolly" intrigued me. I resolved to find out more about both.

It took me more than a decade to make it to Quartzsite for the first time. Now I go every year. "Hi Jolly" was another matter. I learned about him many years earlier -- from Randy Sparks' song. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning . . .

The town of Quartzsite, Arizona wasn't always named "Quartzsite." Quartzsite began life in 1856 when Charles Tyson settled there and built a single, fort-like, adobe building known, appropriately enough, as Fort Tyson. After Tyson located a reliable supply of water, the "fort" was renamed the Oasis Hotel and the settlement, now called "Tyson Wells Stage Coach Station," became a stop on the Ehrenberg-to-Prescott line. Tyson's Wells, as the town came to be known, flourished until the mid-1890s when it was abandoned as the stage lines ceased operation.

The discovery of gold and silver in the areas surrounding Tyson's Wells led to a small mining boom in the late 1890s which, in turn, revitalized the town. Due to the mining activity and the widespread occurrence of quartzite rock in the area, Tyson's Wells was renamed Quartzite. Unfortunately, a clerical error by the local Post Office resulted in the name being misspelled as "Quartzsite." The error was never fixed.

Turn-of-the-century Quartzsite was a mining supply center. The town sported a hotel, a general store, a barber shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a handful of saloons in addition to other amenities. Miners came from Ehrenberg, La Paz, and nearby mining camps to resupply. As was to be expected, Quartzsite's success was closely related to the quality and quantity of the gold and silver ore in the surrounding area. High quality ore was not plentiful and, as a result, Quartzsite's life as a boom town was short. By 1900, less than 20 people lived in the town.

One of the major factors affecting the productivity of the mining operations was the lack of water at the mines. In his article "Gold Deposits Near Quartzsite, Arizona," Edward Jones states that water packed from La Paz to the placer deposits brought $5 a gallon during the rush period and that gold was recovered entirely by dry washing. Jones describes the dry washer machines used during this time:

"The machines used in 'dry washing' are of several types, but probably the most efficient is that of the 'bellows' type. In capable hands 6 cubic yards of material can be handled by a machine of the largest type by one man in 8 hours, and the capacity of those of the smaller types, more commonly used, is 2 yards a day.

"The machine consists of a wooden framework to which is attached a coarse screen, hopper, crank and gears, riffle board, and bellows. The material is passed through a screen having a quarter-inch mesh into a hopper having a capacity of 1 cubic foot, and then passes on to the inclined riffle board, 10 by 20 inches, which also has a screen surface with wooden riffles at right angles to its length. The pulsations of the bellows keeps the material in motion. Underneath the riffle board is a muslin cloth stretched over the air chamber.

"The power for operating the bellows is a crank on geared wheels; and, as the material passes over the riffle board, the heavier particles are intercepted by the riffles and drop through the screen on to the cloth, while the waste material passes over the end of the board or is blown away by the air blast. The gold is obtained by panning the concentrates.

"It is apparent that the gold-bearing wash must run well above 50 cents per cubic yard in order that the operator may make miner's wages. Sporadic placer mining has been done with this machine by the miners at Quartzsite, but because of the variability of the gold content of the wash and the limitations of the machine, no large areas have been thoroughly or continuously worked."

Quartzsite's population fluctuated erratically from 1900 to about 1960. Election records reveal a population from as few as 14 people to a few hundred (during the depression) in the 60-year period. By 1960, only 50 people lived in the town on a permanent basis.

During the winters though, the population of Quartzsite swelled to 1,500 or more as travelers from colder areas of the nation flocked to the town to weather out the season. A number of permanent residents recognized the economic advantages of establishing Quartzsite as a winter haven and chartered the Quartzsite Improvement Association (QIA) as a means to organize themselves. The QIA decided that a managed activity was needed to capitalize on the influx of winter visitors and, after due deliberation, decided to host an annual gem and mineral show.

A local resident of Quartzsite, Sig Sigurdson, donated four acres of land upon which a civic center was built and upon which the QIA Pow-Wow (the name given to the gem and mineral show) was held. From the 1,000 people who attended the first QIA Pow-Wow in 1967, attendance grew steadily over the years: 12,000 in 1969, 200,000 in 1974, and 500,000 in 1975. In 1978, just 11 years after the first Pow-Wow, attendance topped one million!

Today, the Quartzsite experience is one that shouldn't be missed. If you've never before driven to Quartzsite during the Pow-Wow, you'll be amazed to see several thousand RVs camped across the desert as you approach the town. Once in the town, you'll notice additional thousands of dealers selling gems, minerals, jewelry, and other handcrafted merchandise. It all begins on the first Wednesday in February and lasts about a week.

Oh, yes; I almost forgot. What about "Hi Jolly" and his memorial? The memorial honors the Arabian camel driver Hadji Ali who escorted a consignment of camels in an Army experiment in 1856 to determine if the animals could be used successfully in the American southwestern desert. Hadji Ali was nicknamed "Hi Jolly" by the soldiers.

The camel experiment failed. Horses and cattle, unaccustomed to seeing camels, became spooked in their presence and frequently stampeded. The Army eventually turned the camels loose in the desert and, after his death, Hi Jolly was memorialized with a small monument. The monument is located in Quartzsite, in the town cemetery just off Main Street. It consists of a 6-foot-high pyramid, built with chunks of ore minerals, topped with a metal silhouette of a camel. A sign nearby tells the story of Hi Jolly and his camels.


American Automobile Association;
Arizona-New Mexico Tourbook; 1993.

Jones, Edward L., Jr.;
"Gold Deposits Near Quartzsite, Arizona;" Contributions to Economic Geology, 1915, Part I; Bulletin 620; United States Geological Survey; 1916.

Sparks, Randy;
"Hi Jolly;" Ramblin'; The New Christy Minstrels; Columbia Records; CK 8855.

Walz, Robert J.;
"A Brief History of Quartzsite;" South Bay Lapidary and Mineral Society Agatizer via Crystal Ball; Virginia Nolan, Editor; January 1994.

Copyright © 1995 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the January 1995 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002