Barringer- Sinner, Saint, or Just a Man of His Time
I am in the middle of writing another book on Meteor Crater so I have had Mr. Barringer on my mind of late. So it was of interest to me the statements that were made on one of the Internet mail list about him. He is sometimes cast as a greedy and unthoughtful individual who simple wanted to make a fast buck off the resources of the crater. I always find this too harsh. He was interested in mining. He was a well known success in Arizona and elsewhere in mining. But, he also had a great fascination with the meteorites themselves and clearly had a deeper interest in Meteor Crater than just the commercial venture aspect.
Had there been a way to mine the iron fragments from the bottom of the crater (or any other of the crater products) it would definitely be a very different place today. But, it would not be alone in being a landmark destroyed by commerce. It is easy to look back with all the environmental restrictions and compliance laws of today and judge Standard Iron. It was the wild west and it was his land after he staked the claims. And for that matter remains the property of the family still. Fortunately there was no way to make any money from the crater and it was not seriously altered.
Statements are frequently made that he should have returned the property to the government after he found he could not mine a buried mass; since it was not there. Well, that is not really even an issue. The government has never cared much about whether people with claims are gainfully employed and making a livelihood from working them. After the claims are improved and the patients issued the land is basically theirs. The deserts of California and Arizona are covered with claims that are worked only recreationally by their owners. Little more the weekend retreats for some fun and sun. Barringer complied with the requirements of developing the claims. He made a bad judgment about the angle of entry and the physics of impacts. The 90 feet of lake bed deposits covering the fallback fill didnít help either. There were no fragments of meteorite to be found easily in the crater. However there were plenty of fragments on the slopes. Though mostly small they were still what he had claimed the land for. Nickel-iron was what he looked for and nickel-iron is what he found.
It should be remembered that there are many kinds of claims. Among them are placer claims. This is a common type of claim for the desert. Today they are worked not just with dry washers and the like but also with metal detectors. No great amount of dirt is moved when detectors are used. But the claims are being worked and they remain the property of their owners. Barringer had placer claims for Meteor Crater and no one would say he found no iron. He recovered thousands of meteorites, many from the slopes within his claims. As for the fragments of meteorite found on the plains beyond his claims well thatís a different issue.
It May be of interest to note that Barringer studied law and had been a practicing attorney before going into mining. He was the author of two books. Minerals of Commercial Value and The Law of Mines and Mining in the United States. Both works published in 1897. The later being the classic work on mining law for a long time. If anyone knew the law of mining; of developing and holding claims it was Barringer.
It is romantic to think that the crater should be the property of the American people like other natural wonders. But, it is not. It became the property of Standard Iron. If it was the property of the American public like say the Grand Canyon. Would it make a difference. I personally think it would not. The museum is as good or better than those at many national parks. The crater is being preserved very well. Would I like to be free to hike and walk the area like in national parks? Sure I would. Would I be allowed to if it was conserved by the government. No, I donít think I would. I think that Meteor Crater with its steep walls and fragile nature would be in a conservation program much like it is. No one could seriously think that any governmental agency would allow hunting for meteorites. So nothing but the official name of the owner and the price of admission would probably be different.
Even with all the mining and shaft digging, roadwork and construction of buildings over the last hundred years, the crater is looking pretty good still. And Barringerís dogged determination to prove he was correct about its origin brought much of what we know about it to light. Had he realized in the first year that there was no great mass to mine he might have walked away. Nothing might have been done at the crater again for decades. In some real sense we owe Barringer a great debt for his struggles there in the hostile Arizona Territory. They May not have been what we think of as politically correct motives but it was 1903, and he was a miner.