Home Arizona Real Estate News Oddities How Meteor Crater Swallowed a Fortune and Strengthened a Family

How Meteor Crater Swallowed a Fortune and Strengthened a Family

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From the air it appears as a dimple, a perfectly round scoop taken from the Arizona desert.

From the rim, Meteor Crater’s immensity is clear. One mile across, 600 feet deep, a crater seemingly stolen from the moon.

Even from that vantage point, it’s hard to comprehend that a vast fortune disappeared into the emptiness.

Yet that is precisely what happened a century ago when one pioneering miner sunk his considerable wealth into the crater, which devoured the cash with every shaft drilled.

By the time Daniel Moreau Barringer died, he had little to pass on to his eight children.

The Barringers could understandably have considered Meteor Crater to be a curse. Future generations might think of it as where the family fortune is buried amid shattered dreams, and where the promise of luxurious lifestyles rests in peace. The faster it is forgotten, the better.

Yet Meteor Crater owns a place in the family’s story that money couldn’t possibly buy.

“It’s part of us, a family legacy,” said Lewin Barringer, 42, a fourth-generation member of the family. “Meteor Crater and the story behind it is our family fortune.”

That story starts in a Tucson theater lobby, when a Philadelphia mining engineer learned of a vast deposit of iron lying hundreds of feet below the surface of the high desert in northern Arizona.

Even better: The hole was already dug.

Daniel Moreau Barringer, left, accompanies investors on a trip to mining operations at the base of Meteor Crater, ca. 1905. (Photo: Barringer Crater Co.)

A meteoric mission

When Lewin Barringer was 15, he did what all family members eventually do — visit the birthplace of the Barringer legacy.

The 1989 journey from his hometown of Philadelphia was more pilgrimage than a vacation. He knew the geological oddity played a pivotal role in the family history, brought up as a point of pride whenever two or more Barringers gathered.

Lewin Barringer knew bits and pieces of the oft-told story of his great-grandfather’s decades-long search for the massive iron meteorite that had caused the crater. Unbeknownst to science at the time, it had largely vaporized on impact.

The tale, as told by descendants, was less about financial folly and more about one man’s unwavering dedication to his beliefs. Daniel Moreau Barringer spent more than two decades trying to prove that a massive chunk of iron had fallen from the sky. Respected geologists at the time theorized the crater had been caused by an ancient volcano.

Hours after arriving in Phoenix, Lewin Barringer held on as the family sedan rattled along Meteor Crater Road, a washboard path through the featureless landscape of the high desert.

Ahead, he spotted a ridge. It seemed to be misplaced in the terrain that ran otherwise unimpeded to the horizon. Minutes later he noted a modest building built into the ridge, the road dead-ending in the parking lot at its base.

But there was no crater to be seen, and Lewin began to think it was much smaller than he’d imagined.

Until he stood on its precipice.

The modest ridge was a small part of the rim that encircled a mile-wide gouge in the Earth. The rim dropped sharply at first before curving gently to the unusually flat, smooth bottom 600 feet below.

Nearly 30 years later, Lewin’s memory of his first look is as clear now as the view was then.

“It was just so stunning,” he said. “It caught me by surprise. You have no idea it’s there until you’re right on top of it, and it’s huge.”

Lewin knew his great-grandfather had spent years overseeing mining operations at the bottom, digging hole after fruitless hole. The crater still held a few remnants of the effort. Lewin could see the first shaft, dug by those who expected to hit iron within 10 or 15 feet, if that.

He understood why the Barringers were tied to this place. Lewin knew the fortune that was lost, yet that was overshadowed by what this place would become — a landmark forever tied to the Barringer name and steeped in family lore.

Later that day Lewin watched family members unveil a plaque commemorating the eight branches of the Barringer family. He met Gene Shoemaker, the geologist who was the first to definitively conclude that Meteor Crater was the result of an impact.

Lewin accompanied uncles on a hike to the bottom, picking their way along what remained of the mule trails that served as supply lines. He listened to the stories of their childhood when the crater was their playground.

They also spoke of how Daniel Moreau Barringer committed himself to proving the crater’s origin. With his money dwindling and hopes of finding the meteorite fading, something had to come from his efforts.

Yet he died long before experts determined that an iron meteorite had indeed been responsible, making Meteor Crater the first proven impact crater on the planet.

“On that trip, I started to think about the crater, the science,” Barringer said. “So much of my great-grandfather’s stuff is still out there … But it’s the stories. They’re so dramatic and well documented. If not for the crater, would we know any of this?”

Barringer became a professional musician, but the stories never lost their impact on him. He joined the board of the Barringer Crater Co., a non-profit that preserves the landmark while furthering meteoritic studies.

The crater served as a training ground for every Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon. It remains open to geologists, physicists and other experts who value its relatively pristine state.

“I’m proud we haven’t built zip lines or see-through walkways or any of that carnival stuff,” Barringer said. “Protecting the crater has become our family legacy, one we take very seriously.”

During that first trip to the crater in 1989, Barringer recalled how the kids were encouraged to scour for small bits of meteorite.

It wasn’t long before Lewin Barringer spied a glint in the dirt. He pried it from the earth, lifting a baseball-size chunk of iron. His uncles told him it was the largest chunk of meteorite found in years. A noted geologist (and family friend) offered to buy it on the spot.

The 15-year-old politely declined, tucking the nugget away and the story that would forever accompany it.

A water tank sits at the base of Meteor Crater, ca. 1905. Water was needed for drinking and for the steam-powered drill. (Photo: Barringer Crater Co.)

A crash landing

Daniel Moreau Barringer had nothing to prove when, in 1902, he first heard of a crater in the northern Arizona Territory.

The engineer owned lucrative silver claims, had written two books on mining and had no trouble financing an around-the-world trip for his honeymoon. With three children (and five more to come), he built a large house along Philadelphia’s exclusive Main Line.

He also loved to explore the West, and was on one of his journeys when he slipped out of an opera performance in Tucson, according to “A Grand Obsession: Daniel Moreau Barringer and His Crater,” by Nancy Southgate and Felicity Barringer.

A local government agent joined the well-known mining engineer on the hotel veranda, asking Barringer if he’d heard of a large and very curious bowl-shaped dent to the north. Ranchers had found bits of iron in and around the hole, and talk was that it may have been made by a large iron rock from space.

Barringer’s life would never be the same.

Over the next 27 years, he dedicated himself not only to finding the immense meteorite that caused the crater, but proving there was one at all.

According to the prevailing scientific theories, the hole was carved by an ancient steam volcano. That, however, did not account for the chunks of iron found in and around the crater.

Barringer chose to believe the likely, and certainly more lucrative, explanation of a meteorite impact. Just as a bullet fired into the ground displaces dirt commensurate to its size, it was easy to believe a vast iron deposit worth hundreds of billions of dollars awaited just beneath the crater.

After President Theodore Roosevelt signed a mining claim in 1903, drilling commenced, according to “A Grand Obsession.” The first shafts were sunk in the center of the crater. Miners assumed they’d strike iron in no time.

Even as the shafts continued to reveal nothing but soil and bedrock, Barringer and investors in his Standard Iron Co. continued to pour money into the crater. Workers had punched 28 holes along the bottom by 1908 with nothing to show for them.

Miners operate the Heaton Drill, ca. 1905. Parts of it remain on the bottom of Meteor Crater. (Photo: Barringer Crater Co.)

Frustrated but undeterred

Daniel Moreau Barringer had nothing to prove when, in 1902, he first heard of a crater in the northern Arizona Territory.

The engineer owned lucrative silver claims, had written two books on mining and had no trouble financing an around-the-world trip for his honeymoon. With three children (and five more to come), he built a large house along Philadelphia’s exclusive Main Line.

He also loved to explore the West, and was on one of his journeys when he slipped out of an opera performance in Tucson, according to “A Grand Obsession: Daniel Moreau Barringer and His Crater,” by Nancy Southgate and Felicity Barringer.

A local government agent joined the well-known mining engineer on the hotel veranda, asking Barringer if he’d heard of a large and very curious bowl-shaped dent to the north. Ranchers had found bits of iron in and around the hole, and talk was that it may have been made by a large iron rock from space.

Barringer’s life would never be the same.

Over the next 27 years, he dedicated himself not only to finding the immense meteorite that caused the crater, but proving there was one at all.

According to the prevailing scientific theories, the hole was carved by an ancient steam volcano. That, however, did not account for the chunks of iron found in and around the crater.

Barringer chose to believe the likely, and certainly more lucrative, explanation of a meteorite impact. Just as a bullet fired into the ground displaces dirt commensurate to its size, it was easy to believe a vast iron deposit worth hundreds of billions of dollars awaited just beneath the crater.

After President Theodore Roosevelt signed a mining claim in 1903, drilling commenced, according to “A Grand Obsession.” The first shafts were sunk in the center of the crater. Miners assumed they’d strike iron in no time.

Even as the shafts continued to reveal nothing but soil and bedrock, Barringer and investors in his Standard Iron Co. continued to pour money into the crater. Workers had punched 28 holes along the bottom by 1908 with nothing to show for them.

From left to right, Drew, Lewin and Tom Barringer are among members of the family who oversee the Barringer Crater Company. The Barringers are considered the founding family of Meteor Crater due to the efforts of Daniel Moreau Barringer in the early 20th century. (Photo: Lewin Barringer)

Frustrated but undeterred

Every now and then a lucky visitor spots an oddly colored sliver chunk among the bits of rock and plucks it from the ground.

In those hands is a small sample of what Daniel Moreau Barringer sought so eagerly a century ago. Such iron fragments remain scattered in and around the crater, and perhaps for miles around.

Visitors to Meteor Crater now have the benefit of the whole story. Barringer’s faith that a space-borne object hit the Earth was eventually proven by geologist Gene Shoemaker, who studied the area in 1958-59.

His meticulous observations and measurements laid the groundwork for impact mechanics, and Meteor Crater became the first (and best-preserved) documented example of a meteorite strike.

Eugene Shoemaker sits on the edge of Meteor Crater. Thanks to his work in the late 1950s, the geologist definitively proved the crater was caused by impact, ending decades of debate. (Photo: The Republic)

While the geological rarity failed as an iron mine, it has excelled as a destination for researchers and curious visitors.

In the 1940s, after the Barringers fended off attempts by the federal and state governments to take over the crater, the family took initial steps to turn the landmark into a commercial venture. The Barringers partnered with the Bar-T-Bar cattle ranch, which owned much of the land surrounding the crater, to open the crater as a tourist destination.

As the ranch company established Meteor Crater Enterprises to oversee commercial aspects, the Barringers set up their own company to manage the crater as a research facility.

The move ensured that Meteor Crater is a reminder not of their patriarch’s folly, but of his forward thinking.

The Barringers have worked hard to protect the crater even as it draws more than 300,000 visitors a year. Anyone who has seriously studied asteroids knows of Meteor Crater and the story of its unofficial founder.

“Meteor Crater is one of us,” Drew Barringer said. “It’s like a family member, the glue that keeps us together.”

At least once a year the family organizes a trip to Meteor Crater, like a reunion at the family homestead. It’s a time to catch up on the new and share memories of the old.

“What if?”

And stories of Daniel Moreau Barringer continue to have an impact on the family. Learning of the mining claims and the disappointment that followed is a family rite of passage.

But so is the tale of a man who took on the scientific community and refused to yield an inch until his dying day.

While future generations may question their ancestor’s dedication to a lost financial cause, the one thing they likely will never ask is, “What if?”

What if Daniel Moreau Barringer had not stepped out of an opera and into that fateful summer night? What if he’d poured his resources into a lucrative copper mine rather than a fabled iron mine? What if he’d not lost the family fortune but built upon it?

There would seem to be no easy answer, yet Lewin Barringer didn’t hesitate when asked to contemplate “What if?”

The family would be poorer without Meteor Crater, he said. Money is one thing, but being forever linked to one for nature’s monuments is priceless.

It also helps that while not Rockefeller rich, each branch of the Barringer family did well — successes sprinkled generously throughout.

“We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor either,” said the 41-year-old Barringer. “Besides, you can’t miss what you never had, whether it’s fancy cars or big homes. The crater and our story means more to us than any of that.”

Meteor Crater

Where: From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north to Flagstaff, then head east on Interstate 40 for 36 miles to Meteor Crater Road. Drive south 5 miles to Meteor Crater.

When: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily the rest of the year.

Admission: $18, $9 for ages 6-17, free for age 5 and younger.

Details: 800-289-5898, meteorcrater.com.

Article source: http://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/arizona/2017/10/25/meteor-crater-swallows-fortune-strengthens-family/633143001/