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Home Travel Adventure Seekers Walking in the Footsteps of America’s Territorial West

Visit Arizona’s Pinal County to See Where the West’s Legends Lived and Died

Walking in the Footsteps of America’s Territorial West

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What is there about the Territorial West that continues to attract people? Why do figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, William Bonny and the rest of the Western pantheon figure so largely in both our imaginations and culture?

Part of the reason is that there are still the rare places where we can walk where they walked, and many of the landmarks they traveled by remain virtually unchanged.

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About 35 miles east of Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport such a place exists. Welcome to Pinal County, Arizona - the place where the desert floor rolls against the jagged wall of the Superstition Mountains and time eases back to how Arizona was. Pinal itself used to be known as a 'silver city' because of the mining. Today, the area's claim to fame is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, and a great place to visit while you're in the area.

Apache Junction is the eastern most city in what is considered the East Valley and the gateway of N.E. Pinal County. Now a community of 40,000 residents, in Arizona Territorial days it was little more then an indistinguishable spot on the desert crossed over by the stagecoach line running from Mesa to the mining camp at Goldfield.

Goldfield itself was a collection of scattered canvas tents and miner's shacks located beneath the Superstition Mountains, five miles north of present day Apache Junction's downtown. That was until 1892 when a flash flood exposed one of the richest veins of Gold in Arizona, and it boom-towned into a frontier metropolis of over 4,000 residents with three saloons, a church, a hotel and clusters of board-walked storefronts serving what was then a large percentage of the county's population.

Just as quick as it had began, by 1897 the mine whistles were silent and the last echo of the ore crushers were silent, as played out as the lode. The years swept over the mining offices, the whiskey joints and buildings until they crumpled into dust while the abandon machinery rusted beneath the Cholla and creosote brushes.

Skip forward a hundred years to the 1980s when two visionary gents named Bob Schoose and Jay Zingler became interested in the site and carefully studied the broken foundations and vintage photographs of its original buildings. Weathered board by board they reproduced its Main Street until today your Nikes can stir the same dust as the miner's brogans and cowboy boots of the original inhabitants!

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There are shops again selling everything from Western clothing and territorial reproductions to authentic Arizona salsas and the Mammoth Saloon (the largest of the original whiskey joints) asks you to "name yer' poison" at its massive oak bar.

There are Sunday Services at the Church on the Mount and the narrow gauge train tracks creak once again - now loaded with sightseers instead of ore. You can even see Goldfield's resident desperados, The Goldfield Gun Fighters; shoot it out on the hour - something the old Goldfield Miners were grateful to avoid. They would probably be much happier to find Lulu's Sporting House & Bordello still standing, though no doubt disappointed that it is now a museum rather then the pleasure palace they enjoyed.

You can't come to Apache Junction (or Goldfield) without noticing how everything is overshadowed by the Superstition Mountains.

Blasted-looking towering walls of rock, they were sacred places to every Indian band in the area. To the Pima, the "Crooked Top Mountains"(Ka Katak Tami) marked the high water mark of a flood similar to that experienced by Noah and the towering, man shaped monoliths warriors turned to stone by angry gods.

The Apache considered their crags the home of Thunder Gods. The first U.S. military survey in 1866, noting the Indians held a healthy respect for their spiritual powers, named them Sierra Supersticiones and by 1870 the current name Superstition Mountains appeared on military maps.

The Superstitions are also closely identified with the West's best known "Lost Mine" - that of the Lost Dutchman, Jacob Waltz.

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Jacob was German, not Dutch, and an irascible old prospector at that, known for wandering the Superstitions with only his burro, some picks and shovels. For 22 years, he disappeared into the mountains each winter, returning to his cottage on the Salt River when the weather grew hot. When he died in 1891 his caretaker, Mrs. Julia Thomas discovered an iron box containing 48 pounds of gold under his bed.

From bits of his conversation over the years, Julia thought she had a pretty good idea of where the Dutchman's mine was. She spent the balance of her life and fortune looking for it without success - as did the several dozen others who tried and failed after her. The story of the Lost Dutchman Mine has provided multiple murders, beheadings, mysterious disappearances, treachery and double crosses for the last 118 years.

Both Goldfield and the face of the Superstition Mountains lie along Highway 88, the Historic Apache Trail. Directly beneath the asphalt lies the same footpath traveled by the Hohokam, Salado and other desert Indian tribes heading north to trade with the cliff dwelling Anasazi in present day Utah and Colorado.

The Apache made use of it as a raiding trail on forays against the Pima (and the early settlers in Florence) while U.S. Army patrols followed the trail in search of hostiles during the Tonto Basin Campaign of 1872-73.

In pursuit of the uncompromising Tonto Chief Delshay, the Superstitions and surrounding area became known as "Bloody Basin," and sharp fights such as Skull Cave, Turret Mountain, the Apache Leap, Bloody Tanks and others are part of military and Western history.

At the turn of the 20th Century, with the building of the Roosevelt Dam, the Mesa-Tonto road followed the trail and was laboriously blasted; hand graded and sculpted through the deep canyons and winding cliff walls to handle the supply trains and freight wagons.

The result, in the worlds of Theodore Roosevelt who dedicated the dam in 1911, "combined the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rocky Mountains, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and an indefinable something that none of the others have."

Next Month, Part Two: Apache Junction's Old West legends and mining towns

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