Part Two: Exploring the Land of Outlaws and Mining Towns

Discover the Legends Along Arizona’s Apache Trail

Sunday, March 15 2009 14:21 James E. Coplin   Adventure Seekers
Arizona is one of the West's great treasure troves of Old West history, of gunmen, prospectors and dreamers, and there's no better place to experience that heritage than along the Apache Trail where little has changed since those days.

Here you'll find legends, markers and stories, including the last stage holdup in the West, the happenings of Billy the Kid, and the graves of bandits who wouldn't go down without a fight.
A great place to see some of that history is the Lost Dutchman Superstition Museum, built right on the Apache Trail. The museum welcomes travelers with exhibits and knowledge of all matters concerning the Superstition Mountains. Go in and learn about Hacksaw Tom - the legendary highwayman who masked himself in a gunny sack and sat on a rock waiting for the freighters to reach the bottom of Fish Creek Canyon.

Roughly 14 miles from Arizona's Apache Junction, you might be amazed to discover a chain of blue lakes reflecting the surrounding cliffs and the Dolly Steamboat placidly chugging along from its Canyon Lake Marina. About 130 feet deep at points, these pearls of water in the desert were the result of the Roosevelt Dam and the taming of the Salt River that allowed cities like Phoenix and Mesa to flourish.

A few miles past Canyon Lake is Tortilla Flat - the old stage stop and Arizona's smallest town with a permanent population of six and as rustic as its 19th century origins. It's the final watering hole and restaurant before the pavement ends, and things start getting really interesting!

The Apache Trail continues on towards the Roosevelt Dam - rewarding the adventurous with hairpin curves on a narrow road clinging precariously along vertical cliffs and awfully few guard rails. Yet there is no thrill like experiencing the decent into Fish Creek Canyon - a 900-foot drop in less then a mile - and its abrupt change from high desert to a lush ecosystem of willows and trees.

Apache Lake is your indication you have almost reached the dam itself - a towering wall of concrete 283 feet high, 723 feet wide and, at the time of its completion, the largest masonry dam in the world.

Looking over the expanse of water being held back is more like standing at the edge of an ocean then in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Try to imagine the Herculean efforts required hauling the materials - much less to cut the road and build the dam itself. It's a testament to why we admire the "can do" frontier character.

From downtown Apache Junction, the Apache Trail runs north. Yet traveling east takes you up the Old West Highway (U.S. 60) and what might just as well be termed "The Outlaw Trail."

Gold Canyon's History

Seven miles along the Old West Highway you'll run into the modern, affluent village of Gold Canyon with its art galleries, golf courses and spas. Don't be fooled, though. It was once Barkley Cattle Company land and in 1885 the site of the Quarter Circle U Ranch.

Even today die-hard cowboys keep a few head in the state land bordering the highway and more then once motorists have had the wits scared out of them by a refugee longhorn making his way across busy Highway 60.

Gold Canyon was also the site where bad man Frank Blake met his much-deserved end.

Frank was a wandering man, a casual drinking buddy of Wild Bill Hickok and a notorious horse thief and woman stealer. He was one of the originators of the Horse Thief Trail running from Arizona through New Mexico to Texas.

Sought for kidnapping and murder, a Pinal Posse chased him into the Superstitions and, unable to catch him, simply camped out in the foothills waiting for him to come down. Sure enough, Frank obliged and became fatally ventilated with .45 caliber bullets for his trouble.

If you travel another 20 miles up the Old West Highway, you will start the climb up the Tonto National Forest until you crest Gonzales Pass.

Down below you will discover the little town of Superior, founded in 1872 and its downtown area looking much the same. It was an enclave of mostly Hispanic copper miners and remains alive with their heritage; a place of good Mexican Restaurants serving authentic food, local bars and cantinas and small shops.

It's somewhat ramshackle charm lies in its period architecture and its picturesque setting between the walls of the Apache Leap and the majestic saddle-backed heights of Picket Post Mountain.

Picket Post Mountain and the Leap have their own intertwined history and legends.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

What is now the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, three miles west of Superior was once the site of the silver city of Pinal - the prospecting and gambling grounds for Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Kate Elder and Mattie Baylock. Mattie is actually buried close by. Camp Picket Post was located there as well with a heliograph manned atop it to signal the activities of Apache and Yavapai raiding parties.

In 1870 a raiding party of Apache stole several cattle and horses from settlements in Florence - about 30 miles to the south. The enraged settlers followed them up what was then called Big Picacho - a nearly unscalable vertical cliff wall - and caught the raiders unaware. The legend goes that rather then surrender, the Apache hurled themselves off the cliffs.

The reality is that the Florence settlers were not inclined to accept surrender and forced them over the edge - with the soldiers at Picket Post standing by. The warrior's widows collected their bodies at the bottom of the cliff and their tears turned into the black gemstones known as Apache Tears, as the legend goes. The gems notwithstanding, ever after they have called those cliffs The Apache Leap.

The Old West Highway continues on east up into Gila County, through Top of the World and into Miami - another 19th century mining town and famous for its vintage streets and antique shops. Another few miles bring you to Globe and its historic Downtown District.

Globe and the areas around it contain a veritable Who's Who of legendary Arizona characters.

Al Seiber, Clay Beauford, Tom Horn and most of the other principles of the Geronimo Wars were frequent residents as was Geronimo himself - incarcerated with other famous Apache warriors such as Nachie and Victorio on the San Carlos Reservation. There is good evidence that the teenaged William Bonny - back when he was still calling himself Antrim and not Billy the Kid - worked cattle there for a spell.

It was also from Globe that the fearsome Apache Kid went from trusted Army scout to renegade and unleashed a three-year reign of terror throughout Central Arizona in the 1890s. Doc Holiday's paramour "Big Nose" Kate Elder retreated there from Tombstone and another of Tombstone's famous residents, Finn Clanton, lies buried in its cemetery.

Nor would you go wrong heading suth - taking Highway 60 to the Florence Junction and the 16 miles to the Pinal County Seat of Florence! Because it had good irrigation and water, it was among the first settlements in Central Arizona in 1866 and quickly became its financial and transport center. It still has over 130 buildings listed on the Historical Registry.

Pearl Hart, one of the West's famous bad women, robbed the Florence stage with partner Joe Boot in 1899 - the very last stage robbery in the United States, and was tried and sentenced to Yuma Prison from the Florence Courthouse. Another famous resident of Florence were John Clum - the captor of Geronimo, friend of Wyatt Earp and editor of the Tombstone Epitaph.

Further south you will discover Coolidge, home of the Casa Grande Hohokam Ruins and Picacho Peak, site of the only Civil War battle in Arizona. In any Pinal direction you will strike rich veins of Old Arizona atmosphere - unvarnished, unspoiled and un-commercialized.

Territorial Arizona - it's still here waiting for you to come explore the real Old West.


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