Christopher Creek/Kohl's Ranch

Residents find paradise among the pines

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Some 22 miles east of Payson on Highway 260 is the small, lushly-wooded resort community of Christopher Creek.

Named after a settler of French origin named Isadore Christopher who brought his mail order bride here in 1880, the area offers rustic cabins spectacular fishing, and outstanding hiking.

"The forest is green, there are mountains on both sides, and the deer and elk come down into your yard each night," said Christopher-Kohl's Fire Department Deputy Chief Bob Lusson, a longtime resident. "It's just a neat little place."

The current population consists of "about 2,500 full-timers," Lusson said. "But in the summer, the population probably doubles."

While life is peaceful and tranquil in Christopher Creek today, it wasn't always that way. In fact, Christopher himself was thought to have suffered an ignominious fate at the hands of Apache raiders back in July of 1882.

Seems the burly Christopher killed a bear, skinned it and hung the skin in one of two log cabins on his CI Ranch.

The next day, while Christopher was away, a raiding party of Apaches attacked and burned the cabins. Close on their heels was a contingent of U.S. troops who arrived at the CI Ranch while the cabins were still engulfed in flames.

Not knowing Christopher was elsewhere, the troops held a solemn burial service for the remains of the bear. They assumed the Apaches had skinned "poor old Christopher."

Today the residents of Christopher Creek worry less about renegade Apaches and more about how the community will fare when the new portion of Highway 260 goes around instead of through their community. But they don't even worry too much about that.

There is the concern, of course, that some business could be lost, but the 5.3-mile stretch between mileposts 272 and 277 that will bypass Christopher Creek will make it "a lot safer for the community.

"They are totally in favor of being bypassed," said Carol Oaks of Kaneen Advertising and Public Relations, a Tucson-based firm retained by the Arizona Department of Transportation to keep the public informed.

Lusson agrees.

"It'll be quite a while before the bypass is finished, so the businesses aren't too concerned," he said. "Besides, people come to Christopher Creek because they want to, not because the highway comes through here."

Besides, the Highway 260 project offers a lot of pluses to the communities through which that highway runs.

The first phase of the project the $21 million Preacher Canyon Section was completed last October when all four lanes of the new divided highway were opened to the public.

Highlights of the first phase include two massive bridges that span Preacher Canyon, one for eastbound lanes and one for westbound lanes. The existing highway drops down and through the canyon.

"We wanted to stay out of Preacher Canyon," said Jason Widman, project superintendent for D.H. Blattner & Sons, the Minnesota-based company that won the bid for that stretch of highway. "Being so steep, it would have been too curvy, so they designed these two bridges instead."

The westbound bridge is more than 700 feet long and the eastbound bridge is 800 feet long. They rise approximately 90 feet above the bottom of the canyon.

Where possible in other areas, the route followed by the existing roadway has been used. But the Preacher Canyon phase was completed first because it is the most dangerous stretch of road along the entire project, which stretches from Payson to Heber.

"It would have made sense to move in a straight line from one end of the project to the other," Oaks said. "But they chose the Preacher Canyon section to start with because it has the most dangerous curves."

Besides the bridges spanning Preacher Canyon, four additional bridges are being built for wildlife crossings.

"Their main purpose is to funnel the elk under the road versus running across the road," Widman said. "A study showed that Little Green Valley and (the rest of) this area tops the state in the number of elk hit. So ADOT is building these bridges with elk fences to encourage the elk to go under instead of over."

Because most of the project is located within the Tonto and Apache Sitgreaves National Forests, ADOT is working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to preserve and protect the natural and historic environment during reconstruction of the highway. Trees are being salvaged wherever possible and the area will be revegetated with native species after the construction is complete.

One extensive section of the existing roadway in the Preacher Canyon area will actually be covered over and returned to its natural state.

"People won't even know there was once a road here," Widman said.

The entire project also has received archaeological clearance.

"An archaeology firm working through ADOT did a study and found four sites," he said. "They did their study, checked how many years they'd been there, who lived there in the past. Then they did a report on it and gave us clearance."

Another community that will be impacted by the Highway 260 project is Kohl's Ranch. One of the most popular recreation spots in all of the Rim country, this rustic resort 18 miles east of Payson was once just a tiny post office, a store, a bar, and a dance hall with a floor made of wood planks.

Unfortunately, the old cowboy bar at Kohl's Ranch the landmark structure once known as the Cowboy Barn that was a Rim country social center for nearly three-quarters of a century was demolished in January. The current owners of Kohl's Ranch, Phoenix-based ILX Resorts, plan to use "lumber and other components of the building" in constructing a new building on the site.

Mike Stone, project manager for ILX, said the company plans to build a two-unit residential time share on the site.

"We are preserving what we believe to be the historical elements of the bar," Stone said. "The new structure will house all the pieces we deem historic. We were able to save the beautiful knotty pine, the tongue-and-groove wood, the exterior heavy wood siding that is quite attractive. We're going to use that around the windows and doors in the new facility."

The old bar top itself will also be incorporated into the new structure.

"The bar with all the names carved in it will be put in the kitchen and dining areas," he said.

According to Stone, the old cowboy bar had to be demolished due to "structural problems."

Most recently, part of the structure housed a convenience store, but even that had been closed. The remainder was being used primarily for storage.

Stone said ILX hopes to have the new residential units on the site up and operating by September. When the guest accommodations are not in use, the historical treasures therein will be available for viewing by the public.

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