Learning To Live With Our Fickle Weather



The story of the Rim country is a story of alternating flood and drought. Scientists studying tree rings report mega-droughts have covered much of the U.S. about twice each century over the past 2,000 years.

For example, a great drought engulfed the Southwest, including Rim country, from 1277 to 1299 A.D. The Gila River still flowed somewhat, but its tributaries dried up and caused a widespread shift in population. Those we call "the ancient people" all but abandoned the Rim country to move further down on the Gila.

During the 1870s, droughts in California contributed to the coming of ranch families such as Houston and Meadows, bringing their herds from the West Coast.

In 1885, the Ellisons and their friends brought large herds of cattle from Texas, escaping the prolonged drought there and the new fencing laws. However, the summer of 1886 saw drought in the Rim country. Local folks called it the worst they had ever seen.

The spring of 1887 was tagged the driest spring ever. Then came the wettest summer and fall ever, and 1888 was a wet year. By the time the winter of 1889 arrived, they were calling it "the wettest in memory." The newcomers were learning that Arizona's weather patterns were very fickle.

No one had predicted the effect of a 20-fold increase in cattle population by 1890. Rich grasses were soon exhausted and in their place mesquite and sagebrush, manzanita and brush oak took over. When the rains came again, the land was vulnerable to erosion. Instead of flood plains along the streams, deep channels developed.

Another severe drought in 1891-92 brought the day of reckoning on the overgrazed land, and up to 90 percent of the stock died. Some snow came in January of 1893, but this was followed by a second spring without rain. A little rain came in July, but then there were 60 more days of drought during which more cattle perished. Ranchers realized they could no longer depend on surface water, so windmills and shallow wells began to dot the rangeland. Cattlemen began to consolidate their holdings into large companies, pooling their resources as they tried to stick it out.

After sporadic rains, the Rim country was hit in 1895 by the worst drought since White settlement began. The irony was that in the winter of 1895-96, Flagstaff had 126 inches of snow while the drought in the Rim country continued into the spring of 1896. Strong, dry winds blew the dust everywhere. Then it rained all summer.

The respite was short lived. Trees were cut so cattle could be fed the leaves and bark. Grasses died and the land was rendered barren. More ranchers were driven out of business, and many of them turned to prospecting to eke out a living. '

1898 and 1899 were called the two driest seasons ever known in Arizona. In 1901, there was some snow, but it all melted at once, flooded, and was gone. Fred Breen, forest supervisor, said, "The country was as dry as a chip, with a steady all-day 40 mph wind from the southwest, day in and day out" Smoke from fires could be seen in every direction.

This time it proved to be the longest drought of the previous 100 years, lasting seven years. Ranchers had to haul water on mules from the springs because all the wells and cisterns were dry.

Riley Neal told how the lower ditch at Gisela was dry for several years, and the upper ditch had just enough in it to water the garden and barely keep the orchards alive. "Then when it did start to rain," he said, "it just rained and rained and rained. Started about the 4th of July."

The next spring (1905), Riley's father drowned in Tonto Creek. Now the rains pounded the over-grazed, denuded lands and eroded the land still further. Many of the canyons and gullies, which are with us today, were formed after that drought was broken.

In December of 1910, it was dry again. In the summer of 1913, the rain failed to develop. By December of 1915, it was dangerously dry, but Dec. 31, the heaviest snow on record hit northern Arizona and collapsed roofs.

In 1924, the water holes dried up and the cattle were dying. Cowboys described the horrible sight of dead and bloated cattle covered with buzzards. Then the rain came again, but the fall of 1931 was desperately dry. During the Great Plains dust bowl in 1934, it was dry here also. The summer of 1936 was dry, but then there were heavy snows in 1937. Since then, the Rim country has been in a severe drought 10 to 15 percent of the time.

You begin to get the picture.

Drought is the normal state of affairs in the Rim country. That is to say, "normal" for the Rim country is an up-and-down pattern of drought broken by extremely wet seasons. Many of today's residents have come here during recent years of above normal precipitation and expect it to continue. But this is no "rain forest." From prehistoric times until now the people of the Tonto Rim have lived on the edge. This is something with which today's settlers must learn to live.

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