The History Of The Apache Trail

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Leaving the Valley and heading home on the Beeline Highway, we saw the big, lighted sign informing everyone, "Route 87 closed at Bush Highway." We kept going, as did everyone else, only to be diverted to Globe when we reached the turnoff to Saguaro Lake. The road was closed in both directions due to the frightful crash of a gasoline tanker.

It seemed reasonable to me that the Apache Trail would be closer than going clear to Globe and then back into the Tonto Basin.

That we did, but memories are short. We had taken a leisurely drive over the Apache Trail only a few months before, and said at the time, "It is so beautiful, but we sure don't want to do this again."

One consolation was this idea: I will write a column on the history of this fascinating trail.

At the turn of the 20th century there was no road from Phoenix to Globe, nor anything but a pack horse trail over the Mazatzal Mountains into the Tonto Basin.

Lewis Pyle had taken over his father's freight business, bringing supplies on the backs of mules into Payson over the old Reno Road.

There had been civic pressure to develop an old Indian trail along the Salt River to bring Tempe, Mesa and Phoenix closer to the Tonto Basin and the forests. That trail had been used for centuries by Salado people from 900 A.D. and later by Apaches who raided the Pima villages and white communities.

The actual building of the road was precipitated by a plan to build the Tonto Dam (later to be called Roosevelt Dam). It would be necessary to carry supplies for building the dam, and furthermore the cement plant at the dam site could supply the growing Valley communities with needed cement. Freighters would carry building material and workers' supplies to the newly formed town of Roosevelt, and not return empty but bring cement back. It would be called the Roosevelt Road, or the Mesa-Roosevelt Road, and construction started Aug. 29, 1903.

A labor force was recruited from the Tonto Apaches at Payson and San Carlos to build the road. It was an amazing feat, and these men with their families are the unsung heroes of that massive undertaking.

The most treacherous part of the road was the 10-percent grade going over Fish Creek Hill. It was also the most expensive, some sections costing $25,000 a mile.

A vertical cliff rose several hundred feet over the road, and summer rains were quick to wash out what progress had been made. Rock fills as deep as 75 feet were required to get the road wide enough and other places called for 70-foot cuts in the rock. This work to the top of Fish Creek Hill was the last to be completed. To this day, it is a breathtaking experience, and not one for those afraid of mountains.

In 1903 and 1904, as soon as wagons could be drawn over the new road, it changed the way of life for people in the Rim country.

Lewis Pyle said that was the end of his family's pack train. Now supplies could be brought in wagons more quickly and in greater volume than by pack animals. It also meant that travel to Phoenix for Rim country settlers would be much easier.

By the Dec. 5, 1904 the Roosevelt Road was in good enough shape for mail service to begin from Mesa to Roosevelt. A stage made the one-way trip in a record time of 11 1/2 hours.

The first automobile negotiated the trip on Aug. 23, 1905.

It was 62 miles from Roosevelt to the rail-head in Mesa, and the road when completed would cost $551,000.

That first year 1.5 million pounds of freight passed over the road.

It was not until 1906 that the dam site was ready for the first stone block to be put in place.

By then the heavy wagons had pulverized the soil of the road to a dust 4 inches thick, and in spite of the dirt, the tourists came to view the operation.

In November 1908 a race car driver from Los Angeles, P. H. Greer, claimed to make a round trip over the road in 8 1/2 hours, Phoenix to Roosevelt and back. He drove a 4 cylinder, 20 horsepower Mitchell runabout, and experienced some delays in passing 25 teams of horses in both directions.

The Phoenix "Republican" reported that he said, "A race over this road, which in my estimation is one of the finest motor courses in the country, would fill the adventurous spirit with joy. The chances of dropping over a precipice would make it most interesting."

He said that after all his travels, he thought "this the most beautiful motor trip in America." By 1910 speedsters had to be ordered off the road as they kept trying to make the trip in record time.

In 1911 former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose initiative had enabled the dam to be built, attended the dedication. He said, "The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created ..."

Of course, the other places did not boast a giant structure bearing his name.

It was after this that the Mesa-Roosevelt Road began to be called The Apache Trail, a name coined by a promoter from the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The trail was a side trip for tourists on the railroad, and the Southern Pacific operated the Apache Lodge on Roosevelt Lake.

In the fall of 1923 Miss Julia Randall was on her way to Payson from Tempe to assume a teaching position. The trip on the Apache Trail was long and difficult, and her stage was late so that she missed connecting at Roosevelt with the stage for Payson. Paul Harrison was operating the mail and passenger stage from Roosevelt to Payson, and she knew he would be making an overnight stop at the Angler's Inn at the far end of the lake. Miss Randall located a man to take her by boat to the Angler's Inn, and there she caught up with the stage.

Author George James made the trip in 1915 and wrote words that are still fitting today. "No indifferent or careless chauffeur can take the wheel for such a trip, nor can he be a weakling or a coward. It requires vigilance almost every minute, and strength to pilot a car up and down the grades, and courage and knowledge to take the curves at a safe margin without making the trip tedious."

In February 1987, the Apache Trail was dedicated as Arizona's first historic road.

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