Rim Country Had A Connection With Meteor Crater

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Celebrating our 54th wedding anniversary, my wife and I did not go in the direction of sophisticated parties or cross-country tours. Rather, we enjoyed exploring some Arizona places along "the highline," such as the refurbished Harvey House in Winslow called La Posada, and a trip to Flagstaff that took in Meteor Crater.

We have been in Arizona for 45 years and had never visited that amazing hole in the Colorado Plateau. Imagine my delight when I discovered Meteor Crater has a close tie to the Rim country and its pioneers.

Return in your mind to some of the earliest settlers in the Payson area, Emer and Margaret Chilson. They brought their mercantile business to the gold rush camp of Marysville, and in the decades to follow their sons Napoleon ("Boss"), Jesse, Charley and John went on to establish a cattle empire. They developed many of the ranches around Payson and extended their permits across the Mogollon Rim.

Boss later branched out into the banking business, and bought an interest in the Citizen's Bank of Winslow. That town had become the business and population center of northern Arizona because it was a headquarters of the Santa Fe Railroad.

The family moved to Winslow when their son Ernest was entering high school. The Great Depression hit America and made the banking business even more shaky than ranching. The Chilsons were missing the ranch life anyway, and when payments on his ranches in Payson failed, Boss Chilson, his brother, Jesse, and nephew, Charley, moved to recover them. The Chilsons were back in the ranching business.

The fellow who had bought the Bar-T-Bar Ranch from Chilson was also defaulting on his debt to a cattle feedlot owner and miller in Mesa named B. G. Tremaine. The upshot of legalities was that Tremaine got title to the Bar-T-Bar Ranch, and Boss Chilson would manage it with an option to buy up to 20 percent over the following years. He also managed other Arizona properties for Tremaine.

Together the Chilsons and Tremaines steadily expanded their holdings to the north, all the way to Route 66.

In 1939 they bought the Pitchfork Ranch from the Babbitt family, which surrounded the spectacular Meteor Crater.

It was almost 50,000 years ago when the unbroken plain near Arizona's Painted Desert was struck by a meteorite estimated to have been 150 feet across and weighing several hundred thousand tons. Splitting Earth's atmosphere at up to 40,000 miles an hour, the meteorite struck with a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT, and gouged a gigantic bowl-shaped cavity in the ground.

In 1902 a mining engineer named Daniel Barringer established a claim on the two square miles surrounding the crater. He hoped to mine the iron suspected to be just under the surface, but in time it was discovered the giant meteorite had disintegrated on impact, and only fragments were to be found over a wide area.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the Chilson-Tremaine families obtained the grazing lease for the two-mile crater area. By the close of the World War, American travel was picking up, and the two families ventured into a tourism business with the crater. Boss Chilson's wife, Emma, became the curator and manager of the site, coming each day to welcome visitors driving five miles down from the famous Route 66.

There would follow decades of planning and millions of dollars of investment to keep this national treasure "the best preserved impact crater in the world" in private ownership. Despite offers from the Chilsons, the Barringer estate refused to sell the property outright, but the families settled for a 199-year lease.

Much more about the development of the attraction can be found in the book, "A Tale of Two Families: The Tremaines and the Chilsons" by Dean Smith (private printing by Northland Graphics, Flagstaff, 1994.) The book includes a story about the American astronauts training there for the adventure to the moon.

So it was with surprise and excitement that this historian came upon the memorial plaque while visiting Meteor Crater. It reads:

"Ernest Chilson 1915-2002. A natural cowman, Ernest Chilson was born on the HI Ranch near Payson, Arizona. He was only nine when he took part in his first cattle drive. In 1939, the Chilsons formed a partnership with the Tremaines and settled on the Bar-T-Bar Ranch. Over the years more land was acquired including the Pitchfork Ranch that surrounded Meteor Crater. In 1942 at the age of 26, Chilson became general manager of the ranch, assuming full responsibility in 1945 after the untimely deaths of his father and brother. He was proficient at everything from livestock and lumbering to overseeing the day-to-day operations of Meteor Crater. When Meteor Crater Enterprises became a separate corporation in 1957, Chilson was made president and continued in this role until 1981. He devoted his life to the Bar-T-Bar Ranch and Meteor Crater until his retirement in 1993."

A sidebar of information: years later, Ernest and Emma Chilson's only child, Judy, married Bob Prosser, and after buying the Bar-T-Bar brand operations in 1990, she managed them. It was the Prossers, from their Hay Lake Ranch, who donated all the sod around the Rim Country Museum complex.

Editor's note: Tracking history can often be a tricky thing, with stories changing from family to family, from generation to generation. Stan Brown has a talent for condensing volumes of Rim country history into entertaining and informative articles. But he freely admits that he's not immune from making mistakes. If anyone finds inaccuracies in any of Brown's articles, please contact him directly at (928) 474-8535, or write to us at roundup@cybertrails.com.

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