Death On Tonto Creek



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 5

A leisurely hike along the sparkling waters of Tonto Creek belies its latent power for destruction. Newcomers to Arizona are often naive about the power of water to bring disaster upon this normally dry land.


A deluge of water from Tonto Creek sweeps through the Rim Country claiming lives and destroying private property.

Water can move as much weight as the 10th power of its speed, a force that is hard to comprehend. Any one who spent their Labor Day weekend along the Tonto in 1970 would never again be among the uninitiated.

Twenty-eight people died on Rim Country creeks that weekend when gigantic rains pummeled the already saturated ground. At one station the measure was 11.4 inches of rain

An unusual series of events had led up to it. A tropical storm in the Pacific off Baja California sent a flow of moist tropical air into the desert southwest. Then on the morning of Sept. 5, a cold front moved in from Utah to collide with the loaded atmosphere, and the devastating downpour began.

Boulders unmovable by human hands rolled like juggernauts, crushing everything before them. Their thunder sounded through the forest. Entire trees were carried like battering rams, knocking out bridges. Fish habitats were destroyed.

Boulders and water with velocities of 10,000 cubic feet per second scoured streambeds and cut away at the banks. The bridge over Sycamore Creek on route 87 was washed out and a Department of Public Safety officer drove to his death not knowing the flood had left an abyss before him.

The crossings on the Houston Mesa Road were wiped out along the East Verde River and in Beaver Valley the river walk and its miniature railroad trestle were demolished.

Most of the human victims had been vacationing along Christopher and Tonto creeks, where the water rose to an all-time high. It was 20 feet deep at Kohl's Ranch.

Entire houses washed out, slamming into one another as they were carried downstream. At the community of Tonto Creek Estates, the old Haught homestead, Col. Day and Mina Campbell were snug in their cabin named "Camelot," situated 10 feet above the creek.

Neighbors had gathered on their front porch to watch the creek rise. Col. Campbell kept saying, "It will be all right; it will go down soon. It never got this high before."

At 4:30 that afternoon some of the neighbors, the Garretsons, asked to be taken back to their house,

higher up. They tried to get the Campbells to come up to the higher ground to spend the night, but the Campbells declined. Col. Campbell took them home in the car, but as they left the water was already running ankle deep across the Campbells' yard.

Within two minutes after they left the water began coming across the front porch. Another neighbor begged Mina to leave, but she remained on the phone calling from the nearby Baptist Camp for help.

Mina and the neighbor grabbed rakes and tried to push the debris off the porch, but their action proved impossible.

A bridge upstream from the Campbells began to capture trees, forming a dam. Large trees fell into the creek from both sides and began piling up like jackstraws.

Suddenly a wall of water crashed into the logjam and destroyed the bridge, sending an irrepressible wall of water and logs toward the Campbells' house. One of the Campbells' visitors told what happened next.

"I ran to get Mina at the phone a few steps inside, but she wouldn't come out. She was still calling for help. Helen Cromwell and I went for higher ground, and upon reaching the base of the hill looked back to see the road below fill with water. The front porch roof was torn off as we looked, the front wall of the house went next, and as the wires were torn down sparks went in all directions." [1]

Mina's husband had been trying to return from taking his guests home, but his car became stuck.

"I waded over to him to tell him Mina needed him. He ran down the path exclaiming as he went, `It's all right. It never did this before.' In the meantime the house had collapsed and Mina was in the creek."

Her husband grabbed Mina's hand and tried to get her to put her knee on a log, but the log rolled and broke his handhold. He dove into the creek for her, but they both went down. Trees were bearing down on the little cluster of rescuers, including a group that had arrived from the Baptist Camp. They were forced to retreat but continued looking for the Campbells. No trace of them was to be found.

Upstream, near the fish hatchery, Moris and Beverly Rhoades with their three, grade-school children had been camping. They were swept away. All that was found of their Volkswagen camper was the frame and wheels high in a pine tree.

The father's body was recovered near Kohl's Ranch; the remains of Eric, 8, were found near Roosevelt Lake. Tara 9 was never found. Tasha, 11, and her mother Beverly were misidentified as the Kyle McDonald family until 10 days later when the bodies of the McDonalds were also found. Some of the lost were never found.

Another campground to suffer from the flood was located downstream from Tonto Estates, at the mouth of Horton Creek.

This permanent stream is fed by a very prolific spring, described by the National Forest Service in this way: The water cascades down boulders into a peaceful pond lined with wild flowers and ferns. Below the pond the creek splashes through many small falls as it descends down the slope of the Rim to its confluence with Tonto Creek.

Such an idyllic picture hardly reflects that wild day during the Labor Day flood when Horton added its mania to Tonto Creek.

Horton Creek's namesake was William B. Horton, a western adventurer from Mississippi. He had a home in Tucson but spent his get-away time here.

Horton was a leader in public education, and was one of Arizona Territory's early superintendents of public instruction. He was highly instrumental in bringing the unorganized schools of the territory into a unified system during his tenure from 1883 to 1887.

It was also during those years that he developed a nearly 4-mile trail following the creek from the Tonto to the headwaters near the top of the Rim.

The Horton Spring is 3.85 miles up from the Tonto where the trail intersects with the Highline Trail. [2] A camp site here is respite for hikers along the Highline.

In 1924 the regional Boy Scout Council located the camp along Tonto Creek just north of Kohl's Ranch. The 23 acres accommodated 194 Scouts who attended that summer, providing a wonderful wilderness for scouting activities.

By 1931 the Council had bought a school bus, and a building program began. The winter of 1932 brought unusually heavy snow, and the Horton Creek Fish Hatchery was destroyed by the ensuing flood. The Boy Scout Council salvaged the material for $1 and with it, built a dining hall. Long after the Scouts had abandoned the location and it became a public campground, the ruins of the dining hall fireplace were still standing.

By 1934 more than 400 scouts were attending during the summer, and an attempt to change the camp's name to Franklin Roosevelt Boy Scout Camp failed. However, the name Geronimo held tight. In 1935, 668 scouts came and by 1937 they had a swimming pool to enjoy.

In 1941, the summer before World War II broke out, 974 scouts attended and explored Tonto Creek. By the end of the war the area was experiencing boom times. It no longer was the isolated spot desired for scouting and a more detached location was found at the head of Webber Creek.

The Forest Service converted the old location on Tonto Creek to a public camping ground. For more than 20 years, boys arrived at the banks of Tonto Creek to spend a week they'd never forget. Their lives, immersed in one of the world's most beautiful natural settings, were profoundly affected, not only by nature but also by heroic adult role models.

Who could ever forget the sight of the sunrise in the canyon, the invigorating smell of the pine forest in sun and rain, the evening campfires, the chapel hours, the joyful music of water dancing in Tonto Creek, and the enthusiasm of good friends? Old Chief Geronimo would be proud, though there is no documentation that he was ever in the area.

In 1928 a small hatchery building and nursing troughs were built at the headwater of Horton Creek. It was the first fish hatchery in these central mountains. A flood in 1932 damaged the facility, and it was never rebuilt because of the erratic seasonal washouts. Rearing ponds for the trout were then moved to Indian Garden until the Tonto Hatchery was completed.

Continuing on down the Tonto, one soon arrives at the location of the old Geronimo campground, beside State Highway 260. The divided highway has eliminated most of the visual evidence of this site, which remains dear to the hearts of countless families. For many decades this was the location of the Geronimo Boy Scout Camp, and memories of summer camp meant Tonto Creek for countless lads. [3]

Chapter Five Notes:

[1] The Rev. Larry Hinshaw whose family cabin was in Tonto Estates had preserved a copy of the hand-written eyewitness account, and gave it to the author.

[2] The Highline Trail is a lengthy hiking trail that snakes east and west just under the Rim. It connects the many canyons and their headwaters, and was probably an Indian trail before it was improved by the early settlers in these canyons. It was the most direct route for them to visit each other, or attend school and dances.

[3] It was in December of 1922 that the Boy Scouts of America formed the Theodore Roosevelt Council, and the future of Scouting in Apacheria was assured. Scouts had been holding summer camps on a ranch near Superior, but in 1922 the camp moved to Hewitt Station, a canyon in the Pinal Mountains near Magma, Arizona. It was at this time the name GERONIMO was attached to the campground as that famous war chief of the Chiricahua Apaches had been in the area while escaping several times from the San Carlos Reservation. The name seemed appropriate. The scout camp moved about in the following years but the name remained, even though the camp moved to territories Geronimo never visited.

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