The End Of Tonto Creek



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 16

One autumn day during the Indian War in 1871, the chief aide to General Crook was leading a detachment down the length of the Tonto Basin. Lt. John G. Bourke recounted that march in his hand-written diary as he traveled what was already called Wild Rye Creek to its junction with Tonto Creek. They camped in the area of today's 76 Ranch, at the mouth of Rye Creek, and the next day they followed Tonto Creek all the way to "the Salado" (Salt River). Bourke wrote, "We passed a number of old Aztec ruins today. Examined one and found it to be the remains of a temple, an outer wall of rock had enclosed a house, having a courtyard, in center of which could still be discerned a three-terraced teocalli), Spanish word for Aztec Temple], with foundation of an altar on top." [1]


The crowd at the dedication of Roosevelt Dam by former President Theodore Roosevelt drew an impressive crowd for 1911. Many of Roosevelt's Rough Riders were among those on hand for the event.

His diary went on to describe the remnant of an arch, and he rendered a drawing of it. It was a common assumption by early explorers in the Tonto Basin and Verde Valley that the Aztecs had come this far north and established buildings. Modern archaeological studies show that the Hohokam and Salado peoples, preceding the Apaches, had built these structures including platform mounds. Those leaders who lived higher up on the mounds were the "upper class" of that prehistoric society. A number of these mounds have been excavated around Punkin Center and on Tonto Creek down to the Salt River. They have been preserved as federal and state protected sites and some are listed with the National Register of Historic Places.

The junction of Tonto Creek and the Salt River formed a perfect environment for the prehistoric people and later the Apaches. The climate and plentiful water for growing crops, along with wild game attracted by the water, made this ideal for their campsites.

The area of confluence was taken over by incoming ranchers after the Apaches had been confined to reservations. However, as the population in the Phoenix-Mesa-Tempe area expanded, the demand for increased water led to the nation's first reclamation project, the Roosevelt Dam, early in the 20th century. In order to construct this massive edifice in such a remote place, roads had to be built. The Apache Trail through the Superstition Mountains was developed to bring supplies for the dam, and this route in turn became the best alternative for supplying the Tonto Basin and Payson areas. The old wagon road along Tonto Creek had to be raised above the projected level of the lake. Apache Indian groups were employed for the road building, and the aging Army Chief of Scouts Al Sieber was called upon to supervise them. He had worked with them during the Indian War, and had an excellent rapport with Apaches who honored him for his honesty and courage. After all he had been through, it was unforeseen that he would die building a road along Tonto Creek.

Al Sieber was born in Germany in 1844 and came to Pennsylvania with his widowed mother and siblings in 1856. After moving to Minnesota, Al enlisted in the Union Army in 1862 at the age of 18. He was wounded in the head at Gettysburg, and a second bullet crushed his leg from ankle to knee causing him to walk with a limp the rest of his life. Following his mustering out of the service he worked his way across America, and by the early 1870s he had secured a place in General Crook's army as Chief of Indian Scouts. Will Barnes, in his notes on Sieber, wrote, "Sieber was a born Scout, and his influence over the Indians with whom he came into contact was little short of marvelous. Especially did he have a control of the Apaches who both loved and feared him as they did no other man who has ever been among them." [2]

This extravagant statement may be more Barnes' idea than the Apaches'.

Sieber returned to the Rim Country where he already had filed several mining claims on the Sierra Ancha range. One of them, in Del Shay Basin, would support him the rest of his days. Teaming up with local prospectors like Sam Hill of Ox Bow Hill, the old scout prospected, mined and drank. Records of drinks served at the saloons in the mine camp of Marysville and Payson show how capacious Sieber's drinking habit had become. [3]

As the construction of Roosevelt Dam got under way in 1906, Sieber, now 62, was called out of retirement to supervise a road crew of Tonto Apaches along Tonto Creek. It was a crisp, clear February day in 1907 when an accident happened that ended Al Sieber's life. His old friend Will Barnes described it, "Sieber was directing matters and as the Indians prepared to roll one great boulder down the side of the mountain to clear the way for the work, they called to him to get into a safer place. With his usual disregard for danger he told them to go ahead and he would take care of himself .... As the giant rock started slowly down the steep side of the mountain, he tried to climb far enough to one side to allow it to pass him. However, he misjudged its motion, as it neared him he gave a spring, his foot slipped and he fell back directly in the path of the oncoming death. The rock weighing tons passed over him and every Apache who saw it turned his face and dared not look to see what was lying there in the bright sunlight with the life crushed out of it." [4]

In spite of these reports, rumors persisted that among the Tonto Apache crew there were longtime enemies of Al Sieber. In his book "Al Sieber: Chief of Scouts, Dan Thrapp" cites several old army men who believe the Apaches pushed the rock when Sieber was inspecting it. [5] Oral histories taken with Tonto Apaches in 1970 whose families were all working on the road with Sieber, report that their fathers told them about the day he was killed. Paul Burdette said, of the Apache workers, "I heard they rolled a rock over him." [6]

In any case, Sieber's body was buried in the old Globe cemetery in the I.O.O.F. (Odd Fellows) section. Governor Hunt, the son-in-law of one of Sieber's close friends Jesse Ellison, immediately had the Territorial Legislature appropriate $100 for the erection of a monument over the grave. Another monument of native stone, cut and inscribed by Sieber's Apache road crew and engineered by the Reclamation Service, marked the site of Sieber's death. It was placed on the spot he died, but in 1934 the state highway was routed to a still higher level because of rising waters in Roosevelt Lake. This left the monument 12 feet below the road, where no one could see it. A movement led by former state historian and Sieber crony, Dan Williamson, had the monument moved up along the road. A concrete base was built with the help of the C.C.C. With the further improvement of the road during a heightening of the dam, the monument was moved once again and was given a more elaborate pedestal. It may be seen about one mile north of the dam on the side of State Highway 188, overlooking the lake.

The building of Roosevelt Dam represented the beginning of large national water reclamation projects. After President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had assumed the office and delivered his first message to Congress on Dec. 3. In it he endorsed the irrigation movement, saying, "Great storage works are necessary to equalize the flow of streams and to save the flood waters."

He pressed the government to construct and maintain such reservoirs, and let the states and the settlers determine the division of the water.

Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act into law in June 1902, and the wheels immediately began to turn for the placement of the big dam. First, however, there was a political fight among the Arizona counties over whether the first dam would be on the Gila River at San Carlos (later to be Coolidge Dam), or the Tonto Dam (later named Roosevelt) on the Salt River at the mouth of Tonto Creek.

Roosevelt came down hard in favor of the Tonto dam site, and in August 1903, construction began. Roads had to be built to the site; a cement plant and several sawmills were constructed. Six-thousand board feet of lumber a day were being cut out of the Sierra Ancha Mountains for the project. At the peak of construction more than 5,000 men were employed in the seven-year project.

By the end of April 1910, the dam was 95 percent complete, and it was hoped President Roosevelt could be there to open the project on his birthday, Oct. 27. However, there was too much cleanup work to be done, and the date was set for the following year. It was March 18, 1911 when the now former president Theodore Roosevelt strode across the dam that carried his name. He was wearing a black coat, khaki pants tucked into leather leggings, turned down collar and tie, and waving his black fedora to the crowd of well-wishers.

Roosevelt spoke extemporaneously about his support of a national irrigation project, and said that "this reclamation work in the West and the Panama Canal" were the two achievements of his administration for which he was most proud.

After the benediction, Roosevelt pressed the button that released water from the reservoir, and all cheered as a mighty roar of water rushed through the gate.

In the crowd that day there was a significant contingent of Tontos, and 30 of them were holding a banner that stated, "Apaches Helped Build Roosevelt Dam." As "T. R." passed the Apaches he stopped and shook their hands, expressing his appreciation for their part. Historians have been much too silent about the important role of the Tonto Apache people in building the roads and helping on the dam. None of their camps were ever plotted on project maps, although the several communities of white laborers were carefully noted. Before the dam was completed, as many as 1,500 Apache laborers and their families lived in the Roosevelt area. They received $1.50 a day, and their board, while white workers received $2 a day plus room and board.

With the building of the big dam, the lower reaches of Tonto Creek disappeared under the water. The president's hope never materialized that Roosevelt would become a tourist attraction akin to the Grand Canyon, although the resulting lake did become a prime recreational center.


[1] Arizona Historical Society library, Tucson, papers of John G. Bourke

[2] Arizona Historical Society Library, Barnes file on Sieber

[3] Rim Country Museum archives, Payson, Emer Chilson files; Arizona State Archives, Phoenix, saloon records kept by Emer Chilson

[4] See footnote 2

[5] University of Oklahoma Press, 1995

[6] Oral history taken by Houser in 1970, Arizona State Museum, Tucson (tapes); transcripts of tapes in Rim Country Museum Archive, Payson in Brown Collection

[7] Regarding the building of Roosevelt Dam, see ephemeral files in the Rim Country Museum archives, Payson. Also, Roosevelt Dam: A History to 1911, Earl A. Zarbin, Central Arizona Museum, 1984

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