Hellsgate And Leo The Mgm Lion



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 8

Editor's note: Chapter Eight did not run in its entirety.


Locals made up the search party that rescued Leo after the plane crashed. The lion was brought to Grady Harrison's garage in Payson and attracted quite a bit of attention from the community.

During the first 7 miles of its snake-like course, the Tonto Creek cuts its way from the Mogollon Rim south through sedimentary rocks, surrounded by dense forests and shallow canyons. Then it suddenly enters an extremely rugged area known as the Hellsgate Wilderness.

Here the Tonto plunges into steep gorges and impassable waterfalls, one after another. The rock is metamorphic, and the canyons are jagged, deep, and colorful. Beautiful pools lie enclosed, sometimes at the bottom of 1,000-foot deep canyons. The Hellsgate Trail, so named by early settlers, traverses a rough and roadless 7 miles along a ridge, and then drops 1,500 feet into a gorge near the junction of Haigler Creek.

This large tributary has cut its own deep ravine as it plunges from higher country toward its meeting with the Tonto. The rugged hike continues through a main canyon until one reaches the community of Gisela.

It was in this 37,440-acre wilderness that a dramatic airplane crash took place. It started as a publicity stunt in the summer of 1927.

Stunt pilot Martin Jensen planned to fly nonstop from California to New York, promoting MGM movies and calling national attention to the studio's trademark, Leo the Lion.

The 350-pound African lion was the only passenger on board the B-1 Ryan Brougham airplane that was built to duplicate Charles Lindbergh's famous plane. The country was still excited over Lindy's flight, and the transatlantic solo pilot was hedgehopping around America creating a frenzy everywhere he landed.

The MGM studio thought it only reasonable to cash in on this new interest in aviation and ride the fervent winds of Lindbergh's popularity. A trip across the country showing off Leo would draw crowds at many cities, and a Pete Smith movie would be made of the adventure.

Bold, black lettering on the taut canvas skin of the plane could be easily read from the ground, "MGM LION."

On Sept. 16 film crews recorded the take off from an airstrip outside San Diego. Original plans to take off from the studio in Culver City had been blocked by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The plane was overloaded with 3,200 pounds of gasoline and had been modified to accommodate Leo and his 400-pound cage. A lever released milk and water from an overhead tank into the animal's cage to pacify his objections to the bumpy ride. Pilot Jensen had secretly equipped himself with a pistol should Leo break out.

It was noon when they crossed the Colorado River, and even though the hot, desert air currents caused the plane to jerk about, Leo snored peacefully. The route took Jensen over the north end of Phoenix, but upon approaching the Mazatzal Mountains the plane did not want to rise over the top.

The pilot snaked his way through a canyon, and into Tonto Basin.

Suddenly his heart was in his throat. Before him loomed the black ramparts of the Mogollon Rim, and he feared the 220-horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine was not going to make it.

Jensen opened to full throttle, but the light air could not sustain the weighted plane. A canyon was closing in, he was boxed in, there was no place to land, and putting the plane into a glide he stalled tail first into a clump of oak trees.

With a screeching crash the plane plowed through the treetops, rolled over on its wing, and crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust, stripping the wings from the fuselage. Jensen hung upside down in the cockpit, stunned but unhurt except for bruises and a cut on his nose.

Remarkably the steel cage with its glass liner was in one piece, and Leo was still inside. Jensen took water from a nearby stream and put it in the lion's trough, shared his sandwiches with the animal, and started hiking downstream.

He had crashed about 2:20 p.m. on Tonto Creek below Bear Flat but had no way of knowing where he was. Fighting the boulders and scrub thicket exhausted him and when night closed in he lay under a bush and fell asleep cursing the lion tamer's costume the studio had insisted he wear.

Before crash landing Jensen had observed a ranch below and in the morning he headed there. He did not know that if he had hiked upstream instead of down he would have emerged at Kohl's Ranch in a few hours.

As it was he spent three nights in the wilderness. Soaked from the late summer rain and suffering the jolt of the crash, he finally broke out into the open. He followed a small herd of cattle thinking they would lead him to a ranch, but they only led him in a circle. Then, just before his fourth night in the wilderness Jensen came upon an irrigation ditch. It led him to the ranch of George Booth near Gisela where he shared the incredulous news of what had happened.

The Booth family fed the stranded pilot and allowed him to sleep off his troubles for twelve hours. He was better able to relate his story after that, and then told his hosts, "I've got to get to a phone."

George Booth took him to Payson in his Model T Ford. It was noon on Sept. 23 when they pulled into Grady Harrison's garage and the nearest telephone. A week earlier, on the afternoon of Sept. 16, Payson merchant and postmaster Bill Boardman had heard the roar of a faltering airplane overhead.

He was traveling south over Oxbow Hill toward Rye, and stopped his truck to watch the plane sputter as it lost altitude in a struggle to mount the Rim. He had no way of knowing the plane's cargo was a lion.

He did see the strange shape of a metal cage built into the fuselage just behind the pilot's seat as the plane headed over the hills towards upper Tonto Creek. When the hum died out Boardman continued on his errand.

In Little Green Valley the Haught family gathered outside their cabin, called by the sputtering of an airplane engine overhead. Seeing what it was, Pappy Haught exclaimed with humorous wisdom, "Those things are pizen. One drap'll kill ya."

None of them heard it crash downstream from Bear Flat on Tonto Creek.

No one knew that the pilot, Martin Jensen, would escape with cuts and bruises and begin a four-day struggle to find his way out of the Hellsgate Wilderness.

The plane had been scheduled to land in Amarillo, Texas that evening, but lookouts posted along the route reported no sightings. By the next day it was obvious something ominous had happened. On Sept. 18 a squadron of search planes took off from the naval air station in San Diego, and in one of them was the lost pilot's wife Peg Jensen.

She was no stranger to flying. The couple had been married by a judge in the open cockpit of a Curtis Jenny flying over Yuma, Arizona. The posse of search planes fanned out, but there was no trace of the missing plane, and they returned.

About this same time Lewis Bowman and Ham Eubanks were rounding up a wild cow in the Hellsgate area when the scent of lion drove their horses crazy. The cowboys found the crash site and determined the lion was weakened but safe in its cage. Not finding the pilot anywhere in the vicinity, they went back to their camp, prepared to report their find.

Meanwhile, Jensen was making his phone call from Payson and Jensen's wife and representatives of MGM were soon winging their way to Phoenix.

Moviemaker Pete Smith ordered Jack Flower, a studio animal trainer, and troubleshooter Leo Kratzberg to drive to Phoenix.

They were to rent a truck and go get the lion. When they arrived in Payson, they found all the local attention was riveted on the rescue of Leo. Somewhere out there in the Rim Country the lion was alone in his cage, without food or water, and it had been almost a week.

At Boardman's store the merchant remembered how he saw the faltering plane come over head six days before. He suggested they organize a volunteer posse to go in after the animal before it starved. A pack train was organized, including both ranchers and town folk.

Sam Haught offered his horses, and butchered a yearling calf to feed the lion in case it was still alive. He took a door off a small shed, hitched it to a team with a chain and pulled the butchered calf on it.

The sled could also serve in bringing the lion out of the wilderness.

Columbus Boy Haught of Bear Flat was along, and knew the land well since his homestead was near the crash site. The posse, which included neighboring ranchers, met up with Lewis Bowman and Ham Eubanks on the trail. They had already located the lion and were able to lead the posse directly to the crash site.

The lion lay immobile in its cage. Its ribs were showing, its hide covered with fly-infested sores, but after taking water and devouring the meat Leo began to get active in his cage.

The cowboys hoisted the cage onto the sled, and the long drag to civilization began. It was a difficult and winding trail out of there, exhausting both men and beasts. After many hours they reached the Haught ranch on Bear Flat, where pilot Jensen met them.

The cowboys enjoyed marking up a Rim Country first, roping and subduing an African lion and treating its wounds for screwworm. They loaded him on to Grady Harrison's truck and headed for town.

When Leo arrived in Payson he was a sensation. School was dismissed so the children could come and look. Martin and Peg Jensen flew back to California, but Leo remained a few days at Grady Harrison's garage feasting on Arizona beef before the long drive back across the desert.

Pete Smith's publicity stunt hit America's headlines after all, and Leo lived many years after that to die a natural death in a zoo.

Thirty-four years later Martin Jensen, his son-in-law, and some friends returned to the site of the crash. They found the rusted remains of the old Ryan plane, and later enjoyed knowing that the Forest Service had named the place "Leo Canyon." [1]


[1] Sources for this chapter are oral histories by Rim Country old-timer historians, Frank Gillette and Ralph Fisher (in Rim Country Museum archive). Article by Joseph Stevens in American West magazine, July/August 1985, page 23.

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