The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 14: Supplies came by burro train

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Stan Brown photo

Wild burros graze in the desert near Fort McDowell, leftovers from the days of prospectors and burro pack trains, like that of Lewis Pyle. Note the bell on the neck of one, indicating it is domestic — or was at one time.

As the settlement of Payson grew, more mercantile stores were established and there was an increasing demand for supplies. The very thing that had protected the Tonto Apache people for so long, the isolation of the Rim Country from the rest of the world, now made supplying the settlers extremely difficult.

Mesa and Phoenix were the nearest supply points to the south, but the only trail over the Mazatzal Mountains was a remnant of the old military road from Reno to Fort McDowell by way of Sunflower. The trail down the Tonto Basin and over the Salt River to Globe was almost as far and equally difficult to negotiate. The trail out through Pine, Strawberry and Fossil Creek led to the Verde Valley, but those communities had their own problems getting supplies. There were trails to the north made by the Crook Military Road, lumbering, and the failed efforts for a railroad from Flagstaff to Payson. These were primitive, and one had to negotiate the Mogollon Rim. By any count, getting needed food and merchandise into Payson was no small feat.

The best answer was to use trains of pack animals, usually burros. The earliest train was owned by merchant Edwin Bonacker and operated by Guy Barkdoll. Starr (sic) Valley rancher Elwood F. Pyle got into the business, moving a pack train to and from Phoenix in the winter, and to and from Flagstaff in the summer. In 1894 the elder Pyle took his 12-year-old son Lewis with him on the winter run to Phoenix, and that experience caught fire with the young lad. By the time Lewis Pyle had reached 18 he had taken over the business.

The trail went over Oxbow Hill to Rye Creek, down into the Tonto Basin to old Fort Reno, and along the Reno Military Road into Sunflower Valley. From there it followed Sycamore Creek to Sugarloaf Mountain, on to Fort McDowell, and then to Phoenix. The terminal, called the Dublin Corral, was on Jefferson Street.

The summer Lewis took over the burro train to Phoenix, this item appeared in The Arizona Republican, July 10, 1894, “Tom Kennedy got the longest possible police court sentence yesterday, 300 days. He’s thankful that the charter and statutes restrict the power of the recorder or else he may have made a permanent resident of the jail. Kennedy’s crime consisted of stealing a valise full of clothing belonging to Jack Quinn from the Dublin Corral on Sunday night. Yesterday morning he started out to sell them and it was while he was hunting a buyer that he was overhauled by Marshal Molloy.”

We don’t know if freighter Pyle was present when all that excitement took place at the Dublin Corral, but he may have been too tired to notice. The trip took him a week down and a week back with the supplies.

Eventually, an enterprising fellow named Jeff Adams built a warehouse on the river three miles east of Fort McDowell, where the transfer of goods could take place. This location was enough closer that it cut the time from Payson to four days down and five days back.[1] Mexican traders would bring their wares to the Adams Station, as did Phoenix merchants and flour from the Hayden Mills in Tempe. Lewis would send his orders ahead by U.S. mail in time for the goods to be waiting at the station when he arrived. 

Pyle’s 20-burro pack train was a lifeline for stores in Payson and the surrounding area. Deliveries were made to Bonacker and then to Boardman, and later to John Holder’s store at Angora on the East Verde as well as a store at the mouth of Dude Creek. Each burro had its specially built sawbuck saddle, designed to fit its particular conformation. Lewis’ mother wove the saddle blankets from rags on a carpet loom, and folks said they were of finer quality than any that could be bought in stores or from the Navajo. It was extremely important to keep the animal’s backs from getting sore.

Bells hung around the necks of four to six of the burros, making it easier to wrangle them after a night of grazing. Everyone knew when the Lewis Pyle pack train was coming by the sound of the bells jingling. During the milder weather of spring, summer and autumn the pack train would head north to Flagstaff. Pyle’s orders preceded him and came from the Babbitt Mercantile Company. They were picked up at a warehouse on the Beal Ranch located in Slaughterhouse Canyon south of Flagstaff and the trip home took seven or eight days. In telling his story to Forest Ranger Fred Croxen, Pyle said the route went through Clark’s Valley, past Mormon Lake to Long Valley, to Jones’ Crossing on Clear Creek, and then to the trail down from the Rim on the East Verde River (in those days called “The Tunnel Road”). The pack train then turned toward Payson, crossing Sunflower Mesa.

One severe winter, the surrounding community was almost out of flour. Edwin Bonacker asked Pyle to go to the Valley for flour, and in his own words Lewis tells about the trip. “It was early in the spring and I had to round up our burros, they having been on the open range for some time. I hired Ephraim Powers and the one burro he owned. He helped make this trip with me. Together we had a burro train of 20 burros; one to pack the camp outfit and 19 to pack the flour … (The) requisition was mailed to the Hayden Flour Mill at Tempe, Arizona. This flour mill was owned and operated by the Hayden family, of which our Senator Carl Hayden is a member. 3,600 pounds of flour was hauled to the Adams Station. This made 200 pounds for each burro and we returned to Payson in record time. The Payson country again had a goodly supply of flour. The pay was $1.35 per hundred for packing merchandise …”

On the trail Lewis and his helper would camp at the ranches of friends, or else out in the open. He never forgot an incident that occurred during the first year he was operating the train on his own. It was the run to Phoenix, and they had camped as usual by a little corral along Sycamore Creek in Sunflower. In the morning Lewis noticed fresh horse tracks covering his own horse’s tracks from the day before. None of his animals was shod, but these were the tracks of shod horses. They repacked the burros and headed for Sugarloaf Mountain, observing those tracks all the way. Lewis was filling his canteen at a little spring by Sugarloaf, when a couple of deputy sheriffs came up on horseback. They asked if Pyle and his helper had seen anyone pass, since they were on the trail of the same horses he had seen around his camp. Someone had been murdered in Tonto Basin, and the deputies were trying to locate the culprits. The pack train had blotted out their trail. After the deputies passed the Pyle camp they were able to pick up the trail again, and the packers later learned the deputies had followed the trail to a ranch on the Verde River near McDowell. There they caught the fugitives gambling with the ranch hands. Pyle told Nick Houser in a 1970 interview that he shuddered when he realized those murderers had been around his camp while he and his helper slept.

The Lewis Pyle pack train continued to negotiate the difficult mountain trails and supply Payson with merchandise and flour until the Apache Trail was punched through from Mesa to Roosevelt in 1904. After that, wagons could gain access to the Tonto Basin and Payson and the pack train went out of business. Young Lewis Pyle went on to become the first forest ranger in the field on the newly established Tonto National Forest. He was a ranger from 1905 to 1911, and then turned to ranching. He continued to work various assignments for the Forest Service until he retired in 1947, but that is a story for another time. [2]

[1] This location is not to be confused with Adamsville, a flour mill town on the Gila River two miles west of Florence. It was started by one Charles Adams in the 1870s, once had 400 inhabitants, and was wiped out by a flood in 1900.

[2] Sources for this article include the personal papers of Fred Croxen and extensive oral histories by Lewis Pyle given to Nicholas P. Houser, interview November 1970, for the Doris Duke Oral History Project. These references can be found in the archives of the Rim Country Museum. Sources also include notes taken by Stan Brown taken from the private papers of Fred Croxen, courtesy of his son Charles Croxen, Tucson, Arizona.

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