Tonto Natural Bridge And Its Long Road To Becoming A State Park

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Tim Ehrhardt photo

No matter what angle your vista of the Tonto Natural Bridge, it is always inspirational.

The fight for Tonto Natural Bridge to be open to the public is not a new one. As recently as the late 1980s this wonder of nature was private land. Here’s a look at the bridge and how it became an Arizona State Park.

The recognition of Tonto Natural Bridge as a wonder came almost immediately when white folks started to flock to the area. By 1880, word was already getting around the territory.

An Arizona Wonder

On Pine Creek, about 15 miles west of Birch’s ranch, and six miles north of the east fork of the Verde, there is an immense natural bridge, the largest in the United States. It extends up and down the creek nearly 600 feet, and has a span of 150 feet. Its height is equal to its span. It is a course-grained sand stone. The next largest natural bridge in the United States is in Rockbridge county, Virginia. —Arizona Silver Belt, Dec. 25, 1880

According to “Rim Country History,” published by the Northern Gila County Historical Society in 1984, I.M. House discovered the bridge around 1880 when prospecting along with L.W. Snow and Wm. Nelson. None of the men decided to lay claim to the property, and Davey Gowan claimed it in 1882. Eventually Gowan passed possession to his nephew David Gowan Goodfellow, who established residence in 1897.

Word of this natural wonder continued to spread and by the turn of the century, it’s clear that it had spread to Australia, as this clip from the Brisbane Courier shows.

One of the many natural wonders of Arizona scenery made accessible by the opening up of rail and stage roads is a remarkable natural bridge in the Tonto basin. It is 850ft. long, and spans a canon some 200ft. Deep, at the bottom of which flows the river. The bridge is of rock and is perfectly proportioned. The under side is gracefully arched and the upper perfectly level. The walls of the cases are honeycombed with caves, in which are stalactites and stalagmites in great profusion. — the Brisbane Courier, Feb. 1, 1899

A little more than 20 years later, Goodfellow was in the midst of his homestead application for the land around the bridge. Based on the clip below from some of this paperwork, it appears that there was already some inkling that the government might wish to set aside the property.

“You state that within the confines of this homestead is a so-called natural bridge and it is thought that the only reason a patent may not be issued to Mr. Goodfellow would be because of this so-called natural bridge on the property and now that the land has been surveyed, it is hoped that steps may be taken looking to the issuance of patent to Mr. Goodfellow and that if the Government at some future time desired acquire [sic] the bridge, it could do so by purchase.”

Ultimately the patent was issued on May 19, 1921 to Goodfellow. He and his family had the property until approximately 1948 when Glen L. Randall bought it.

The Arizona State Parks Board was created in 1957, and almost from its inception it had interest in acquiring the Tonto Natural Bridge property. In 1967 the first major steps were taken to acquire the property. Over the next few years though, efforts ultimately stalled. Appropriations from the Arizona Legislature were varied. Most appropriations mandated that they’d be mixed with matching federal and other conservation-related funds. Ultimately, not enough money was able to be put together to meet the asking price of the Randalls.

In the 1970s, the title to the property became clouded. These title issues delayed any serious effort to acquire the bridge. However, by the early 1980s, those issues were straightened out. The Wolfswinkle family was determined to be the legal owner of the property. They renovated the historic lodge in 1987 and in 1989 they inquired with the Arizona State Parks Board to see if there might be interest in acquiring the property. Over the next year or so things were negotiated and on July 19, 1990 and purchase agreement was made between the State Parks Board and Tonto Natural Bridge, Inc.

Improvements were then made to the property and the official Grand Opening Celebration was held on June 29, 1991. Amongst the guests that day was Arizona Governor Fife Symington and Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain.

For almost the past 18 years the park has kept regular hours until recently being closed as part of Arizona budget cuts. In 2008 it drew more than 87,000 people.

A terrific history of the Tonto Natural Bridge as an Arizona State Park can be found at: http://azstateparks.com/Parks/TONA/history.html. That article goes into the process in great detail and was a great source of information for this article.

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