Although Hollywood film crews had filmed Zane Grey stories on location around Payson in the early 1920s, the year 1927 brought a new rush of Hollywood excitement with the arrival of the MGM mascot, Leo the Lion.
It was never anyone’s plan to bring Leo to Payson when the saga began in the late summer. The movie company had decided to fly their famous trademark lion from California to New York as a good publicity stunt. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo flight was still creating a frenzy everywhere he landed, and the studio figured to cash in on this new interest in aviation. They hired pilot Martin Jensen and custom built an airplane to accommodate the 350-pound beast. The B-1 Ryan Brougham flying machine was a duplicate of Charles Lindbergh’s famous plane. It was overloaded with 3,200 pounds of gasoline and had a built-in 400-pound cage. The pilot could reach a lever that released milk and water from an overhead tank into the animal’s cage to pacify his objections to the bumpy ride. However, Jensen secretly equipped himself with a pistol should Leo break out. Bold, black lettering on the plane’s taut canvas skin could easily be read from the ground, “MGM LION.”
The original plans to take off from the studio in Culver City had been blocked by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Then on Sept. 16 film crews recorded the take off from an airstrip outside of San Diego. The overloaded plane got off the ground and headed east across the desert. It was noon when it crossed the Colorado River, and even though the hot desert air currents caused the plane to jerk about, Leo was snoring peacefully. The route took Jensen over the north end of Phoenix, but upon approaching the Mazatzal Mountains the plane was not able to rise over the top. The pilot snaked his way through the canyons and into Tonto Basin. Suddenly, before him loomed the black ramparts of the Mogollon Rim and he knew the 220 horsepower Wright Whirlwind engine was not going to make it.
That same afternoon, Payson merchant and postmaster Bill Boardman was headed for Rye. Going over Ox Bow Hill he heard the roar of a faltering airplane overhead and stopped his truck to watch the plane sputter as it lost altitude in a struggle to mount the Rim. He later reported seeing the strange shape of a metal cage built into the fuselage just behind the pilot’s seat as the plane headed over the hills toward upper Tonto Creek. He had no idea of the cargo, and when the hum died out Boardman continued on his errand.
In Little Green Valley, east of Payson, the sputtering of an airplane engine alerted the Haught family, and they gathered outside their cabin. Seeing what it was, Pappy Haught exclaimed with humorous wisdom, “Those things are pizen. One drap’ll kill ya.”
As the plane disappeared over the hill, so did the noise of its engine. Pilot Jensen had opened to full throttle, but the light air could not sustain the weighted plane. A canyon was closing in and 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 was in one piece, and Leo was still inside. Jensen took water from the nearby Tonto Creek and put it in the lion’s trough, shared his sandwiches with the animal, and started hiking downstream.
During the first seven miles from its headwaters, Tonto Creek cuts its snake-like course 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, where the creek 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 traverses a rough seven miles along a ridge, and then it drops 1,500 feet into a gorge near the junction of Haigler Creek. The rugged trail continues through a main canyon until it opens onto the pioneer community of Gisela.
Jensen had crashed about 2:20 p.m. and had no way of knowing where he was. He became exhausted fighting the boulders and manzanita thickets and when night closed in he lie 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, 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 led him in a circle.
Then, just before his fourth night in the wilderness Jensen came upon an irrigation ditch. Following it he came 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 12 hours. He was better able to relate his story after that, and 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.
The plane had been scheduled to land in Amarillo, Texas the evening of Sept. 16, but lookouts posted along the route reported no sightings.
By the next day it was obvious to family and friends in California 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. The posse of search planes fanned out, but there was no trace of the missing plane. After Jensen finally reached his wife by telephone from Payson, his wife Peg and representatives from the MGM studios were soon on their way, flying 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.
During this same time, Lewis Bowman and Ham Eubanks were rounding up a wild cow in the Hellsgate area. Suddenly the scent of lion upset their horses, and the cowboys found the crash site. They determined the lion was weakened, but safe in its cage. Not finding the pilot anywhere in the vicinity they went back to their camp and prepared to report their find.
Back in Payson almost a week had passed since the crash when the movie people arrived, and suddenly all 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.
Bill Boardman remembered how he had seen the faltering plane come overhead six days before. He suggested they organize a volunteer posse to go in after the animal before it starved. So 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 met up with Lewis Bowman and Ham Eubanks on the trail, and since they had already located the lion they were able to lead the posse directly to the crash site. The lion lay immobile in its cage; its ribs were showing, its hide was covered with fly infested sores. After taking water and devouring the meat, Leo became active in his cage. The cowboys hoisted the cage onto the sled and the long drag to civilization began. The trail out of there was a difficult and winding, exhausting 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, rounding up an African lion and treating its wounds for screwworm. They loaded Leo on to Dave Martin’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 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.”
Sources: Oral histories and articles by Frank Gillette and Ralph Fisher; article by Joseph Stevens in American West magazine, July/August 1985, page 23.