Rim Country Places

Chapter 2 — The Apache Trail

Every mile on the Apache Trail offers a vista of the wild beauty of Arizona’s landscape.

Every mile on the Apache Trail offers a vista of the wild beauty of Arizona’s landscape.


It is always fun to take visitors on tours of the Rim Country, pointing out the sights and telling the stories. One of our favorite day trips was to make the “big loop” from Payson down Route 87 to the Bush Highway, past Saguaro Lake, and on to US 60 and the Apache Trail (called State Route 88). That leads us to Roosevelt Lake and holds magnificent views every mile of the way. It is the only way to approach the lovely Canyon and Apache Lakes. At Roosevelt Dam, Route 188 up the Tonto Basin enables a return to Payson.

As we begin our alphabetical journey to various Rim Country places, the first on our itinerary is the Apache Trail. Several old trails in the area carried this title, as one might expect in a territory populated by Apaches for several hundred years before white settlers arrived on the scene.

For example, Glenn “Slim” Ellison, in his book “Back Trackin’”, traces an “Apache trail” from the ford where Tonto Creek entered the Salt River (before the dam) northeast to Cibicue. However, when today we refer to The Apache Trail, we mean something quite different.

The first time we traveled The Apache Trail it was so rough and unimproved we commented that, while it was incredibly beautiful, “We sure don’t want to do this again.” However, intervening years have seen many improvements, wider lanes, pavement for 23 miles from Apache Junction to Tortilla Flat, and the rest of it very well graded.


Photo courtesy of Rim Country Museum

Roosevelt Dam soon after it was built and the new lake had filled for the first time.

At first, the dam was named Tonto Dam. There was no road to the site and up to that time supplies had been delivered to Payson by pack mule train over the Mazatzal Mountains. There had been civic pressure to develop the old Indian trail along the Salt River to bring Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix closer to the lumbering potential of the Tonto Basin. For centuries, that trail had been used by Salado people and later by Apaches who raided the Pima villages and settlers’ ranches.

The development of this old trail into a wagon road became a reality when it was necessary to bring supplies for the building of the dam. A cement plant at the site would also provide cement for the growing communities in the Valley. A town grew at the site called Roosevelt, and Apaches were brought in from San Carlos and camps around Payson to labor on the road. They lived in tents, moving their camps as the work progressed. By July of 1904 the road was laid six miles beyond the old mining camp of Goldfield, where a gold strike in 1892 had led to a five-year boom and a population of 400. The ghost town would later be developed as an old west Main Street for tourist consumption.

One of the foremen for the Apache crews was the well-known chief of Army Scouts Al Sieber. He knew the trail and how to work well with the Indians. After the road to Roosevelt was complete, the crews forged a road up Tonto Basin, above the proposed water level of the new lake. It was during that phase Al Sieber was killed by a large boulder that broke loose and rolled over him.

The most treacherous and expensive section of the road was going over Fish Creek Hill. A vertical cliff From page 6

rose several hundred feet above the road and summer rains washed out what progress had been made. Rock fills as wide as 75 feet were required to make the road wide enough, and other places called for 70-foot cuts in the rock.

Thirty years after the work was completed, Payson’s Audrie Harrison related how this steep hill was where he learned to drive a truck as a youth. He was a “go-fer” — assisting a truck driver named Leonard Hart, hauling 18 tons of mining machinery from Phoenix to Payson in the Harrison truck. In Audrie’s own words, the driver “kept stopping every thirty minutes and checking the load. I didn’t get it, but he had a bottle of hooch stashed in the load back there. Well, we got to the top of Fish Creek Hill and he decided he’d take a nap. There was a place to pull off, and (when he did) he was out just like that! I began to smell this alcohol, and I decided he was drunk. I wasn’t going to sit there until he sobered up; it was hot. So I got off my side and got on the driver’s side. I pushed him over to the passenger seat and started the thing up, put it in the lowest gear and started off Fish Creek Hill. The truck had a four-speed transmission, and by the time I got to Payson I could shuffle all three sticks and never scrape a gear.

“I stopped downtown to let him out, and that guy never came after his paycheck. He knew the old man was going to kill him…”

Audrie drove it on home, arrived about 2:30 a.m. and backed the truck perfectly into the driveway. His mother came running out asking where Leonard was, and when she heard the story she exclaimed, “Where did you drive that truck from?” The next morning his dad was mad, as expected, but not at his son. For the lad the word was, “Well, I guess you can drive it then,” After that the young man became a regular driver.[1]

When the new road allowed supply wagons to come directly into the Rim Country it brought a new way of life. Lewis Pyle said that was the end of his family’s pack train. It also meant travel to Phoenix for Rim Country settlers was much easier. Mail service began on The Roosevelt Road, as it was called, in December 1904, a one-way trip taking 11 hours. By Aug. 23, 1905 the first automobiles were negotiating the trip, 62 miles from Roosevelt to the railhead in Mesa. That first year 1.5-million pounds of freight passed over the road. By the time the last stone was in place for the dam, the heavy wagons had pulverized the dirt on the road to a depth of 4 inches.

In November 1908 a racecar driver from Los Angeles, P. H. Greer, claimed he made the round trip in 8.5 hours. He drove a 4-cylinder, 20-horsepower Mitchell runabout and had some delays in passing 25 teams of horses in both directions. Greer said that after all his travels, he thought “This the most beautiful motor trip in America…”


Stan Brown photo

Goldfield was developed into a tourist attraction. Here, author Brown’s family inspects the Western town (circa 1963).

Almost everyone who traveled the road came away with such impressions of its beauty. In 1911, former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose initiative had enabled the building of the dam, attended the dedication.

He said, “The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created.”

Of course it could be that the massive structure at the end of the road bearing his name influenced his opinion. However, travelers ever since continued to rave about the drive. It was after this that the Mesa to Roosevelt road was called The Apache Trail. It was a title promoted by the Southern Pacific Railroad when the company developed a side trip for tourists on the railroad. The railroad also operated the Apache Lodge on the newly formed Roosevelt Lake.

In February 1987 the Apache Trail was dedicated as Arizona’s first historic road.

NEXT: The Volcano On The Rim: Baker’s Butte

[1] From a personal interview by Stan Brown with Audrie Harrison. Transcript of the oral history is available at the Rim Country Museum.


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