What Tonto Natural Bridge Was Likeback In The Day

Tonto Natural Bridge

Photo by Andy Towle.

Tonto Natural Bridge


Tonto Natural Bridge was settled by David Gowan in the 1870s and later patented by a nephew of his, David Gowan Goodfellow. It was a far different place in those days. Let’s take a look at some newspaper clips from the past to get a sense of what a visit was like back then.

This first clip is the earliest one that I have been able to find. It ran in the Arizona Silver Belt newspaper on Dec. 25, 1880. I think the particularly neat thing about it is that it references some other natural bridges in the country.

An Arizona Wonder

“On Pine Creek, about fifteen 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. It is on Cedar Creek, and the top is 200 feet above the bed of the stream. The arch, at its crown, is 40 feet thick, and its breadth is 60 feet. It is crossed by a public road. In Walker county, Virginia, there is a bridge 120 feet long and 70 feet high. California has five natural bridges, the largest of which is on a tributary creek of the Trinity River. The bottom of the arch is 20 feet above the creek, and the top is 150 feet higher. It is 20 feet high, and 80 feet across.”

Next is a clip that references the difficulty in reaching the bridge. It’s important to note that the newspaper in which this clip ran, the Arizona Champion, was in Flagstaff, which had a railroad. Thus this clip may have been read by people passing through Flagstaff on their way across the country. Keep in mind that Zane Grey’s first experience with Arizona was passing through Flagstaff on a train. This is important in that way and sets the stage for more people to learn about this place.

“Our natures wonder in this section, viz.: the natural bridge, is beginning to attract the attention of tourists, several parties having signified their intention to visit there during the coming summer. It is truly worth a visit and will repay any one for the trouble of getting there and two or three days can be spent very profitably to the sight seer in exploring the caves and subterranean wonders therein contained. – M. – Arizona Champion March 19, 1887”

So what did a visitor to this bridge see in the 1880s? Here’s a clip from the Aug. 24, 1889 Arizona Silver Belt that gives us a clue.

“The dike which forms the bridge extends in a sweeping curve up the right side of the stream and together with the bridge proper affords a surface area of about one hundred acres of fertile land, which Mr. David Gowan has converted into a fine farm. He has a considerable acreage under cultivation, and is gradually clearing the best portions of the land yet available. He already has a small bearing orchard of choice fruit, a vineyard, alfalfa patch, field of corn, and kitchen garden. Tobacco thrives wonderfully well, and two crops a year are raised. Mr. Gowan raises only enough tobacco for his own use and to supply his neighbors. A magnificent spring issues from the right side of the canyon, at a height to admit of the water being easily conducted to any portion of the farm, and the volume is great enough to fill a ditch four feet wide and two feet deep, and to irrigate much more land than is available for cultivation.

“The Natural Bridge has become a popular summer resort, especially with the people of Phoenix, and Mr. E.H. Cook tells us that at the time of his recent visit to the Bridge there were some twenty-five persons camped there. There are no accommodations for visitors at present and the place is accessible only by a trail winding down the side of the canyon and very steep in places.”

Zane Grey wrote about the bridge in his book “Tales of Lonely Trails,” a portion of which covered his visit to the area in 1918. He had come down from Flagstaff on his way to the Tonto Creek area to hunt with the Haughts.

“We crossed the plateau leading to the valley where the Natural Bridge was located. A winding road descended the east side of this valley. A rancher lived down there. Green of alfalfa and orchard and walnut trees contrasted vividly with a bare, gray slope on one side, and a red, rugged mountain on the other. A deep gorge showed dark and wild. At length, just after sunset, we reached the ranch, and rode through orchards of peach and pear and apple trees, all colored with fruit, and down through grassy meadows to a walnut grove where we pitched camp. By the time we had supper it was dark. Wonderful stars, thick, dreamy hum of insects, murmur of swift water, a rosy and golden afterglow on the notch of the mountain range to the west — these were inducements to stay up, but I was so tired I had to go to bed, where my eyelids fell tight, as if pleasantly weighted.

“After the long, hard rides and the barren camp-sites what delight to awaken in this beautiful valley with the morning cool and breezy and bright, with smell of new-mown hay from the green and purple alfalfa fields, and the sunlight gilding the jagged crags above! Romer made a bee-line for the peach trees. He beat his daddy only a few yards. The kind rancher had visited us the night before and he had told us to help ourselves to fruit, melons, alfalfa. Needless to state that I made my breakfast on peaches!”

Gowan and the Goodfellow family were known for their hospitality. As a clip from the June 19, 1908 Coconino Sun says, “David Goodfellow, the man who made the Natural Bridge famous, is in town from that scenic wonder. His name does not belie him either.” Any visitor in those days would have been greeted warmly.

By the 1930s the automobile was much more prevalent and a lodge had been built at the bridge. Here is a clip from a series of motorlogues that appeared in the Arizona Republic 1939. This segment is from an article in the July 16, 1939 newspaper.

“Natural bridge is 15 miles from Payson, to the north. En route the visitor crosses the Upper East Verde river, a popular trout fishing stream. The road to the bridge also goes to Pine, but 12 miles north of Payson the visitor leaves the main road at a well-marked junction and motors three miles west to reach the bridge.

“The last mile and a half of the bridge road goes precipitously down the east side of Pine canyon, in the bottom of which is Pine creek. Before venturing into the canyon, the motorist should put his car in low gear, to save wear and tear on the brakes.

“Halfway down the hill the visitor is offered an overwhelming view of Tonto Natural Bridge ranch, operated by David and H.W. Goodfellow. Peach, plum, apricot and apple trees loaded with fruit, acres of alfalfa and corn, rows of vines loaded with grapes and berries, flowers growing in profusion — all of this fresh greenness clustered about Goodfellow Lodge and cabins combines to form a picture of beauty and refreshing novelty. This little garden spot in a narrow canyon, rocky and steep, seems almost too real to be true when seen from the canyon wall on the way down. The bridge is not visible, however. The five acres of corn seen to the south are growing on top of the natural bridge.”

The next time you visit the bridge, remember the arduous journey that others had to take to this special place, and appreciate how much easier it is to visit such an idyllic spot. As you look out upon what are now parking lots, try to envision all the wonderful things that were once grown on top of the bridge.


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