Rim Country Places

Chapter 24: Mount Ord


The old Goswick camp serving the mercury mine; years later this road would become the modern Beeline Highway.

The old Goswick camp serving the mercury mine; years later this road would become the modern Beeline Highway.

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The lofty Mazatzal Mountains presented the formidable barrier to the Tonto Basin, and had to be breached if the army and pioneers were ever to settle the Rim Country. From the Valley of the Sun they studied the silhouette of this mighty range, noting its several massive peaks. It became clear that to construct a road over the mountain, the most reasonable route would be up Sycamore Creek (which emptied into the Verde River near Fort McDowell) and around the massive Mount Ord. That peak, about in the middle of the range, would be named for General Edward O’Connel (sic) Ord commander of the Arizona Military Department in 1869.

Construction of the military road began in October 1867, and during seven months of construction the soldiers endured unrelenting attacks from Apache and Yavapai bands. The road passed around Mt. Ord on the east, and proceeded down to Tonto Creek. A few miles up Reno Creek a military outpost was established named for another army general, Marcus A. Reno. The dramatic events of building the military road and establishing Camp Reno are among many in a long line of stories that make up a compendium of local lore. If the mountain has eyes it can relate so much that happened in and around it. [1]

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Rim Country Museum archive

The old Goswick camp serving the mercury mine; years later this road would become the modern Beeline Highway.

In 1903 a mineral other than gold was found in the shadow of Mt. Ord, and it became the center of much of the mountain’s 20th century history. By 1920 the Arizona Mining Journal would state, “The Mazatzal Mountains have acquired the reputation for cinnabar, an ore of mercury ...” Mercury is extracted from veins of cinnabar — a soft, flaky, reddish brown rock. After being mined it is tumbled to finer pieces and laced in a vertical furnace called a retort. It is heated with coke until the mercury vaporizes and rises to the top of the furnace. It then goes through a series of u-shaped tubes where the gas is condensed into liquid mercury, often called quicksilver. Put in 76-pound flasks it becomes very valuable and in the 1960s the price of a flask had risen to $537.

Some of the mercury mines were wildcat operations. One of those miners was Dick Robbins, living back in a deep canyon with his wife. He owned a little shack nearby where he let a prospector live, but a young ranger came in and tried to get them off government land. Columbus “Boy” Haught told the tale to Ira Murphy how Dick Robbins stood his ground.

“So this forest fellow came in there, some dude out of the East, and told Dick, ‘Who lives there?’ And Dick told him. He said, ‘Whose house is it?’ and Dick said, ‘It’s mine!’ Well he says, ‘He’ll have to move out of there.’ And then he said, ‘Whose chickens are these?’ Dick says, ‘They’re mine!’ ‘Well you’ve got to get rid of these chickens!’ And on he went, ‘Whose fruit trees?’ ‘They’re mine!’ ‘Well you can’t raise fruit trees in here; these will have to go! Who put that sign up at the road?’ ‘I did!’ ‘Well that will have to come down, and when I go out of here I’m going to take that sign down.’

“So after a while Dick said, ‘Now I’ve listened to you; now you listen to me. That man is going to stay in that house as long as he wants to. And I’m going to keep on raising chickens here. And I’m going to keep my orchard. And I’m going to keep my garden. And when I go out of here that sign better be up there at the road or I’m going to look you up!’”

Dick Robbins reported that he hadn’t seen that forester since, and the sign was still up. [2]

A more legitimate mine was the old National Mine, also known as the Sunflower Mine. In the 1960s a group geology class from the Valley approached the mine for their studies, when an aged, bearded miner stopped them with his hand on the six- shooter strapped to his belt. He demanded to know their intentions, and when they protested they were just students he let them go on.[3]

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Stan Brown photo

Stan Brown stands by an old cinnabar furnace near Mt. Ord.

Traveling the old single lane Beeline Highway around the west side of Mt. Ord, after it replaced the old military road and the Bush Highway, the route went down through the main street of the Goswick Mine camp. The green miners’ houses on either side of the highway were finally eliminated completely when the Beeline was modernized into four lanes, and later the divided highway finished the job of covering old landmarks. Wesley Goswick, born in 1884, was one of the Rim Country’s early settlers. He prospected and mined, and with his wife Mary, worked on the Pyle ranch. There they buried their two little ones, Willie, age 4, and Rosie, age 2, who died of diphtheria. They moved to Roosevelt to work construction on the dam and when it was completed Wes and Mary divorced. While living with his daughter and her husband, Belle and Alfred Packard, in Tonto Basin, Wes hunted and prospected. In 1920 he found cinnabar on the side of Mt. Ord. The Goswick camp became a thriving little village. Members of the Tonto Tribe worked there, according to Vinnie Ward. [4]

The Goswick mine was bought in 1929 by Mercury Mines of America, but closed in 1932 during the Great Depression. Wes Goswick moved about, suffered a stroke in 1939 and died in 1943.

In 1936 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) erected a fire-watch tower on the top of Mt. Ord. The 7-foot square, pre-fabricated steel cab was built by the Aermotor Co. of Chicago, famous for their windmills and tanks from 1888 until the company went out of business in the 1960s. To enable access to this isolated spot, a narrow switch-back road was blazed for nine miles from the mercury mine on Slate Creek to the top of Mt. Ord. Remnants of their culverts and retaining walls, so beautifully constructed by hand of native stone and hand mixed cement, can be seen yet today.

In 1983 the Forest Service announced that the historic tower would be replaced. The Phoenix chapter of the National Association of CCC Alumni petitioned to salvage the upper 22 feet of the tower and the cab. They planned to place it as a monument in the South Mountain Park of Phoenix. A lack of volunteer labor resulted in the artifact being placed at the Blue Ridge administrative site near Saguaro Lake.

When the Museum of the Forest (later the Rim Country Museum) was being established by the Northern Gila County Historical Society, leaders such as Jim Lipnitz and Don Dedera worked to save old Mt. Ord tower and incorporate it into the museum. Since federally owned objects could not be sold to individuals, only to other government entities, the Town of Payson intervened and took ownership of the fire watch tower, in turn donating it to the Historical Society. It was brought to Payson by a crew from Arizona Public Service, erected and refurbished by volunteers from the Historical Society and placed beside the museum and the original Payson Ranger Station building. It was rededicated in May of 1991 and stands as a permanent display to educate future generations.

As one views the mighty Mt. Ord from the Tonto Basin or from the modern highway that skirts its side, a rush of history and wonderful stories comes to those initiated into the world of Rim Country Places.

Notes

[1] For a full story of Camp Reno see “The Tale of Two Rivers,” a book about pioneer settlement by Stanley C. Brown, available at the Rim Country Museum.

[2] From oral histories by Ira Murphy in Rim Country Museum archive.

[3] Reported by Payson Roundup sports writer Max Foster.

[4] 1970 interview with Houser, in Rim Country Museum archive.

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