Rim Country Places

Chapter 14 – Fossil Creek


The power plant at Childs, built on the Verde River at the mouth of Fossil Creek.

The power plant at Childs, built on the Verde River at the mouth of Fossil Creek.

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Fossil Creek has produced much lore from prehistoric until modern times. The Fossil Creek wilderness is a wonderland nestled among the canyons between the Mogollon Rim and the Verde River. Its mysterious flow comes from 100 miles to the north where the Coconino Plateau receives moisture that sinks through limestone formations, and seeps out in several springs whose flow combines to produce a constant 20,000 gallons of water per minute, with a temperature that never varies from 72 degrees F. As the seeps pass through the rock, they pick up minerals and deposit calcium carbonate that becomes “travertine.” These minerals give nutrition for moss to grow wherever the waters begin to cool, and an hour after a heavy rain the stream becomes a sky-blue color. However, everything the travertine touches, every stick, rock and fern, is coated in this rock-like material and appears like a fossil.

Archaeologists have found evidence of prehistoric people living here, perhaps as long ago as 10,000 years. In more recent eras, Yavapai and Apache people utilized the caves for shelter and camped here, considering the blessing of these waters to be sacred. The family of Delshay (Anglo interpretation of his name) lived here before and during the days of the Apache War. His descendants still consider this their homeland.

During the 1960s Gene and Mildred Spencer lived high up on the creek, near the springs, as his employment was to maintain the flume that brought water to the hydroelectric plants. During their decade, they explored the area and collected numerous artifacts documenting the life of early habitants. In retirement, the Spensers’ house became a virtual museum of prehistoric and proto-historic stone tools, clothing, pottery and jewelry. [1]

Fossil Creek first appeared on maps of Arizona in the 1860s. Arizona governor John Goodwin explored the area and with his party noted the deposits of travertine encasing rocks and sticks. It seemed natural to name it Fossil Creek.

photo

Photo courtesy of APS

The power plant at Childs, built on the Verde River at the mouth of Fossil Creek.

 Pioneer settlers in the Rim country often chose the springs coming from the Rim as locations for their homesteads. In 1897, cattleman Lew Turner staked a claim to the waters of Fossil Creek, and envisioned great potential for its use. By the turn of the century he had interested several investors, among them Senator W. A. Clark of Clarkdale fame. Clark’s United Verde Mine in Jerome had to generate its electricity using expensive, imported coal and oil. Here was a source of cheap power if the creek could be harnessed. The investors created the Arizona Power Company, and soon the project was underway constructing a service road to the site. Six hundred men were employed, nearly all of them Apache and Yavapai from Payson and Camp Verde, “excepting the foreman, sub-foreman and time-keeper.” The Indians also worked on construction of the flume, earning two dollars for each 10-hour day. [2] During a frantic, 12-month construction period, not one injury occurred, nor were any lives lost.   

The road was punched through some of Arizona’s most rugged and isolated canyons. The engineering statistics of how the water was corralled boggles the layman’s mind. It flowed through 38,000 feet of conduits with a drop of 3,300 feet. A 28-acre lake was dredged and dammed so that a backup supply of water could accumulate. 10,000 feet of tunnels were drilled and reinforced by concrete, a 12,000-foot flume of concrete ran perilously along a bench excavated from the mountainside, and another 2,200 feet of wooden flume crossed gulches on steel trestles. At one point, a 7,500-foot siphon climbed a mountain, saving three-and-a-half miles of flume. When some of the more superstitious natives saw water running uphill, they walked off the job. [3]

By September 1908, the town of Childs had sprung up with homes, stables, camps, blacksmith shops and warehouses, and the generators in its plant were running. The labor force was about 450 men living in five work camps along the flume route. Then in 1916, a second generating plant named Irving was added, looking like a quaint old mill sitting beside the stream. Childs was named for Sterling Childs, a vice president with the Arizona Power Company and one of the project’s board of directors. The Irving plant was named for Irving Bonbright, a major financial investor in the construction. [4]

The power generated by the Childs-Irving plants flowed on a highway of copper wire to the mines in Jerome, in the Verde Valley, and to Walker in the Bradshaw mountains, thence on to Prescott. By the 1920s, so much additional power was being generated that a 75-mile transmission line to Phoenix was delivering 70 percent of the electricity needed for that city’s 44,000 residents. [5] 

For generations, the generating plants continued to supply clean and inexpensive power, and at times served as a backup source for Payson and the Rim Country. However, times change and the numbers of people using Fossil Creek as a recreation area made it evident the creek could not sustain so much public usage. Calls for ecological attention mounted. In 2004, invasive species of fish were removed to allow the native fish to survive. A fish barrier five miles from the mouth was placed to prevent more unwelcome fish invasion from the Verde River. In 2005, Arizona Public Service (APS) assessed the feasibility of continuing the operation. The low output of the plants, and the good will that would be generated from restoring the stream to its natural habitat decided the issue. APS closed both power plants and in 2008 removed the diversion dam, emptying the reservoir.

After a long campaign by the Arizona Nature Conservancy, the government passed legislation designating Fossil Creek as a National Wild and Scenic River, one of only two streams in Arizona to have such a designation. [6] Most of the river is now an official wilderness area, left to be “wild,” though seven-and-a-half miles in the middle of its course is left as “recreational.”

I asked Mildred Spenser if they ever got lonely during those years of extreme isolation. “No, no! No way!” she responded. She loved her little house near Fossil Springs, and the freedom to wander the beautiful surroundings, exploring the caves and discovering artifacts. They butchered their own beef, made their own tack from hides, and had a root cellar in the rock that preserved their garden products. For Mildred, it was living in paradise. [7] Today there is hardly much isolation, as this popular spot of fierce beauty attracts visitors from everywhere.

[1] Author Stan Brown interviewed Mildred Spenser in her Payson home about 1995. The transcript of this oral history can be found in the Rim Country Museum.

[2] Article from Electrical World Aug. 11 and 18, 1910.

[3] In 1970, this siphon was named a National Historic Engineering Landmark.

[4] In 1991, these two plants were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

[5] Arizona Power Company had merged with Northern Arizona Power, Central Arizona Edison and other private power companies. It was in the late 1940s that Arizona Public Service company was formed, and operated the Fossil Creek plants.

[6] The other is the Verde River.

[7] Gene Spencer died in 1990, and Mildred in 1998.

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