The music and the murmur of 100 conversations drifted out across the grass, shimmering green atop a miracle of time, water and limestone.
Several hundred people sipped wine and whiskey and stood in line for the smoked meat and barbecue, summoned by the Friends of the Tonto Natural Bridge to resume a treasured annual rite.
The Friends of the Bridge sold all of their $75 tickets, raising thousands of dollars to support the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. The Friends have staged the event every year, with a break for the pandemic. The fundraisers supply the park with a host of amenities — from money for renovations to picnic tables and tents and equipment to host weddings and support guests. The auction of everything from original artwork to cases of champagne provided additional donations.
You would not have guessed from the steep-walled canyon and the rolling green lawns and the gracefully tiered historic inn that a geological improbability lay beneath their feet.
The bridge features a 400-foot-long, 150-foot-high, 56-foot-wide tunnel, dissolved in an ancient dam of calcium carbonate by the persistence of Pine Creek. The soaring, arched tunnel is considered the tallest natural travertine bridge in the world.
The cool, echoing, dripping cavern arose from an improbable sequence of events — which makes it a one-of-a-kind on the planet. The creek carved a canyon along a fault line between a block of volcanic Rhyolite on one side and a layer of ocean-bottom Redwall Limestone on the other. Rich in the calcium carbonate contributed by long-dead sea creatures, this formation is one of the most dramatic, cliff-forming features in the Southwest. Among other things, it created a distinctive 500- to 800-foot-thick layer in the Grand Canyon.
But here, the cliffs are mostly hidden. Instead, water percolating through the 340-million-year-old limestone emerged at the bottom of the canyon in a series of springs — much like those that flow into Fossil Creek today. The water dissolved calcium carbonate left behind by the shells and skeletons of ancient sea creatures. The calcium carbonate precipitated out of the water as it emerged from the springs and tumbled over the rocks — just as they’re doing today in Fossil Creek or when creating stalagmites in limestone caves.
A great dam of travertine formed in the bottom of the canyon over thousands of years. Pine Creek eventually dissolved a hole in the barrier, creating the remarkable, cavernous tunnel at the heart of the park.
The water and the geology have drawn human beings for thousands of years.
We know little about the use of the canyon and cavern by the Ice Age hunters who ranged through the area 13,000 years ago — leaving their distinctive stone spear points. We also have found only scattered traces in the canyon of the Mogollon and other groups who hunted and farmed here for more than 1,000 years, before largely abandoning the area in the 1400s. They likely used the honeycomb of caves inside the cavern and planted crops on the plateau where the historic lodge and visitors center now stand.
The modern American history of the bridge started with prospector David Douglas Gowan’s discovery of the caverns in 1877. He filed a claim — but soon learned that Apache bands had their own claim to the stream. At one point, he reported hiding for three days in one of the caves — waiting for a band of warriors to leave.
After the military broke the resistance of the last Apache bands, Gowan homesteaded 150 acres, planting fruit trees and a garden and hunting game while he prospected for gold. Ultimately, the restless Gowan struck a deal with his Scottish nephew — David Goodfellow, who then brought his family to the United States.
The farm ultimately became a lodge — and so began its long, intimate relationship with the scattered communities of Rim Country. The state spent decades haggling about the price of the property — and then about the ownership — before finally buying it for a state park. In 1991, the park opened. In the meantime, the historic inn hosted grand Rim Country events — and even for a period, offered the Payson High School football team a place for pre-season summer football camp.
So the amiable crowd that sampled wine, savored pulled pork, listened to the music and reveled in the soft September light maintained a tradition that stretches back 10,000 years of humans love and use for this remarkable place.
Seems like everybody showed up, including Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey and Star Valley Mayor Bobby Davis.
Park Ranger Katie Ferguson and her staff wandered through the event, clearing tables, setting up chairs and keeping everything running. Volunteers spent hours getting everything ready.
Sponsors of the event included Farm Bureau Financial Services, the Beverage Place, Four Peaks Brewery, Hannah & Hooch, Culver’s, Church of the Nazarene, Overman Designs, Back to Basics, Dan Good Flooring, ERA Young Realty, Edward Jones Investments and National Bank of Arizona.
The list of major donors was even longer, including Plant Fair Nursery, The Strawberry Inn, Roxy Almblade, Robert Hershberger, Judi Holgate, Sawmill Theatres, William and Shari Ahrendt, the Payson Roundup, the Payson Golf Club, Bruzzi Vineyard, Pizza Factory, Safeway, Macky’s Grill, Chaparral Pines, Home Depot, Mazatzal Casino, MHA Foundation, Twin Pines Barbershop, Rim Country BBQ, Tractor Supply, Greg McKelvey, Tonto Silkscreen, Pizza Hut and By the Bucket.
The organizers offered a special thanks to the park staff, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, KRIM, KMOG, Pine Ice, Payson Senior Center and Nicole Reynolds Photography.
It was a gathering 300 million years in the making — all derived from sea-bottom mud laid down before the first dinosaur roared.
Moreover, it illustrated perfectly just how a place can make a community — kind of like black cherry, almond, caramel and just enough time in an oak barrel can make a whiskey.
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