Leo the Lion dropped in
Folks new to the Rim Country may not know the strange story of the Lion and Hell’s Gate. It is an oddity of local history we don’t want to forget. It started as a publicity stunt in the summer of 1927.
Stunt pilot Martin Jensen was commissioned to fly non-stop from California to New York, promoting MGM movies and calling national attention to the studio’s trademark, Leo the Lion. The 350-pound African lion was the only passenger on board the B-1 Ryan Brougham airplane — a plane just like the one flown by Lindbergh.
Sept. 16 the plane left from outside San Diego. The plane was overloaded with 3,200 pounds of gasoline as well as Leo and his 400-pound cage.
It was noon when they crossed the Colorado River. The route took Jensen over the north end of Phoenix, but the plane would not rise above the Mazatzal Mountains. The pilot snaked his way through a canyon, and then suddenly his heart was in his throat. Before him loomed the black ramparts of the Mogollon Rim; the engine was not going to make it. A canyon was closing in and there was no place to land. Putting the plane into a glide he stalled tail first into a clump of oak trees. The plane plowed through the treetops, rolled over and crashed to the ground, stripping the wings from the fuselage. Jensen hung upside down in the cockpit, stunned, but unhurt except for bruises and a cut.
Remarkably the steel cage with its glass liner was in one piece — and Leo was still inside. Jensen took water from a nearby stream and put it in the lion’s trough, shared sandwiches with the animal, and started hiking downstream. He had crashed about 2:20 p.m. in Hell’s Gate Canyon on Tonto Creek below Bear Flat. Of course he had no way of knowing where he was.
Before the crash Jensen had observed a ranch below and now headed there. He did not know that if he had hiked upstream he would have emerged at Kohl’s Ranch in a few hours. As it was he spent three nights in the wilderness.
Finally he broke out into the open, soaked from rain, stiff and pained from sleeping on the ground and the crash. He followed some cattle thinking they would lead him to a ranch, but they only led him in a circle.
Just before his fourth night in the wilderness Jensen came upon an irrigation ditch. It led him to the ranch of George Booth near Gisela, where he shared the news of what had happened with the incredulous family.
They fed the stranded pilot and allowed him to sleep off his troubles for 12 hours. He was better able to tell his story after that, and then told his hosts, “I’ve got to get to a phone.” George Booth took him to Payson in a Model T Ford, and it was noon on Sept. 23 when they pulled into Grady Harrison’s garage and the nearest telephone.
Jensen waited in Payson while several cowboys were able to retrieve Leo and his cage, and the lion became the most popular attraction since the rodeo until a crew arrived from California to take Leo and his pilot home.