As General George Crook studied maps of the Apache stronghold he realized the importance of connecting Fort Apache on the east with Fort Verde on the West. The only wagon road that did this went north by the San Francisco Mountains, though a second road was being punched through the Mogollon Mountains that would cut 100 miles from the more northern route. However the General had a bolder idea. Develop a road across the southern edge of the Mogollon Rim. It would be shorter and would also serve to cut off renegade Apaches fleeing north over the Rim after raiding ranches. This route also had water, the most vital element for a traveling army. Springs were frequent and sinkholes were numerous, catching rainwater, providing wetlands and small lakes along the route.
Incidentally, for readers not familiar with the origin of the name “Mogollon” (pronounced locally “Muggy-own”) the mountain range, including the escarpment known as “The Rim,” is named for Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollon who was governor of New Mexico Territory from 1712 to 1715. The name is also applied to a Native culture from the area that dates to 300 B.C.
It was 1871 and Crook desired to get his plan under way. He went to Fort Apache, enlisted a number of friendly White Mountain Apaches as scouts and hired two local mountain men to survey the route and supervise the work crew. These men were Corydon E. Cooley and Henry Wood Dodd. This crew would proceed from east to west, but he also planned a second crew to work from west to east. For this he hired two well-seasoned scouts at Fort Verde to plot and direct the building of the road. They were Al Sieber and Wales Arnold. They would lead a number of Apache scouts and laborers from the Infantry.
The soldiers working on the road were, for the most part, young men recruited from European immigrants who used this opportunity to become American citizens.
Late in 1871 a crew from Ft. Whipple in Prescott, worked on improving the road to Ft. Verde, rerouting it in places. However, winter set in and put off the beginning of the main project. When the snow melted in the spring of 1872 Crook ordered the work to begin on the military road.
In his autobiography Crook writes, “We left for Verde about the end of August, without a guide, being assured that there was a plain (Indian) trail all the way, which I soon found out to be pretty much a delusion. Our route lay along the summit of the Mogollon Mountains.” [“General George Crook, His Autobiography” University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1946/1986 page 166]
Not wanting these young men to get lost on this uncharted trail, inexperienced as they were with the wilderness, each mile was marked by a number noting how many miles it was from Camp Verde. These markers consisted of a “V” for Verde and a number for the mile; for example “V34”. These marks were blazed on Ponderosa trees and if none were at the right spot, the mark was etched on a nearby rock. (An original mark cut from a downed tree on the trail can be seen at the Rim Country Museum.)
By the summer of 1873 Fort Apache could be supplied from Fort Whipple and Fort Verde. During the summers of 1873 and 1874 the work continued, widening the road with hand tools so it could accommodate mule- or horse-drawn wagons. In late September 1874 the first wagon train crossed the road. It included Captain John W. Summerhayes and his pregnant wife Martha. They were being transferred to Fort Apache. All of their belongings, including wedding gifts of china, were in one of the wagons. It was along a stretch of this military road that the wagon containing their possessions went over the side of the Rim, mules and all. She tells about it in detail in her famous book “Vanishing Arizona.”
The Crook Military Road across the Rim is now named Forest Road 300. It can be reached from either east (SR260 to Woods Canyon Lake) or from the west (SR87 on the way to Winslow, turn right onto FR300).
For the next several of these columns I will take you on a treasure hunt to discover many of the legends that sprang up along the Crook Road.