Lee’s Ferry

Here at Exploring Off the Beaten Path, our favorite activity is a road trip with no particular destination in mind. Roaming and exploring are the journey. We’ve stumbled upon lots of great places we didn’t know about. This is one of them – Lee’s Ferry, the river gateway to the Grand Canyon.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: For our readers outside the United states, here’s a miles to kilometer converter. We Yanks don’t do metric very well.

Lee's Ferry

A beautiful downstream view of Lee’s Ferry. The 2,000 foot Vermilion Cliffs tower in the background. These flat, accessible banks are the result of three canyons and two rivers coming together. Marble Canyon, Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon converge in this area. The Colorado joins with the Paria River, which flows out of Marble Canyon from the north. That accident of geology created a river bottom with access to both banks. This is the official geological start of the Grand Canyon – Mile 0. Click on the following link for a bigger and more gorgeous photo.

The Grand Canyon needs no introduction. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it’s a source of awe and beauty for millions of people every year. The canyon, which can easily be seen from space, is around 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and averages over a mile in depth.

Imbedded in the culture, history and geology of the Grand Canyon is the Colorado River. From its source at La Poudre Lake, 40 miles west of Fort Collins, CO, it flows 1,450 miles to the Gulf of Baja in Mexico. It runs the entire length of the Grand Canyon. Fifteen miles upstream northeast of the Grand Canyon is Glen Canyon, which is also the name of the dam that was built there across the Colorado River from 1956 to 1966. Behind it is Lake Powell, which turns the Colorado River into a 200 mile long reservoir.

There’s no way to cross the Grand Canyon unless you include walking from one rim all the way to the bottom and up to the other rim, a minimum of 20 miles along steep narrow trails. Otherwise, you have to go around it. That geographical fact of life affected anybody who ever moved through the region and continues to this day. No matter which route you take, at some point, you have to cross the Colorado River

Crossing of the Fathers in 1949

From the Utah Historical Society, a photo of the Crossing of the Fathers in 1949. The view is looking downstream, with Lee’s Ferry about 20 miles away. The jeep and observers were with the National Geographic Society. The yellow line shows the actual crossing site. This entire area is now under several hundred feet of water in the Padre Bay region of Lake Powell. The lake formed behind the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was built between 1956 and 1966. Lake Powell wasn’t considered “filled” until 1980.

If you hike rim to rim, you’ll walk across the 440 foot Black Suspension Bridge. If you go around, you can drive on Highway 89 across the Navajo Bridge. Prior to 1928, you had to float across. For 300 miles both upstream and downstream, there’s only one place where you can do that – Lee’s Ferry.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Prior to the mid-1950’s, there was one other crossing – the Crossing of the Fathers – about 20 miles upstream. It was named after two Franciscan priests who explored the area around the time of the American Revolution. Native Americans used it for centuries and called it the Ute Crossing. Shifting sandbars formed during periods of low water allowing foot traffic and livestock to pick their way across. With steep stony banks, it wasn’t suitable for wagons and commerce. It was also seasonal and weather dependent. The crossing became untenable when the water was high. **

During the centuries that the Ute Crossing was used, the site that would become Lee’s Ferry was just sitting there. The Indians certainly knew about it. They just had no use for it. The water here is deeper and the currents treacherous. You can’t walk across it at any time. You have to float and they never developed that capability. So the future ferry site waited for somebody to come along who recognized its unique potential and found a way to utilize it.

Leer's Ferry in its heyday

The upper crossing site in its heyday around 1910. Note the cable system, which was installed in 1899. The vantage point of this photo is the same as the color photo at the top of the post. Click on the link for a bigger and clearer photo. It’s awesome.

That somebody was a remarkable man named Jacob Hamblin. He was a devout Mormon, one of the original pioneers who migrated to Utah in 1846-47. He was part scout, part explorer and part missionary. Hamblin was Brigham Young’s chief emissary to the Native American tribes and was quite successful. He spoke their languages and the Indians trusted him. When there was trouble or unrest, he got the call. For 30 years – from the late 1840’s to the late 1870’s – Jacob Hamblin roamed the rugged areas of southern Utah and northern Arizona on both sides of the Grand Canyon. He was a key figure in the opening and settlement of those areas. Several of his journeys took him south of the Colorado River into Navajo and Hopi territory. To get there, they used the Ute Crossing.

The Great Mormon Migration is part of the history of the West. Between 1846 and 1870, almost 70,000 Mormons headed to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormons made no secret of their plans to expand their new home land. They were always looking for land, trade partners, converts and routes to get to them. Jacob Hamblin figured prominently in those efforts. The original migration route came in from Fort Bridger, Wyoming in the north and expansion moved south. A southern corridor was needed to more easily approach the land north and south of the Grand Canyon. The Ute Crossing was only suitable for foot traffic. Additionally, it was a tough 40 mile hike to get there. As a commerce and settlement route, it held little potential. Sooner or later, the Colorado River would have to be dealt with.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: In 1978, the National Park Service established the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail to preserve the route taken by the Mormon migration.**

Historic stone buildings at Lee's Ferry.

Two of the several buildings you’ll see on the walking tour. On the left is the office of Charles Spencer’s American Placer Co. This gold mining venture constructed eight buildings total, including a dining hall and three bunkhouses. One of the bunkhouses is still standing. On the right is Lee’s Ferry fort, built in 1874 to defend against Indian attacks which never happened. Later, it was used as a trading post, school and dining hall. The Echo Cliffs, from which Jacob Hamblin first saw this site, are in the background.

Jacob Hamblin got his first view of the ferry site in 1858 on a mission to the Hopi nation south of the river. He saw it from the top of the Echo Cliffs 1,000 feet above the site on the trail to the Ute Crossing. Its potential was immediately obvious to him. This was the north-south link they had been looking for. He visited several more times in the next few years, including at least one aborted crossing attempt. Finally, in October 1864, he crossed the river with men, horses and equipment on a raft, then turned around and came back. It became known as the Mormon Crossing. The site was a reality, but not ready for prime time just yet. There was work to do.

The ferry site needed a lot of development. The river banks had to be graded and stabilized to allow traffic to roll on and roll off the ferries. Roads were needed on both sides for wagons to access the site along with solid boats big enough to carry them across. Ferry boat operators had to be trained. Wharfs had to be built. The Colorado River was relentless and unpredictable. For the entire operational life of the ferry, boats capsized, material was lost and people drowned. There were times when the ferry was closed for weeks. That work would have to wait, though. The year after Hamblin’s first crossing, a brutal Indian war broke out pitting Mormons against the Navajo and Utes.

Trail to the upper crossing site

The trail to the upper crossing site on the walking tour. Total distance one way is about .8 miles. This is the same trail used by crossers to get to/from the boat ramp and is quite rugged in several places. The buildings in the above photo are behind you right here and the wreck of the Spencer is to your right. If you’re feeling adventurous, the Spencer Trail, which takes you to the top of Echo Cliffs, veers off to the left just ahead. It’s steep and treacherous and not maintained by the NPS.

From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Dozens of Mormons were killed. The northern Arizona frontier was abandoned and the isolated ferry site became too dangerous. Activity at the ferry during those years was intermittent and unorganized. The Mormon Church laid claim to the crossing site. They knew it could open up northern Arizona to settlers, trade and exploration in both directions. When it was safe to do so, it needed a full-time ferry master to live on site and get it running. In 1872, the man who would put the Lee in Lee’s Ferry reluctantly took charge of the operation – John Doyle Lee.

Lee was a study in contrasts. He was fanatical in his Mormon faith but was excommunicated from the church. He had 19 wives over the course of his life. He was still married to five of them when he took the ferry posting. Two of them came to the ferry with him. He first saw the site in 1870 with Brigham Young and said he would never live or bring a family there. He was friends with some of the key people of his time, including Brigham Young, Jacob Hamblin and river runner John Wesley Powell. With manpower from the church, he built/carved approach routes (called dugways) on both sides of the river. One of them – Lee’s Backbone – was so narrow, steep and treacherous that it was as dangerous as the river crossing.

Wagons on Lee's Backbone

Wagons on Lee’s Backbone circa 1910. This treacherous dugway was the only way in or out of the upper crossing site and was one of the main reasons why the lower site was established in 1899.

He was also a fugitive from justice. The federal government charged him with murder for his part in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre and had been pursuing him ever since. The Utah Territory was a good place to hide, but when the army started closing in on him, Brigham Young suggested he reconsider the ferry site posting. Lee took it and extended his freedom by a few more years. During that time, he developed it into a major transportation hub. Even though the site was called Mormon Crossing, he dubbed it Lee’s Ferry. The name stuck.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The name Lee’s Ferry stuck but the man named Lee didn’t. He was arrested in 1875 while visiting family in Panguitch, UT, tried and executed by firing squad in 1877. His name lives on though. His 19 wives bore him 56 children, who in turn prolifically continued the bloodline. To this day, many prominent people in Utah are direct descendants of John Doyle, including U.S. Senator Mike Lee.**

A photo of Charles Spencer’s mining operation. Water was piped from the river and a steam boiler forced it out like a water cannon to carve away at the surrounding cliffs. There was gold in those hills but it was so fine that it went right through the sifter. It was a mammoth undertaking to get set up here, but it didn’t last long. After two solid years of failure, the operation folded.

The operation continued and grew after Lee’s death. His wife Emma ran the operation until 1879. Lee’s Ferry got its own post office, a trading post and a stone blockhouse for defense against possible Indian attacks. For 54 years – from 1873 to 1927 – a succession of operators and variety of boats transported settlers, missionaries, miners, outlaws, traders and Indians across the river at Lee’s Ferry. Improvements were made constantly, including an alternate crossing just downstream from today’s NPS boat ramp. It was shorter and more easily accessible, avoiding Lee’s Backbone. At first, the ferry boats were rowed. Later, cables were strung and anchored on both sides for pulling the boats across with the current doing most of the work. During its service life the ferry went from Indian raids to transporting tourists in them there newfangled automobiles. During that time, a wide variety of characters and scoundrels passed through Lee’s Ferry. Then, in 1889, gold was discovered in the Colorado Basin. Lee’s Ferry became a vital and busy link on the road to riches.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: The ferry ride wasn’t free. This was a money making operation for the Mormon church. John Doyle Lee’s first ferry customer was on April 22, 1873 – two wagons and 33 horses. He charged three dollars per wagon and 75 cents per horse. People and luggage were free. It took two days. When the ferry was busy and the river cooperated, operations went around the clock. Fares were often negotiated and depended on a variety of factors. The amount of material, number of people, river state, boat type and more all figured into the final cost. Most ferry crossings were paid, at least in part, in goods and services. This helped the ferry operators subsist in this isolated, spartan environment. There wasn’t much cash involved. In 1886, the crossing took in $354 for the whole year. $118 went to the church. **

The “Charles H. Spencer” was brought here to haul coal from upstream to the mining operation. It was a good sized boat measuring 70 feet long and 21 feet abeam. The paddlewheel was 12 feet wide and added 15 feet to the total length. The crew of 5 was a pickup team from willing landlubbers working the mine site. When the operation went bust, Spencer walked away leaving everything, including the boat. As the years went by, it was stripped for wood, battered by floods, rotted and eventually settled to the river bottom in about three feet of water. It’s on the walking tour.

Gold brings out dreamers and promoters. One of them was Charles H. Spencer. Spencer was not a carnival barker looking for a quick buck. He was a talented guy who loved challenges, hard work and the outdoors. In 1910, he formed the American Placer Co. and staked a claim right on the ferry site. The plan was to erode the soft sandstone cliffs with high pressure water and sift through the sludge for gold dust. It was a mammoth undertaking with enormous engineering and logistical challenges. To make a long story short, he got everything up and running, but never got any gold. By 1913, it was all over and he walked away, abandoning all equipment and structures. You can still see some of it as part of the walking tour.

One of the more interesting tales from Lee’s Ferry is the shipwreck located here. Spencer’s operation needed coal to run the boilers – and lots of it. The nearest coal was 30 miles upstream at Warm Creek Canyon. Mule teams going back and forth cross country on the Spencer Trail weren’t enough, so Spencer brought in a paddlewheel steamboat. Built in San Francisco, it was disassembled, brought overland to Lee’s Ferry and re-assembled on the river at Warm Creek Canyon. He named it [drum roll] the “Charles H. Spencer”. The plan was to have it push an empty barge upriver and push it back full of coal. This type of paddleboat was designed and built for use on the placid rivers of the San Francisco delta. It turned out to be woefully inadequate to buck the upstream current of the Colorado. The number of round trips it made is not known but was certainly in the single digits.

**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Charles H. Spencer died in 1968 at age of 96. He was a living history book on Lee’s Ferry and provided input to early works and records of the site.**

The underwater remains of the Charles H. Spencer

The wreck site of the “Charles H. Spencer”.

Lee’s Ferry started its final act in 1927. The Navajo Bridge was built to cross the Colorado River across Glen Canyon six miles downstream from the ferry site. Lee’s Ferry was used to transport men, equipment and materials during the construction. Its last run on June 7, 1927 was a disaster. With the bridge nearing completion, three men were crossing on the ferry with some bridge materials. The water was high and swift. It upended the boat and snapped the guide cable. The three men, their material and the ferry boat were lost. Lee’s Ferry was never used again. The construction company instead utilized an 800 mile drive through Needles, CA to end up on the other side of the bridge 834 feet away.

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee's Ferry

An annotated Google Earth overhead shot of Lee’s Ferry. Click on the following link for a much larger view. The GPS coordinates of the boat ramp are N36.8653 W111.5867. Click on those coordinates for an interactive Google map.

Today, Lee’s Ferry is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area. The ferry site and the Lonely Dell Ranch are National Historic Sites. It’s easy to get to, but not too crowded. If you’re a fan of fishing, rafting, history, exploring, hiking or photography, there is something here for you. If you’re a treasure hunter like us, there are several geocaches at the ferry site and a couple of benchmarks along the river. They are both found in abundance throughout the Glen Canyon area along with a few dozen NPS Passport Stamps. We’ve explored both sides of the Colorado in northern Arizona. Lee’s Ferry was our favorite place. It’s a real hidden gem tucked away in the towering cliffs on the banks of the Colorado and Paria Rivers and definitely off the beaten path.

You might also want to check out our post on Pipe Spring National Monument. It’s about 90 miles away on the road to Zion NP and shares a lot of history with Lee’s Ferry.

Hope you learned something. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Pipe Spring National Monument

At Exploring Off the Beaten Path, we’re always looking for out of the way places with interesting but little known things to see and do. Not long ago, we came across a real gem in the high desert north of the Grand Canyon, an area called the Arizona Strip. One of the historical highlights of the Strip is Pipe Spring National Monument.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: For our readers outside the United states, here’s a miles to kilometer converter. We Yanks don’t do metric very well.

Grand Gulch Mine in the Arizona Strip

There are over 6,000 miles of dirt roads in the Arizona Strip. Here’s one of them. The Grand Gulch copper mine is in the western side of the Strip. Active from the 1880’s to the 1960’s, it’s as remote now as it was then. From St George, it’s an 80 mile drive – one way – on that dirt road to get there. Because of the climate and the remoteness, the site is remarkably well preserved. The Arizona Strip is full of these things for those rugged enough and prepared enough to get there – and get back.

With an average altitude of 5,000 feet, the Arizona Strip occupies almost 8,000 square miles in the extreme northwest corner of Arizona. That’s about the same size as Massachusetts. Almost all of it is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the Kaibab Paiute Nation. To the south (and 3,000 feet higher) lies the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Utah is to the north with Zion National Park about 25 miles up the road. East of the Strip is the foreboding Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. To the west lie the equally foreboding thousand foot high Hurricane Cliffs and the Parashant Wilderness on the way to Nevada. This is hard country, as physically isolated and remote as you can get in the continental U.S. There are two small towns and two decent paved roads. If you get away from them, you’re on your own.

Weather can be extreme and unpredictable, causing danger and disruption for the unwary and the unprepared. Yet as forbidding as it is, the Arizona Strip has been settled, farmed, grazed and mined for over 1,000 years. The reason – water. Due to a stroke of geological good fortune, fresh water springs bubble up year round at various places. One of them is Pipe Spring.

Winsor Castle at Pipe Spring National Monument

This odd looking outpost is the centerpiece of the monument – Winsor Castle. It was built by Anson Winsor, an elder in the Mormon Church. Construction began in 1870 and took a year and a half. It was designed and built as a fort to defend against Indian raids, which had plagued the area for years. By the time it was completed, the raids had ceased. That’s probably a good thing. As a fort, this thing was useless. It’s dug into the side of a rocky hill with the second story at ground level. Attackers could have been over the hill, down the slope and up on the roof in nothing flat. It was placed in this vulnerable position because Winsor wanted to build the upper structure directly over the spring, assuring a supply of fresh water under any circumstances.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Nobody really knows how Pipe Spring got its name, but the Park Service spins a yarn about it that’s as good as any. According to the NPS story, sometime around 1858, Mormon missionary and explorer Jacob Hamblin and several companions camped at this unnamed spring. They decided to have a shooting contest. One of the targets was a corn cob pipe. Hamblin sent his bullet through the tobacco chamber and out the back without hitting the sides. Afterward, he dubbed the flowing water – Pipe Spring. **

In early 1863, Pipe Spring got its first homesteader – James Montgomery Whitmore. Leaving his wife and three children in St. George, he set to work making Pipe Spring a working ranch on the 160 acres he had been deeded by Washington County, Utah. His home was a dugout, dug into the ground, built up with rocks and covered with dirt and bark. He split his time between Pipe Spring and St. George. Two years later, he had corrals enclosing 11 acres, orchards, grapevines and several hundred head of cattle and sheep.

Inner courtyard of Winsor Castle

The inner courtyard. The yellow arrow points out the steps down to the spring room. The yellow line shows the route of the spring water pipe to the spring room. The actual spring is beneath the floorboards of the parlor on the far bottom right. Both top floors and the bottom floor of the north (right side) house were living quarters. The bottom floor of the south (left side) house had rooms cooled by spring water to produce dairy products. The intimidating looking gates were removed by a new owner in 1884. The entire castle was rebuilt by the CCC in 1935. You must be on a Ranger tour to access the inside of the fort. The NPS web site has an excellent virtual tour of the whole castle.

In January 1866, the Indian raids came to Pipe Spring. They ran off with Whitmore’s livestock and destroyed much of what he had built. Whitmore, who now had six children, was in St. George when it happened. He got word through the militia that he’d been hit. Whitmore and his brother-in-law Robert McIntyre saddled up and rode hell bent 60 miles to the ranch. Finding everything gone, they followed tracks in the snow in an attempt to recover the herd. They were never seen alive again. Three days later, a militia patrol found their frozen naked mutilated bodies about four miles south of Pipe Spring. The patrol continued the pursuit and came across a small band of Paiute wearing clothes belonging to the dead ranchers. They were executed on the spot. Later it was discovered that the Paiute had traded for the clothes with the Navajo war party responsible for the Pipe Spring attack and killings. Several weeks later, Joseph, Robert and Isabel Berry, a Mormon family returning home, were killed by Paiutes as revenge.

Southwest corner of Winsor Castle

A closeup of the southwest corner of the exterior wall. Note the firing ports built into the solid stone construction. This is the outside wall of the spring room. The yellow arrow shows where the spring water comes out. It then flows down into two man-made pools for irrigation and watering livestock. Originally, there were no doors or windows in the exterior walls but some were added later.

That’s the way it was in the Arizona Strip and southern Utah for the better part of a decade. From 1865 to 1872, hostilities with the Indians turned the Mormon settlements inside out. Over 150 skirmishes and battles were recorded. Homesteads were attacked. Livestock stolen. Dozens of Mormons were killed. Nobody knows how many Indians were killed. Atrocities were committed on both sides. The frontier was basically abandoned and the prosperous Mormon expansion there came to a screeching halt. In today’s dollars, they lost millions.

Brigham Young requested federal troops but was turned down. They were on their own. The Mormons were not pacifists. They were well armed and organized. Although they went to great lengths to promote peace, they were fully prepared to resist any threats. For safety and security, they concentrated their people at key towns, built forts and patrolled aggressively on horseback. Like their U.S. Cavalry counterparts, the Mormon militia spent most of their time chasing shadows and ghosts up endless canyons.

The parlor at Winsor Castle

This is the parlor, the center of family life for the ranchers. It was on the bottom floor of the north building in the northwest corner of the fort. The main item of interest here is that this room is built right on top of the spring. From here, it flows along a short pipe buried underground directly across the courtyard to the spring room. The spring water kept this room nice and cool in the hot Arizona summers. Note the blank wall on the right with no firing ports. It’s built right up against the rock wall. The far wall is also partially covered by rock.

The fort at Pipe Spring was part of that defensive effort. With its central location, fresh water supply and commanding view of the area, it would be a good place for a fort. The church bought the land from James Whitmore’s widow and assigned a church elder, Anson Winsor, to take charge of the ranch, build the fort and get the operation up and running again.

The design called for two stone ranch houses of two stories each built facing one another. Their ends would be joined by walls and gates, forming an inner courtyard and a stone perimeter. The long axis of the outpost ran southwest to northeast, so the two houses were called the north and south house. On top of the north house was a wooden observation cupola. There would be no windows or doors in the outside walls. Instead, firing ports were built into the stone walls on all sides and on both floors. Defensive ramparts lined the upper walls and two massive wooden gates bracketed the courtyard.

The spring room at Winsor Castle

This is the spring room, located in the southwest corner of the castle. Note the firing ports on the two exterior walls. The water entered from the right, flowed into and along the concrete trough and exited to the left. The water was ice cold, keeping the temperature in the room around 50 degrees all year. This could also be called the dairy room. In the early days of Winsor Castle, the ranch produced dairy products as well as beef. That started right here. After Winsor and his four sons milked 80-100 cows twice a day, the fresh milk was set out in pans on the rack above the trough. In the cool room, it separated and the cream rose to the top. It was skimmed off and carried into another room where cream, butter and cheese were made. Most of the ranch’s food production went north to feed construction crews and cowboys. The dairy production didn’t last long. By 1874, the ranch had gone to all beef cattle.

The red sandstone was quarried in the nearby hills. Each rock had to shaped individually. Lumber had to be brought 50 miles from Mt. Trumbull in the forests of the Grand Canyon’s north rim. The whole thing was built right on top of the spring, which was channeled into a spring room. This ensured fresh water in the event of an attack. It took a year and a half to complete. The result was a very formidable looking outpost, although much smaller than originally envisioned. It’s not real big. It measures 68 feet long and 40 feet wide with connecting walls that are 20 feet high. The fort was promptly dubbed Winsor Castle. The name stuck and even became the name of the new ranch – the Winsor Castle Stock Growing Company. Pipe Spring had a new lease on life as a working cattle ranch belonging to the Mormon Church.

The ranch was active from 1871 to 1924, but was a revolving door for owners and managers. Anson Winsor left in 1875. The ranch changed hands again in 1879, 1884, 1887 and 1896. That last one was significant because the church sold it to a family and relinquished ownership. For the first time, Pipe Spring was private property, but the revolving door continued. It was sold again in 1901 and yet again in 1906. The 1906 buyer, Jonathan Heaton, was central to the Pipe Spring we know today.

Map of the Arizona Strip

A National Park Service map of the Arizona Strip. Pipe Spring National Monumment is clearly marked as are some of the other features mentioned in the text below.

Heaton was a established rancher who had 15 sons. He owned a 400 acre spread several miles away at Moccasin Springs and worked it with them. The church and the federal government both pressured him to share the water with the Paiutes, other ranchers and anybody else who needed it. To increase his supply, he bought Pipe Spring in 1906. He had no interest in the buildings and they deteriorated badly. For the next 15 years, cowboys, round ups, Paiutes, travelers and everyone else used the water sources at Pipe Spring. Winsor Castle became an oddity in the high desert as memories of the violent past faded.

Entrance to the Pipe Spring National Monument

The Pipe Spring National Monument near Fredonia, AZ. It recognizes the contributions of the Mormon Church in the settling of the west. It also recognizes the Kaibab Paiute Nation and their history on the Arizona Strip. Many Paiutes remained friendly to the Mormons even at the height of hostilities with other tribes and their own. The Pipe Spring Ranch never quite became the lucrative operation it was envisioned to be. However, it was a welcome outpost for travelers, cowboys, salesmen, wagon trains, gold miners and Indians. All were welcome, knowing they could get fresh water, a meal and a room or a place to camp. In that respect, Pipe Spring played a key role in the settlement of the Arizona Strip and Utah, which is why it’s a National Monument today. It’s open year round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas ans New Year’s. The GPS coordinates of the visitor center are N36.862796, W112.737425. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson formed the National Park Service. The first director was Stephen Mather, a wealthy businessman and conservationist who was instrumental in getting the service formed. In 1920, Mather was touring parks in the region and looking for new possibilities. In addition to the Grand Canyon, Zion and other well known established parks, he came across an odd looking outpost in the Arizona Strip that looked totally out of place – the dilapidated, ramshackle remains of Winsor Castle.

Mather sought out the owners and the Heatons told him all about the place. Mather was fascinated by the history and intrigued by the idea of a park service property dedicated to it. Heaton, anxious to get rid of the place, happily went along. In 1923, Pipe Spring was designated a National Monument.The land and buildings became the property of the government in 1924. By this time, the eldest Heaton son Charles was running things. They paid Charles Heaton $5,000 and hired him as the caretaker.

In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up camp near Pipe Spring and completely renovated it into what we see now. By this time, there was a new caretaker – Leonard Heaton, son of Charles and grandson of Jonathan. He was there until 1964. During his 30 years on the job, Heaton collected an untold number of artifacts from the early days. They are now on display in the castle, on the grounds and in the museum.

Early tourists

Early geocachers on the Arizona Strip. They’re doing it right – dressed for the weather, closing the gate behind them and driving a high clearance vehicle. Well done, comrades!

The first tourists came in 1925. There were probably no more than 100 the whole year. Today, there are 60,000+ each year who visit this unlikely castle in the desert. Sandwiched in between Zion and the Grand Canyon, it’s easy to get to and worth a few hours of your time. There’s much more to see and do here than we can cover in one blog post. That includes a short hiking trail, more historical buildings, ranger tours and geocaches.

There are geocaches everywhere, however, cell phone coverage is spotty, so caching on the fly can be challenging. It’s ok on the paved roads and at the monument. If you head off road, you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS along with a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. A couple of spare tires would be good too.

One last note: Remember, this is the desert. Heat, sun, dehydration and things that bite, stick or sting are constant companions here. The back country of the Arizona Strip is not the place for a leisurely Sunday drive. Pace yourself. Be alert. Be aware. Use caution and common sense. If you like exploring off the beaten path, you won’t be disappointed.

Happy trails… Boris and Natasha

Jean Bonnet Tavern

Jean Bonnet Tavern

A ghost’s eye view of the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Four miles west of Bedford, Pennsylvania is the Jean Bonnet (bo-nay’) Tavern, which has hosted travelers since the mid-1700’s. The Jean Bonnet Tavern has seen it all – war, peace, crime, rebellion, trade, Indian raids and westward migration as the nation grew. The tavern occupies a very strategic spot, sitting at the base of the eastern side of the Allegheny Mountains at the intersection of the Forbes Road (Route 30) and Glades Pike (Route 31). Those roads follow old Shawnee trading paths and are still the major east-west highways through the region.

The tavern is renowned for its old world charm, history, rustic decor and great food. It is also famous for its ghosts and hauntings.

In 1742, the French built a small fort and trading post here to carry on trade with the Shawnee. It was abandoned during the French and Indian War.

After the war, the British constructed a building on top of it and there has been one there ever since. The real Jean Bonnet bought the property from the British in 1779 and built the current structure using the thick stone walls of the French fort as the foundation. Those same stone walls are the walls of the downstairs restaurant today. The Jean Bonnet Tavern was very successful. Back then, this was the edge of the westerrn frontier. Anybody headed west over the mountains stopped here. It was the last place to outfit and prepare before heading into the frontier. Soon, it became a hub for commerce, exploration, socializing, politics – and justice.

Dining room with gallows beam

Part of the main dining room with the gallows of the French spy highlighted. There is also a good view of the original French fort walls.

It was a meeting place for both sides during the Revolutionary War. It survived the Indian raids of 1780 that savaged the region. Later, it was a gathering spot for farmers involved in the Whiskey Rebellion. Federal troops sent to quell the rebellion, led by President George Washington himself, encamped near the grounds. That was the one and only time the Commander-in-Chief has led troops in the field.

It watched as battles of the Civil War were fought less than 90 miles away, including Gettysburg and Antietam. In the week before Gettysburg, Pennsylvania militia troops skirmished with Confederate cavalry in Everett, only 10 miles away to the east.

At least two men are known to have been hanged here.

The Forbes Expedition of 1758 stopped here on its way to attack Fort Duquesne, the French base at the junction of the three rivers in modern-day Pittsburgh. A suspected French spy was hanged in the basement which is now the restaurant. His body was buried under the floor so the French would never know his fate. The beam that served as the gallows is still there. According to legends and ghost hunters, the spirit of the French spy is still there too.

In the 1760’s, a second floor was added to the original structure and was used as a circuit courtroom. Frontier justice was swift and several men were reportedly hanged. The only one documented with any certainty was a horse thief who stole horses from the Shawnee. He was tried and hanged while the Shawnee waited outside. They took his body with them.

In 1980, the tavern underwent a major renovation. Underneath the old floor downstairs workers found a human skeleton. Although it was never identified, testing showed the bones dated back to the late 1700’s.

Stone fireplace in the dining room.

The fireplace. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. It’s massive. Old pots and cooking utensils hang nearby. In the winter, there is a roaring fire going in it. They keep a smaller one going in the summer to fend off the chill of the night air in the Pennsylvania mountains. The room view in the previous picture (with the gallows pole) is directly behind the camera.

Hauntings and paranormal events have been observed or recorded at the Jean Bonnet Tavern for years. These include cold spots, strange lights, objects being moved, anomalies on pictures and apparitions. These have been observed or experienced by customers, guests and staff, including the owners. The tavern was featured on the Biography channel’s “My Ghost Story” in 2012. A Google search will bring up many more happenings.

However, most people come here for the atmosphere and the food. Going into the main dining room is like stepping back in time. It is quiet, cool and windowless with thick stone walls and the original massive exposed chestnut beams and columns. The focal point is the large fireplace that was once used to prepare the tavern meals. People with buckskin clothes and three corner hats would be right at home here.

Being a local native, I’ve been here dozens of times. Even though I haven’t lived in Pennsylvania for over 40 years, we make annual family visits and Jean Bonnet’s is always on the itinerary. I’ve never seen a ghost or had a bad meal. It’s the kind of place where you can just relax, enjoy the food and savor the surroundings. There are very few like it.

The GPS coordinates for the tavern are 40.0424, -78.5606. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.

If you like history and exploring, you’re surrounded by it here. Fort Necessity, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Johnstown Flood Memorial and the Flight 93 Memorial are all within an hour’s drive. Two hours will take you to Gettysburg, Antietam, Fort Ligonier and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Falling Water. That’s just for starters. Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. That will give you plenty to see and do when you’re not hiking, biking or kayaking, which abound throughout the region.

Good haunting and bon appetite… Boris and Natasha

Battle of Grant’s Hill

Battle of Grant's Hill

The Battle of Grant’s Hill was very one-sided, as the British showed yet again that they were not proficient in fast moving, close in wilderness fighting. Twenty years later in the American Revolution, they still weren’t. It shouldn’t have been fought at all. Major Grant disobeyed orders, which stated he was not to get decisively engaged in a battle. There’s no trace remaining of the battle area. It’s now in the middle of the “Golden Triangle” in downtown Pittsburgh.

Summer 1758 in present-day western Pennsylvania. The French and Indian War is in its fourth year and so far, it’s been all French and Indians. There is no British military presence on the western frontier except a regiment of part-time volunteer Virginia militia commanded by George Washington. For three years, they have been fighting a lost cause, trying to hold back French and Indian raids across the depth and breadth of the colonial western frontier. These raids have plundered as far north as Lake Erie and south to the Potomac River while moving east as far as the Susquehanna River in the center of Pennsylvania.

The base for these raids is Fort Duquesne (dew-cane’), located at the junction of the three rivers in present-day Pittsburgh. This location was simply referred to as “The Forks”. From the northeast flows the Allegheny River.  Up from the southeast flows the Monongahela River.  They join at “The Forks” to form the Ohio River, which flows southwest to the Mississippi River. With all the navigable rivers and tributaries that connect to this water network, one can go from the Gulf of St. Lawrence via the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Whoever controls The Forks controls this inland water super highway, making it the most strategic and valuable piece of real estate in the interior.

There were several reasons why Great Britain was in this fix. The French and Indian War was part of the much larger Seven Years War. It was the first true world war and Britain was fighting world-wide on both land and sea.**Historical Footnote: They were fighting the French, Spanish, Austrians, Russians and Swedes (yes, Swedes). Their only ally was Germany.** The British government considered the French and Indian War to be a sideshow and a problem the colonials would have to deal with themselves. British officers and government officials already in North America tended to be dismissive of the colonials and especially the Indians, who they had no use for at all. The French, however, welcomed Native American support. The Indian tribes of North America were some of the best light infantry/guerrilla fighters in the world. They became a lethal mercenary wilderness army for the French.

Second, the British, who were the masters of the European battlefield, had no idea how to fight in the wilderness and were terrified of their Indian adversaries. Time and again, they were outfoxed and outfought by the French and their Native American allies. In fact, throughout the entire war, it was taken as gospel by the British that attempts to operate independently in Indian country were tantamount to suicide. It simply wasn’t done.

Outline of Fort Duquesne

This overhead view of “The Point” in Pittsburgh shows the outline of Fort Duquesne. It was tiny. The interior courtyard was about the size of a tennis court. Fort Pitt, which replaced it, was built in the same area and covered 13 acres. The settlement the sprung up outside the walls became Pittsburgh. **Historical Footnote: Both the fort and the town were named after William Pitt, the Leader of the House of Commons, future Prime Minister and driving force behind the British strategy to expel France from North America. Without his focus on that strategy and the means to carry it out, we might all be speaking French today.**

In 1758, Britain entered the war in force and with a newfound vigor. **Historical Footnote: Great Britain paid Germany to continue the fight in Europe. That freed them to throw the might of their empire into the North American War.** The most important strategic objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock had tried it three years earlier. On July 9, 1755, his force was cut to pieces on the banks of the Monongahela River by a smaller force of French and Indians. Braddock was killed. The ghost of Braddock’s Defeat haunted the British for the rest of the war. The unspoken rule for commanders was – “No more Braddocks”.

Now it was the mission of General John Forbes to capture Fort Duquesne. Forbes’ second-in-command was Lt.Col Henri Bouquet, a Swiss soldier-of-fortune who had been fighting for a living for 20 years. He may have been the best field officer in the British Army. Tough and savvy, he understood wilderness fighting and didn’t buy into this gospel that Brits alone couldn’t operate in Indian country. When they got close to Fort Duquesne, he decided to give the French and the Indians a taste of their own medicine – a raid on the stronghold at The Forks.

The officer selected to lead this mission was Major James Grant, an officer with Montgomerie’s Highlanders. Grant was a bad tempered and impatient Scotsman who was tired of building wilderness roads and waiting. In his view, it was time to fight. Although he had been in the army since 1744, he had no wilderness fighting experience. Nevertheless, he convinced Bouquet that they should go big with a large force of several hundred men conducting what the military calls a “reconnaissance-in-force“. Grant left the British forward base at Fort Ligonier on September 9 with 800 men – about 400 highlanders and 400 militia troops. The Forks were about 50 miles to the west. Their orders were to create as much mayhem as possible around Fort Duquesne, take prisoners and bring back detailed information on the fort. The most important part of his orders was a directive to not get involved in a decisive engagement. Basically, it was get in and get out.

Grant planned and executed his movement well. They traveled light and carried everything in their haversacks. Noise and light discipline were strictly enforced. No fires at night. Barking dogs encountered along the way were killed. On September 13, they reached a hill several hundred yards away from the fort. They had gotten there undetected. Grant estimated there were 200 defenders and no sign of any Indians. Against all orders, he decided to attack the fort. His plan was to decoy the defenders out and ambush them in the open with a bigger force. Another section would be held in reserve further up the hill. Fifty Virginia militia troops were left further back to guard the packs. Some militia officers advised against the plan. Grant, who was openly contemptuous of colonial units, brushed them off.

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Built in 1884, the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh sits on the site of the Battle of Grant’s Hill. The hill itself was leveled in the early 1900’s to make room for development, but the area is still called Grant’s Hill. The first floor of the courthouse in the photo used to be the basement.Other than a few commemorative plaques, there’s no battlefield to visit.

At dawn on September 14, 1758, the French defenders of Fort Duquesne were greeted by an unbelievable sight. One hundred Scottish Highlanders, kilts and all, were marching towards the front gate to the music of bagpipes. The gates opened and defenders came rushing out while Indians came running up from the river banks where they were encamped unseen. Grant’s estimated 200 defenders inside the fort quickly became over 500 swarming all over them with more on the way from across the Allegheny River.

The decoy force was overwhelmed almost immediately. While that brief action was going on, other defenders went down to the rivers, ran along the banks and came up above and behind the rest of Grant’s force. The whole attack plan fell apart and desperation set in so the British used what they knew – European linear tactics. On the heavily timbered hillside, they tried to form up in ranks and volley fire.

It was right out of the Braddock playbook. Grant was on the verge of a completely successful mission when he got stupid. All up and down the hill, groups of British soldiers were surrounded and cut down by an enemy they couldn’t see or fight. Some of the British broke and ran for the “safety” of the river. Panicked soldiers raced headlong into the water, preferring death by drowning to the slow torture they knew they would face from the Indians. The only reason Grant’s force wasn’t completely annihilated is because the Virginians guarding the packs came forward and counterattacked. It bought enough time and space for survivors to bug out.

Of the 800 men who left Fort Ligonier, only 400 came back. The rest were dead or captured, with wounded men dying on the retreat. Grant himself was taken prisoner. It was a complete disaster and the very thing that Forbes and Bouquet had sworn would never happen on their watch. They still had no hard intelligence other than what survivors told them. They painted a picture of an impregnable fortress with thousands of defenders.

Despite that, Forbes pushed on, overwhelming the French with sheer numbers and a slow methodical approach. As they closed in on Fort Duquesne on November 25, the French blew it up and bugged out. The next day, the vanguard of Forbes’ army walked up to the gates of Fort Duquesne without a shot fired. There was nothing left but chimneys and iron frames, but that’s not all they found.

On their final approach march, they walked through Braddock’s kill zone from three years earlier. The bleached bones of Braddock’s men were still laying all around. When they got to the fort, they made another horrifying discovery. The heads of Grant’s captured highlanders were impaled on stakes a short distance away by the river bank. There was nothing to be done except bury them. Such was the nature of frontier warfare. But after five years, the British finally had Fort Duquesne. It was the beginning of the end for New France. Things went downhill fast for them as the British tightened the noose, driving the French out of the colonies and attacking Quebec and Montreal. The French surrendered after the capture of Montreal on September 8, 1760.

**Historical Footnote: Major Grant was a POW in Quebec for a year. He was released in a prisoner exchange and went home to England, becoming a member of Parliament. He returned to serve during the American Revolution, then returned to Parliament until his death in 1802. He blamed the colonial militia for the debacle that bears his name and his family connections blunted any political fallout. He was never held accountable for anything nor did he ever express any remorse or regret. He’s buried on his Scottish Estate.

**Historical Footnote: General John Forbes was a late-comer to the army, having been a physician first. At the time of his assignment to the Fort Duquesne mission, he was a dying man, ravaged by a disease (never identified) that kept him bedridden much of the time. He was the brains of the operation and Lt. Col. Bouquet was the brawn. Together, they got it done. Forbes left Fort Duquesne in early December, arriving in Philadelphia after a grueling six week trip on a litter slung between two horses. He died in early March and is buried in Philadelphia.

**Historical Footnote: Lt. Col. Henri Bouquet stayed at The Forks and built Fort Pitt. Five years later, he was in Philadelphia when Pontiac’s War exploded on the western frontier. Fort Pitt was attacked and under siege by a large force of Indians. Bouquet gathered a force and marched to relieve it. He was ambushed by Indians near a tiny way station called Bushy Run, about 40 miles from Fort Pitt. After two days of fierce fighting, he decisively defeated the attackers and moved on to relieve the fort. The Battle of Bushy Run broke the back of Pontiac’s War and got Bouquet promoted to Brigadier General. He was re-assigned to command Britain’s new souther command based in Pensacola, FL. As soon as he got there, he went down with yellow fever and was dead a week later. He is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola but his gravesite is unknown.

Author’s Comments

Well, there’s not much to say. Major Grant “screwed the pooch” as we say in the military. Military history is full of guys like Grant – Braddock at Monongahela, Sickles at Gettysburg and Custer at the Little Bighorn come to mind. Combat actions favor the bold but there’s a fine line between that and recklessness. If you win, you’re bold. If you lose, you’re reckless. Sometimes you don’t know which until you go for it.

Taking Fort Duquesne was a big deal. It wasn’t pretty. The French defended aggressively as far forward as they could by attacking the attackers. When things got terminal, they destroyed the fort and bugged out to fight another day. They deprived the British of the satisfaction of capturing the fort intact. The Forbes Expedition never did prove its mettle in a fight. It was plodding, methodical operation that lasted for over six months. It was a marvel of logistics and engineering. They cut a new road through the wild, rocky and steeply wooded Allegheney Mountains that is still in use today – Route 30, also called the Forbes Road. Most importantly, it gave Britain a win when it sorely needed one. John Forbes was hailed as a hero destined for great things. He didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

The city of Pittsburgh (my hometown) is one big museum. The steel mills and their rotten egg smell are long gone. Modern skyscrapers are mixed in with one-of-a-kind diners and everything in the Grant’s Hill neighborhood is within walking distance. Make sure you take the Duquesne Incline up to Mt. Washington for dinner. Also take a ride on the Gateway Clipper fleet, paddle wheelers that tour the rivers. Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt are gone, but they live on in the John Heinz Museum at Point State Park. There is still a blockhouse standing from the original Fort Pitt.

If you like to find or collect things, Pittsburgh is the Mother Lode. Geocaches, Munzees, benchmarks, letterboxes and NPS Passport Stamps are in abundance here. The city is safe to move around in, unlike Fort Duquesne days. The only time you’ll get scalped is if you try to score Steelers tickets in the parking lot on game day.

Hope you enjoyed the post and learned a few things. We sure did……Boris and Natasha

Big Daddy Saguaro

Nothing says “desert” like the Saguaro (swor’- oh) Cactus. Although it is associated with all American deserts, it actually has a very small range. It is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, southeastern California and western Sonora, Mexico. Even there, its range is further limited by altitude and water. The Saguaro can only survive in a very specific set of environmental conditions.

Saguaro cactus

This is one of the biggest Saguaros I’ve ever come across. We stumbled on to while hiking and geocaching in the back country of Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ (near Tucson). Besides a couple dozen challenging geocaches, this mountainous 5,500 acre park has over 5,000 Saguaros but you’ll be hard pressed to find one bigger than this. It’s a good 50 feet high and is probably close to 200 years old.

Saguaros live to a ripe old age – up to 250 years. They don’t start growing arms until they are 75. Their roots are shallow – typically 4-6 inches with a 2 foot tap root – and spread out as far as the plant is tall. Saguaros store water like a camel’s hump. During the rainy season, it swells as it absorbs and stores water. A full grown Saguaro that has stored up water can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

Early Native Americans used every part of the Saguaro. It was a source of water, which it stores internally and fruit which is said to be quite tasty. The spines were used as needles. Dead Saguaro are tough and woody. They were used for roofs, fences and furniture.

The Saguaro Cactus is not endangered but it is protected. Both Arizona and the feds have strict laws and severe penalties for unauthorized harvesting, digging or damaging these magnificent plants.

Saguaro also provide homes to a variety of birds and small mammals. We once saw a bobcat sitting on top of one watching the world go by. How he got up there is beyond me. Getting down was probably a bit dicey also. I know it would be for me and Natasha.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Shortly after the birth of Christ, an indigenous race started to inhabit the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona halfway between present-day Phoenix and Tucson. Nobody really knows who they were, where they came from or what happened to them. History calls them the Hohokam. Anthropologists prefer a more generic term – ancient Sonoran desert people. Starting out as hunters and gatherers, they quickly advanced beyond that. Over the course of the next 10+ centuries, on the banks of the Gila River, they developed a thriving culture with sophisticated knowledge of agriculture, architecture and astronomy. They achieved all this despite having no tools, no working animals and no livestock. They never knew about the wheel and they had no written language. Then, in the space of one or two generations, they were gone. We know all this because of what they left behind at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Casa Grande National Monument

The high point of this ancient Sonoran culture was the construction of a large central building, which Spanish missionaries named “Casa Grande” over 250 years after it was abandoned. Sixty feet square and four stories high, nobody really knows what it was used for. It was built with a substance called “caliche” (cuh-LEE-chee). Hard clay under the desert floor was ground up and mixed with water to create a sticky mud that could be molded like Play-Doh and dried as hard as rock. This was the main construction material used for everything. Casa Grande contained an estimated 3,000 tons of caliche, all hand molded in two foot layers built on top of one another without scaffolding or tools. Floors and internal supports were built with pine and fir logs brought from 50 miles away and imbedded in the wet caliche. Fifty years after its completion around 1350, the Sonoran culture fell apart. For four centuries after it was abandoned, Casa Grande stood mute, ravaged by weather, vandals and souvenir hunters. You can still see graffitti carved into the walls by stagecoach passengers and cowboys. The U.S. Government began preservation efforts in 1891. It became a National Monument in 1918. The protective roof was built in 1932. Preservation efforts are ongoing and have successfully maintained the ruins in their 1891 state.

The achievements of this long gone culture were astounding. The Casa Grande is an obvious one but there were many more. Using only pointed sticks, they dug hundreds of miles of irrigation canals to bring water from the Gila River into the desert. This created an oasis of almost 1,000 square miles of fertile crop land in which they grew corn, beans, squash, tobacco and cotton. Artisans created pots, jewelry and baskets with intricate artwork, some of which have been found in the area. Trade flourished down into Mexico and all the way to the Pacific coast. But, in my humble opinion, the most fascinating part of the culture was their interest in astronomy. The walls of the Casa Grande have tales to tell about that.

The Sonoran culture tracked major astronomical events to guide their planning, activities and religious ceremonies. Key among them were summer/winter solstice and the spring/fall equinox. They did this through a series of “alignments”, which were holes or channels constructed in the Casa Grande walls. On the day of those celestial events sunlight would shine directly through those alignments. There was one other event they tracked – the 18.6 year lunar nodal period. This is a cycle of declination (angle) changes of the moon’s orbit around the earth. Throughout ancient history, it was used for ceremonial religious observances, particularly among pagan religions. However, the lunar nodal cycle is also a key component of eclipse prediction. This cycle is followed at many ancient sites, including Stonehenge. Could the ancient Sonoran desert people predict solar and lunar eclipses? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.

West wall of Casa Grande

This picture is the west wall of Casa Grande. It is the best preserved and the most interesting. The round portal under the gold arrow was the alignment for the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. The square portal under the blue arrow was the alignment for the peak of the lunar nodal period, which astronmers call the lunar standstill. Other alignments are have been identified but are not readily visible and some are just gone, eroded away with the walls.

Casa Grande was completed around 1350. By 1400, the Sonoran culture was in a steep decline from which it couldn’t recover. Theories abound as to why. There’s no evidence of warfare or conquest. The conquistadors were still two centuries away. One version that seems credible is supported by geological data. In the late 1300’s, the Gila River Valley experienced flooding on a monumental scale. This deepened the river channel to the point where no water could flow into the irrigation canals unless they were rebuilt. This flooding was followed by years of drought, which lowered the water level even more. The desert began to reclaim its land. Unable to sustain themselves, the Sonoran people began to leave. Within 30-40 years, this 1,000 year culture was gone. They most likely dispersed to different areas in smaller groups and formed the genealogical base of today’s southwest tribes.

Sonoran canal system

This National Park Service diagram shows the extent of the Sonoran irrigation system. There were hundreds of miles of canals. Parts of it are still in use today. This entire system was dug with pointed sticks, the most sophisticated tool they ever developed.

At its peak, the Sonoran culture had several thousand people living in compounds over hundreds of square miles on both sides of the Gila River. The Casa Grande was one of these compounds, centered on a one acre site surrounded by seven foot walls. It was just one compound out of many, although it was the biggest. This culture pre-dated other Native American cultures and lived in peace. Today, the Pima, Hopi and Zuni nations consider this culture to be their ancestors

Excavated canal.

In this 1964 photo, an archaeologist is standing in an excavated section of a Sonoran culture irrigation canal. They were built with steps for gravity flow and lined with caliche. Not bad for pointed sticks.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located in Coolidge, AZ – about 20 miles due north from Exit 211 on I-10. It’s small. You can see the entire thing in 60-90 minutes. Nevertheless, it is one jaw dropping discovery after another. If you get out to Arizona, make sure you take the time to visit.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Tumacácori National Historic Park, Tubac, AZ

This is the chapel of the Misión San José de Tumacácori. Franciscan missionaries began construction in 1811 although no services were held here until 1822. Even though it was still a work in progress after 11 years, it was a magnificent structure. It represented the zenith of a Catholic mission community that stretched back to 1691. In that year, Father Francisco Kino arrived at a Pima Indian village on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. His ministry was to advance Spanish influence and spread Catholic teachings into New Spain, an area that encompassed the entire present-day southwestern United States on up to the San Francisco Bay. The name of the Pima village in their native language is lost to history. The Spanish phonetic version of it became Tumacácori (too-mah-ká-ko-ree).

Tumacacori Chapel

The chapel design is very interesting from a cultural standpoint. It strongly reflects a style brought to Spain by the Moors, who established an Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula that lasted 700 years (roughly 750 A.D. to 1490 A.D.). The pointed window niches in the front, the distinctive arches in the bell tower and the white domed roof above the altar are right out of Islamic architecture. The faux columns on the front and cutouts in the walls for statues and icons were usd by the Romans. On the other hand, it was brightly painted and decorated both inside and out, reflecting Mexican and Native American cultures. Everything in the picture is original construction. Even some of the original paint can still be seen today.

For the first 70 years of its existence, the mission had no church. All services were conducted among the people, often by visiting priests. Father Kino ministered to his flock until his death in 1711. The first real church was built in 1757. The outline of its foundation is nearby. Tumacácori carried on through good times and bad until 1848, when it was abandoned for good – a casualty of the Mexican War and Apache raids. The magnificent chapel, which had been under constant construction since 1811, was never finished. In 1853, the entire area became part of the United States after the Gadsen Purchase transferred most of New Spain to American hands. In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt established the thoroughly dilapidated mission as a National Monument and began preservation efforts. It became a National Historic Park in 1990, incorporating all the missions and presdios in the I-19 corridor.

Inside the chapel

The main sanctuary inside the chapel. The layers of white limestone, mud and adobe brick used in the construction are clearly visible. You can also see some of the original paint on the far back wall of the altar. There were no pews. People stood or knelt for the service, which was in Latin and sung by the priest and choir like Gregorian chants. Most of what’s in here is original construction, although the roof was rebuilt by the Park Service. Their charter is to preserve the ruins, not restore them.

On a fairly regular basis, we stumble into things and places that we’ve never heard of and come away saying “wow!” This is one of those places. We came here on a Saturday road trip looking for a geocache and ended up spending half the afternoon. The Tumacácori National Historic Park is located just off I-19 about 20 miles north of Nogales, AZ. You can also visit the nearby Tubac Presidio State Historical Park or do some hiking on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. We’ll be doing both and will let you know what we find.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha