Fort Bowie National Historic Site

13 miles south of Bowie, Arizona – February 6, 2022

Apache Pass is a natural low geologic divide in southeast Arizona separating the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”; see more below) Mountains from the much larger Chiricahua (pr. “cheer-uh-cah-wah”) mountain range. Apache Spring, a year-round source of flowing water near the pass, is the main reason many thousands of people traversed the pass beginning in 1848 through the end of the U.S. Army’s conflicts with Native Americans in the mid-1880s. Horses and people needed water to keep moving, and Apache Spring was the only dependable source of water for many miles. From the end of the Mexican War in 1848 through the end of the Apache Wars (1862-1886), Apache Pass provided a corridor for travelers between El Paso and Tucson. Once the southern route of the intercontinental railroad was completed in 1880, the pass became less important for travelers and commerce since trains weren’t as dependent on water as horses were. Until then, Apache Pass was an important point in the expansion of the American west: many thousands of people and great tonnages of goods found their way to the West by traversing the pass.

Chiricahua Apaches lived in this area for many years prior to other cultures entering the Apache Pass region. The pass was identified by both Spanish and, later, Mexican forces during their respective control of the area in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Many Anglos first used Apache Pass on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1858, the U.S. Congress authorized the development of an overland mail route, operated by the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. In operation between 1851 and 1861, the Butterfield route took advantage of Apache Spring to water its horses.

Apache Pass was also the site of the Bascom Affair, a conflict between Chiricahua leader Cochise’s band of Apaches and the U.S. Army in 1861. The Bascom Affair was the beginning of a decade of conflict between the Chiricahua and the Army, and led to the development of Fort Bowie to protect travelers using the pass and spring.

In 1872 the U.S. government struck a peace accord with the Apaches, establishing the Chiricahua Apache Reservation. For four years things went pretty smoothly, but the Apaches began to flee the reservation and conduct raiding parties into Mexico; the military presence in the pass subsequently increased. Geronimo eventually surrendered to the Army in 1886. Between the removal of the Native Americans and the completion of the railroad, the need for the U.S. military in the pass disappeared. Fort Bowie’s last garrison left the fort in 1894.

Fort Bowie National Historic Site, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and located about 35 miles from Willcox,, preserves some of the building ruins and other features of a U.S. Army outpost built in the 1860s to protect travelers using Apache Pass from Native American attacks. In addition to fort ruins, this 1,000-acre site also features a number of other interesting historical areas, all of which are accessible by a 1.5-mile hike from the parking lot to the site’s visitor center.

Nancy and Gunther and I visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in early February. It was an immensely rewarding experience, from both a historical perspective as well as a natural history view.

The site is unique in that visitors are encouraged to hike 1.5 miles to the visitor center rather than simply driving to a visitor center parking lot and then hiking from there; it’s certainly possible to drive to the center and park, but you’d miss out on a lot of natural and historical points of interest.

One of the first historic stops on the trail is this view of the camp site for a survey party led by Lt. John Parke of the Topographical Engineer Corps in March of 1854. The party, searching for an all-weather route for a transcontinental railroad, had marched 55 miles through the desert prior to reaching Apache Pass and the spring. The men rested at this spot for two days, enjoying both easy access to water and the companionship of the then-friendly Apaches. Parke would find an easier route for a railroad to the north of the pass, and the rail line was completed in 1880. The route, which passes between present-day Willcox and Bowie, is still in use today; there was puh-lenty of railroad traffic passing through Willcox while we stayed there.

The Bascom Affair

The next significant event, from an Anglo perspective, in the Apache Pass region occurred in January, 1861. A boy named Felix Martinez Ward was kidnapped by Apaches when the Native Americans raided the Ward family ranch. Lieutenant George Bascom was put in charge of the U.S. Army’s effort to find the boy. Bascom arrived in the Apache Pass area on Feb. 4, 1861, with a detachment of 54 men and camped in the area shown above. Cochise, the famous Chiricahua Apache chief, was invited to meet with Bascom. The young lieutenant accused Cochise of kidnapping Felix Martinez Ward, and Cochise denied the claim. Nevertheless, Bascom ordered that Cochise and his party be held hostage.
The Bascom camp was just on this side of the hill shown above. Cochise escaped from the tent in which he’d been held and ran up the hillside. Cochise used a knife that he’d hidden to cut through the tent’s fabric; Cochise’s action is still remembered as “Cut the Tent” by the Apache today. The other Chiricahua, including members of Cochise’s family, were recaptured by U.S. forces. Bascom moved his detachment to a stage station nearby and fortified that building, apprehensive about what might occur during the night.
These are the ruins of the Butterfield stage stop where Bascom and his soldiers sought refuge. Built in July 1858, the station had walls that reached up to 8 feet high. The morning after Cochise escaped, Apache warriors approached the station and told Bascom that Cochise wanted to talk. The meeting progressed for about half an hour before ending abruptly; one of the station workers had been captured by the Native Americans. Shots were fired and in the following weeks Cochise took more captives, attempting to exchange them for his family and other warriors held by the U.S. Army. Those talks failed as well, and Cochise killed the hostages; the Army retaliated by killing the Apaches in their custody.

The Bascom Affair ignited more than 20 years of conflict between the Chiricahua Apache and the United States government. Significantly, Felix Martinez Ward had indeed been kidnapped by Apaches but not by Cochise’s Chiricahua. He was raised among the White Mountain Apache and, as an adult, became a scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army.

The Butterfield Overland Mail route passed through the center of the area shown in this photo (I think the trail is a modern hiking one, not a remnant of the stage trail) and passed by the stage stop. In 1857, the U.S. government awarded John Butterfield a contract to carry mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. The stage coaches took 25 days to complete the 2,500-mile route. The Chiricahuas permitted the passage of the stages for two years; in exchange for gifts, the Apaches provided firewood for the stage station. Butterfield used smaller mule-driven coaches for this mountainous stage of the route, as opposed to larger horse-driven coaches on either end of the line.

The company received $600,000 per year to carry the mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. Butterfield started with 2,000 employees, more than 250 coaches, nearly 2,000 horses and mules, and 240 stage stations along the route.

After the stage stop ruins, the next stop along the trail is the post cemetery for Fort Bowie.

The cemetery actually predates the fort, as some U.S. Army soldiers were buried here in 1862. In addition to soldiers, the cemetery held the remains of the soldiers’ families, civilians, emigrants, mail carriers, and three Apache children, one of whom was Geronimo’s two-year-old son. About a half-year after the closure of Fort Bowie, most of the remains were reinterred at the San Francisco National Cemetery. However, the graves of 23 civilians are still here.

The next significant stop on the trail to the visitor center is the ruins of the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency.

Cochise died of natural causes in 1874 on the Chiricahua Reservation. Before his death he’d befriended a U.S. Indian agent named Thomas Jeffords, who governed almost a thousand Apaches from this agency from 1875-1876. The U.S. government removed Jeffords from this agency in June 1876 and relocated 325 Apaches north to the San Carlos Reservation. Many of the Chiricahua fled the reservation, however, and resumed hostilities with Anglos that would continue for another decade. The ruins of this agency were excavated in 1984. The building had three rooms, each with its own fireplace, and wood floors. National Park Service conservators have stabilized the ruins with plaster to slow their erosion; an ill-behaved dog at right provides a sense of scale.

A recreation of an Apache camp is a little ways further down the trail. The surrounding area, although rocky and mountainous, provided everything that the Chiricahua needed to make their home here: water from Apache Spring, wild game, edible plants, and materials for building shelter, weapons, and tools. The Chiricahua culture centered around the wife’s extended family; after marriage, the husband entered into the family and committed to supporting his wife’s relatives. While the men hunted and participated in raiding expeditions, the women maintained the wild food crops.

The camps consisted of small groups of several wickiups, built from a pole framework and covered with long grass and animal hides, like this one. Because of inconsistent food supplies and threats of enemy attack, the camps were not permanent and the Apaches moved often. Here we see a big baby absolutely terrified of what unimaginable horrors might wait in the dark depths of the wickiup recreation (there was nothing, as it turned out), accompanied by Nancy.
We got Gunther as an eight-week-old puppy in early November 2019, just a couple of months before the pandemic started, so he grew up in the last couple of years not having a whole lot of exposure to new experiences. For instance, we were made to realize he’d never been very close to horses when we went to Tombstone a few days after this hike. Once he gets used to new things, he’s generally okay with them. He gets along great with other dogs and people (and horses, once he’s seen one). He’s a really good dog, although I think he prefers hikes that have a lot more walking and a lot fewer opportunities to learn about history than this one did.

The Battle of Apache Pass

In mid-July, 1862, a guard of about 100 California Volunteers marched through Apache Pass toward the San Simon River in order to build a supply depot in that area. When the column approached the Butterfield stage station, which had by then been abandoned, it was attacked by Cochise, his ally Mangas Coloradas, and about 150 Apache warriors. The Californians drove the Apaches into the hills shown above, only to find that the Native Americans had taken up new positions around Apache Spring. After another attack, the Californians finally reached the spring and drove the Apaches away once again. The Battle of Apache Pass, July 15-16, 1862, led to the establishment of Fort Bowie.

We were on this trail in early February and were plenty warm; I cannot imagine what it would have been like to engage in battle with Apaches in mid-July, and while trying to fight your way to water.

Apache Spring

This is what all the deadly fighting over the decades at this site was about: Apache Spring, the only year-round source of water in the region. Archeologists have found pottery fragments around the spring that suggest the Mogollon Native Americans were here many years before the Apache came to this area.
Apache Spring averages a flow of about 5 gallons per minute, but that can vary significantly depending on the time of year and recent precipitation amounts. It’s not a big outflow, but it’s wet and that’s all that matters. This little rivulet a few yards from the mouth of the spring is about a foot wide. Fort Bowie is a quarter-mile further down the trail.

The First Fort Bowie

A 500-yard spur from the main hiking trail leads to these ruins of the first Fort Bowie. Construction started in July 1862 following the Battle of Apache Pass and the U.S. Army’s control of Apache Spring. A 100-man detachment of the 5th California Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Col. George Washington Bowie, completed the fort in two weeks. Incidentally, this instance of “Bowie” is pronounced “BOO-ee,” not “BOH-ee.” Also, that tree growing in the middle of the ruins is a catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii). Its Apache name is “ch’il gohigise,” which means “a bush that scratches you.” It has very sharp and claw-like thorns, but its seed pods were a significant food source for the Apache and they used the wood to make furniture and drumsticks. Bees are attracted to the catclaw’s blossoms and make a very distinctive honey.
Although the Apaches didn’t control the water at Apache Spring any longer, they continued to attack travelers that weren’t being protected by the U.S. Army as they traversed Apache Pass. This first fort was only in use for six years as the California Volunteers pursued the Apaches with little success. It was apparently not an enviable duty post because of the extraordinary isolation, constant illness, poor living conditions, and consistent threat of Native American attack. I’d think, however, that the original builders would be pleased to know that the walls they constructed are still standing, in the heat of the Arizona sun, 160 years later. Regular U.S. Army soldiers relieved the volunteers in 1866 and began construction of the new Fort Bowie, 300 yards northeast of this location.
This picture was taken looking to the southwest of the hill on which the first Fort Bowie was built; I’ve indicated the locations of several stops on the trail. The location of Apache Spring is not in this photo; it’s to the right of the area shown in the picture. The prominent mountain in the background is Government Peak, elevation 7,556 feet.
As we approached the visitor center, we encountered a herd of 10-12 mule deer about 100 yards away. They gradually made their way up the opposite hillside, blending really effectively into the rocks and brush of the area.
This is the visitor center for the Fort Bowie National Historic Site. At the end of the 1.5-mile hike, it’s an impressive structure that overlooks the site of the second Fort Bowie, and has a wonderful wraparound patio with plenty of rocking chairs and benches from which to admire the view. The building contains artifacts from the fort and other items representative of military life in the late 19th century; we didn’t spend much time in the building because due to Covid concerns NPS was understandably limiting how many people could be inside at the same time. That’s what is left of the fort’s armory on the left side of the image, well removed from the original site of the fort itself.
Like the Indian agency from down the trail, there’s not much remaining of Fort Bowie. The mounds you see in the middle foreground are walls of the fort’s buildings that have been covered in plaster by NPS conservators in an attempt to preserve as much of the original construction as possible. This picture is taken from in front of the visitor center, looking to the northeast.
This is a picture of a picture of Fort Bowie from January 1894, at the height of its presence at Apache Pass. For a perspective, the angular hill at the top left of the previous photo is the same one at the top center of this one. The tall building on the right side of the photo comprise the commanding officer’s quarters and in front of that structure are the officers’ quarters. The hospital is to the left and up the hillside a bit from the CO’s quarters. The low buildings at left are the corrals and stables; behind those are the ice machine and steam engine. In total, there are about 38 buildings in this photo. With the Apache Wars ending after Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886, the Army occupied Fort Bowie for eight more years. The U.S. Army abandoned Fort Bowie nine months after this original photo was taken. Area residents stripped the wood from the buildings for their own uses, and all that was left were adobe walls.
Here’s a view over the ruins looking southeast from the visitor center’s railed porch, where Nancy and I sat on rocking chairs while enjoying a picnic lunch. Gunther collapsed in the shade of the porch. Some of the fort’s ruins can be seen in the mid-foreground as light tan mounds. You may have noticed the prominent rock formation in the background in previous photos; it is called Helen’s Dome, elevation 6,376 feet. The granite peak is reportedly named after the wife of an officer at Fort Bowie, and served as an important landmark for travelers approaching Apache Pass.

After the visitors center, hikers can either retrace their steps back to the trailhead’s parking lot or use an alternate route that provides a different perspective on the surrounding area. We chose the latter.

This spectacular view shows the valley of the eastern approach to Apache Pass and the Peloncillo (Spanish for “little baldy”) Range, 35 miles away on the horizon, and just beyond those mountains lies the New Mexico/Arizona border.

We also decided to drive back to The Goddard by a different route, making a loop between Willcox and Bowie on either end. It gave us a chance to see some different country, and I’m glad that we did.

This is the rock formation that gives the Dos Cabezas (“two heads” in Spanish) Mountains their name. It doesn’t take much imagination to see faces in the rocks, especially the one on the left. This formation is about 15 miles due west of Willcox; it’s easily visible from the town (I enjoyed watching the colors of the setting sun on the formation while playing with Gunther in the campground’s dog run), but this perspective from the opposite side definitely shows you why it’s named what it is.
We also passed this red-tailed hawk, perched on a roadside fencepost, on the way back to Willcox. It let me take five or six pictures before taking off. That’s snow-covered Mount Graham in the background, but from the opposite side of where we saw it while staying in Safford, Arizona.

We really enjoyed Fort Bowie National Historic Site. This was a “the journey is the destination” sort of experience — while it was interesting to see the ruins of the actual fort, the hike to those ruins, and the natural and cultural historic points we saw, was more rewarding. Hiking in the same paths that Cochise and Geronimo once walked, and learning more about the conflicts between the Chiricahua who lived here and the U.S. Army, is something that we’ll always remember.

Did You Know / Did You Care #6

When we traveled to Arizona from New Mexico in late January of this year, we noticed a lot of very tall and very thin pine trees growing next to buildings (as in, just inches away from them), and also grown close together as natural windbreaks or privacy fences. They are called pencil pines, and they are a cultivar of a species of cypress tree called Cupressus sempervirens.

Did you know / did you care that this cultivar was developed from trees native to the Mediterranean region of western Europe? The same conditions in Italy and Greece can be found in some parts of the American southwest, and the cultivars are very popular in Arizona’s arid and hot climate.

Our campground in Willcox, Arizona, had a single pencil pine planted next to each campsite.

In addition to providing protection from wind and prying eyes (when planted in close proximity), pencil pines, we were to discover, also serve as great habitat for a wide variety of songbirds. Their dense foliage and impressive height – up to 110 feet – provide plenty of safe nesting and perching spaces for our feathered friends.

I took this photo of a house sparrow (a very common bird around the entire country) from a window inside The Goddard. It was perched in the pencil pine planted next to our front door (the one at far left in the photo of The Goddard above).
Here’s another common bird, a house finch, perched in the same tree. This photo was taken in the late evening from below the bird. A bonus Did You Know / Did You Care!: house finches are native to the American southwest but some were captured in the 1940s and taken to the East Coast for breeding and to sell as house pets. That practice violated a couple of federal laws, and, in an effort to avoid prosecution, the captors released the birds to the wild. The house finches established wild populations, and now the species is found from coast to coast. The species was also taken to Hawaii in the 1870s and is now found on all of that state’s islands.
Here’s a bird not found from sea to shining sea (and Hawaii): the cactus wren. This guy perched at the very top of a different campsite’s pencil pine and called out almost every morning we were in Willcox. I thought it sounded like a car with a dead battery trying to start (but in a way that’s somewhat more pleasing than what it sounds). The calls last up to four seconds and can be heard a thousand feet away.

Of course, all of this avian activity was of great interest to the feline member of The Goddard’s crew.

Here’s Rusty keeping an eye on the goings-on in the pencil pine outside the door of The Goddard.
We regret not getting the optional extra-wide tread for the steps in our trailer, but we didn’t know that Rusty would be spending so many of his waking hours watching birds from the doorway.

Rex Allen Museum

Willcox, Arizona – February 5, 2022

If asked to name your favorite Rex Allen movie, which film comes to mind first? If you’re like Nancy and me, you’d probably be somewhat reluctant to name one, because you couldn’t name one. The simple truth is, we’d never heard of him. But, as we were to find out, we’d certainly heard him.

Willcox, Arizona, is the hometown of Rex Allen (1920-1999), known as “The Arizona Cowboy” as well as “The Last of the Silver Screen Cowboys.” Allen began his movie career as the public’s love affair with Westerns was turning away from the big screen and transitioning to the newfangled televisions in their living rooms.

The Rex Allen Museum opened in 1989 as a showcase for Allen’s career as a live performer, recording artist, actor, and film narrator. It has many of Allen’s personal belongings dating back to his childhood in Willcox all the way up to his Hollywood career.

I finally managed to take a photo of a car parked outside a museum we visited (I don’t know why I didn’t just walk to the other side of the building and take a photo from there). The Rex Allen Museum is in one of the oldest commercial buildings in Willcox. The adobe building was constructed in the early 1890s and was later home to the Schley Saloon from 1897 to 1919. The museum still has the saloon’s original wooden floor. The Willcox Theater, next door to the museum, was built in 1935 and was where Rex Allen made his singing debut. Roy Rogers, later to be a friend of Allen, also sang at the theater early in his career.

Allen’s family homesteaded on a ranch about 40 miles from Willcox. He played guitar while his father fiddled for audiences in Willcox; after graduating from Willcox High School, Allen joined the rodeo circuit and toured the southwest.

Allen found life as a performing entertainer less painful than that of a rodeo star, and Allen got his singing career started at a Phoenix radio station. Soon after, he made his debut on a show called “National Barn Dance” on Chicago radio station WLS. This is the fiddle Allen used on the show. Note the tooled leather guitar case behind the fiddle.

Allen would have a 35-year singing career with Decca Records, and had a gold record with his version of “Crying in the Chapel.” With singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey being very popular with moviegoers in the late 1940s, Republic Pictures signed Rex Allen to a contract in 1949. He would go on to star in 19 Hollywood movies, usually as a character with the very authentic Western name of “Rex Allen.”

The museum has posters from many of the movies that Allen starred in between 1950 and 1954. Every movie cowboy needs a tremendously talented horse, and Allen’s was Koko the Wonder Horse. Koko usually received billing equal to Rex Allen in publicity for their pictures. Every movie cowboy also needs a sidekick; Allen was pardners with Buddy Ebsen and, later, Slim Pickens in various pictures.
Allen was a top-ten box office attraction in his day, and his exploits carried from the big screen to other media like comic books. When you make it big as a Western performer, you get to wear Nudie suits: clothing made by Nuta Kotlyarenko, a Ukraine-born tailor whose professional name was Nudie. He made his mark making rhinestone Western-themed wear for both men and women. Nudie suits were worn by entertainers like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, and Elvis Presley. The leather hat box in the lower right is also a Nudie design; it held Allen’s white Stetson while he was on tour.
San Fernando Saddlery in Van Nuys, California, made this very pretty silver-mounted parade saddle used by Allen.
On the left is another Nudie suit that Allen wore in parades. It’s pretty flashy. On the right is a custom-made shirt; note the closures on the chest pockets. Allen didn’t like buttons on his shirt pockets.
This was an “a-ha” moment for me. Did you ever see those live-action Disney films from the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the ones set in the American West, that featured a very relaxing narrator’s voice that had just a hint of a drawl? Rex Allen was the narrator of movies like “Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar,” and “The Incredible Journey,” and more than 40 other Disney films and television programs. Allen’s voice was also that of 150 different Disney cartoon characters. His Western voice, instantly recognizable, narrated the animated adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web” (which was a Hanna-Barbera production rather than Disney).
In addition to lending his voice to a number of television productions, Allen lent his likeness to promote Ford tractors, Purina animal feed, Tony Lama boots, and other products.
Speaking of Tony Lama, here’s a pair of cowboy boots custom modified for use on the golf course. They’re next to an autoharp given to Rex Allen by June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash.
Speaking of Johnny Cash, here’s a wall of memorabilia featuring people who knew and worked with Rex Allen, including country music superstar Tanya Tucker (under the Man in Black’s illustration), who also grew up in Willcox, Arizona. Next to Tanya’s photo is a picture of John Wayne with Allen, and above that is a picture of The King, and to the right of Elvis is a signed photo of Ken Curtis, who played Festus Hagen in “Gunsmoke.” Speaking of “Gunsmoke,” Allen was a cousin of Glenn Strange, who played Sam the barkeep in Dodge City from 1961 to 1974.
The museum building is also home to the Cowboy Hall of Fame. One of the Hall of Fame exhibits is this display of barbed wire dating from 1874 to 1884, so you know it’s okay in my book.

Willcox still shows a lot of love for its most famous native son. “Rex Allen Days” began in 1951 as an event benefiting the local hospital. It continues each year to this day, attracting Western film aficionados from around the world, and includes a rodeo and the annual Cowboy Hall of Fame induction. One of Willcox’s main streets is called Rex Allen Drive.

This larger-than-life bronze statue of Rex Allen is situated in a park directly across the street from the museum. Koko the Wonder Horse is buried nearby, and Allen’s ashes were scattered in the park upon his death. (The sun, as it is wont to do sometimes, wasn’t cooperative so the lighting isn’t the best.)

Between 1949 and the late 1960s, more than 100 different Western TV series aired on television networks – which was great for fans of “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Wagon Train,” but not so good for stars of big-screen Western movies. Allen did star in his own short-lived TV series, “Frontier Doctor,” in 1961, but his time as a big-screen star was over. However, he continued to do very well doing off-camera work for Disney and other production houses.

After we visited the museum, Nancy and I could do little else than retreat that evening to The Goddard and watch a Rex Allen movie. We selected “Colorado Sundown” (1952), and do you know what? We liked it a lot. It had a pretty intriguing storyline and some great action crammed into its 67 minutes, and it gave an opportunity for Rex Allen to sing a bit as well. As of now, it’s our favorite Rex Allen movie. Honestly, we’d love to watch another one sometime.

Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

January 30, 2022 – near Safford, Arizona

Riparian areas, or habitat on or near flowing rivers, have historically constituted only 2 percent of the state of Arizona’s landmass. According to the Bureau of Land Management, in the last 200 years almost 95% of that meager acreage has disappeared due to human development from grazing, farming, and diversion projects

The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, located between Safford and Clifton in southeast Arizona, was established in 1990 to protect 23,000 acres (about 36 square miles) of wildland river habitat and the surrounding area.

This photo is from an overlook above the Gila River as it briefly splits before rejoining downriver, looking to the southeast. The Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area has plenty of very long vistas of natural spaces. The section of the Gila River that runs through the NCA is a very popular destination for kayakers, canoeists, and rafters during high-flow season, and there are several developed areas along the river for putting in and taking out watercraft.

The word “Gila” is found in many, many placenames and other references in New Mexico and Arizona, and it’s thought to be derived from a Spanish contraction of “Hah-quah-sa-eel,” which is a Yuma Native American word that means “running water which is salty.” The river starts near Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and flows almost 650 miles along an watershed of nearly 60,000 square miles in the two states before emptying into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado forms the state’s western border with California..

The Gila Box Riparian NCA includes more than 20 miles of the Gila River as well as sections of three other waterways that flow year-round in southeast Arizona. Gila Box is one of only two riparian NCAs in the United States; the other is San Pedro Riparian NCA, located in extreme southeastern Arizona along the border with Mexico.

The waterways provide food, shelter, and water for a huge variety of wildlife, including fish, mammals, and birds as well as invertebrates.

The importance of preserving these lands can be seen in the variety of animals that call Gila Box home, including at least:

  • 175 permanent and migratory bird species
  • 42 mammal species, including bighorn sheep, black bear, javelina, mountain lion, and cougar
  • 24 reptile species
  • 17 fish species, including the endangered Gila chub and razorback sucker
  • and 10 amphibian species.
This is Bonita Creek, which flows southeast from the San Carlos Apache Reservation, now home to about 10,000 Apache, northwest of the National Conservation Area to enter the Gila River near the NCA’s western edge. This riparian environment is certainly atypical habitat for the mostly desert state of Arizona: Fremont cottonwood, Goodding’s willow, and Arizona sycamore trees are prevalent along with uncommon large bosques of mesquite, which is a very common tree/shrub in the drier areas of the desert but there grows in sparser groupings.
One of these days I’ll stop being surprised at seeing blooming flowers in January, but today was not that day. This is a plant called brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which has several interesting characteristics: it derives its name from having very fragile stems; depending on where in the stem the sap is collected the sap can be used as a glue or as a resin to hold seal pottery vessels; or the sap can be melted to use as a varnish. There were a lot of bees collecting pollen from this plant.
It’s difficult to be sure, but I’m fairly certain this raptor is a redtailed hawk perched on an ocotillo. A few minutes after this photo, the bird took off and immediately rose a hundred feet in the air to soar over the desert. The mountain in the background is Mount Graham (elev. 10,724 feet), the southernmost peak in the continental United States to exceed 10,000 feet. Mount Graham dominates the landscape in southeastern Arizona: it’s visible from nearly everywhere. It and other tall mountains are referred to as “sky islands” in the American southwest because their different elevation zones support a number of varied habitats for wildlife and plants. Beyond this bird and the bees, we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on our visit to Gila Box; we’d especially hoped to encounter Gila monsters, which we’d been advised by Arizonans were common in the NCA.
Here’s another view of Mount Graham taken at a different time of day in the NCA, with part of the city of Willcox seen at its base. It’s barely visible in the previous photo with the raptor, but this image better shows a box-like structure in a mountain saddle at the right: that’s one of several telescopes maintained in the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO), which is operated by the University of Arizona along with other partners. The one viewable here is the Large Binocular Telescope; the other two MGIO telescopes are the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (the “Pope ‘Scope,” if you will, and maybe you won’t) and the Submillimeter Telescope. The clear skies due to the high elevation and sparse populations in the immediate area lend themselves to excellent telescope operations. The Large Binocular Telescope is about 30 miles from this viewpoint; it is indeed large. Regrettably, the MGIO only conducts tours from mid-April through mid-October because of road conditions so we weren’t able to check it out. We had a great view of Mount Graham from our campsite, and enjoyed seeing the changing weather conditions across the mountainside during our stay.
The abundant water of the Gila Box area (by Arizona’s standards, at least) supported ranching operations, including by the Apache, beginning in the 1870s. Cattle, sheep, and goat production peaked in the 1880s and early 1890s as the Southern Pacific Railway was completed across this part of Arizona, but later droughts and land mismanagement led to a near-total collapse of the industry. Ranchers may still graze stock on the NCA, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, but must restrict their herds to upland parts of the area and no grazing is permitted on public lands near the riparian areas. This structure’s roof has seen better days.
From a geology point of view, there’s a lot going on in these cliffs about 100 yards away from the Gila River. Between 25 and 16 million years ago, volcanic eruptions created lava flows that resulted in layers of basaltic rock. Later eruptions formed layers of sedimentary and conglomerate rocks, all of which the Gila carved through to make a spectacular canyon over millions of years. These cliffs are probably about 100 feet high.
And here is that canyon, which is the Gila Box. This is a few miles upstream from the overlook where I took the first photo of this posting. I really wish the sun had been shining on the canyon walls when we were there, but canyons and sunlight rarely have good timing together. The color of the rocks is still spectacular. Water is an amazingly destructive force, especially given enough time: this is the other side of the canyon formed by the cliffs in the previous photo, which are at least 100 yards west of this standpoint. Nancy and I were somewhat frustrated with the lack of established hiking trails in the NCA, but we did enjoy a short walk along the banks of the Gila River and experiencing this canyon wall, several hundred feet high, was especially rewarding. Gunther wasn’t able to join us next to the river; he kept getting spooked by something in the underbrush as we approached the river – it could only have been a lair of writhing, snapping Gila monsters, we believe – so we took in this sight individually while the other held the leash of our big baby.

Despite not being able to find any trails on which to stretch our legs (and it’s very possible that trails exist in parts of the NCA we didn’t see), we did enjoy the visit to Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area. It would be really interesting to see it in spring, when the water’s really flowing. Maybe we’ll find Gila monsters somewhere else in Arizona.

Eastern Arizona Museum

January 29, 2022

After spending November and December 2021 and most of January 2022 in New Mexico, the Goddard made its way to Safford, Arizona, in late January, where we stayed for two weeks. Our first destination, not including a couple of very good Mexican restaurants in Safford and nearby Solomon, was the Eastern Arizona Museum in Pima, Arizona, which is a few miles west of Safford. The museum is located in the former Bank of Pima, which opened on May 19, 1916, with $30,000 in capital, as well as a couple of other adjoining buildings that were built separately but have since been connected. Like the museum in Deming, I neglected to get a photo of the exterior of this museum as well, but it’s an impressive building.

It’s hard to ignore the structure on the right: it’s pine bark that’s enclosing the museum’s office. I’m uncertain when, but some decades ago a Pima town employee used prison labor and the city’s dump truck to collect several loads of pine tree bark from the nearby Graham Mountains. They cleaned up the bark and then fumigated it under plastic to kill the insects, and then used the bark to construct display cases for the museum. In 1997 most of the display cases were remodeled like the ones on the left, but the bark remains around the museum’s office.

The town of Pima was founded on April 8, 1879, by a group of Mormon pioneer families on a site south of the Gila River (the same watercourse Nancy and I saw when we visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings north of Silver City, New Mexico, earlier in the month). The original settlers were joined later that year by several other families, and today the town has about 2,500 residents.

The museum has an impressive collection of Native American pottery and stone tools found in the area. It also features a wide variety of donated collections of tools, housewares, and other items dating back to the 1880s.

Here’s a large collection of old farm and ranch tools. Nancy noted that the person who wielded the sheep shears (to the right of the curry comb and bullet mold at center left) probably had impressive forearms. The shears date to the early 1900s.

Much of the museum’s collection is in a building called Cluff Hall, which is the oldest building in Pima. It has been connected to the former bank building just to its south as part of the museum. Moses Cluff constructed the building from limestone in 1882. It served as Pima’s cultural center, hosting plays, concerts, political debates, dances, and meetings of the Latter Day Saints (although it was never formally dedicated as a house of worship). The first kindergarten class in the Gila Valley was held in Cluff Hall in 1901, with tuition of five cents a day. In 1912, two immigrant brothers from Lithuania opened a clothing store but their endeavor was ended by the country’s entry into World War I a few years later. The two brothers later opened a department store in Safford that was in business until the 1960s. As with many old buildings, Cluff Hall was home to a huge variety of businesses and activities.

This bell, forged in 1890, was installed in a brick Latter Day Saints church that had been built in Pima in 1888. It’s perhaps two feet tall. A placard nearby has a recollection from 1981 of the bell by a resident of Pima, Laura McBride Smith, who was present when the bell was first rung 90 years earlier: “When that church bell in that building gave its first taps, I heard it. I climbed upon a big double gate where teams and people went in and out across the street west of the Pima Church house, and that is where I first heard the lovely sweet tones and it was first broadcast all over Pima. It was the first bell in the Gila Valley. It rang ’till the sun went down. It is something I have never forgotten. I am sure there isn’t another person alive today who heard that bell first ringing in 1891. Folks, its tone is just as sweet today as always, and to me, when this bell was poured hot in its case they poured a portion of ‘witchery’ into it and closed up the opening while hot and it could not get out and that ‘witchery’ potion will always be there. My children and everybody knew how much time they had to get to church or school the year around. What a blessing that old bell was to the whole community!”
Any museum in the western United States worth its salt will have a display of historic barbed wire, and on this point the Eastern Arizona Museum does not disappoint. This case, about six feet tall, includes information about the manufacturer, style, and date of each example.
I really like the simple burlap and wood presentation of this exhibit, which is located on top of the larger case seen above. I used to have a DYMO label maker when I was a kid – I never forgot what the things in my bedroom were called back then because everything was labelled.
Still more examples of barbed wire from the 1870s and 1880s. Some of these styles look like they were quite a lot of work to manufacture, especially in the quantities needed to fence the American west. I’m just happy that everyone shares my appreciation of barbed wire.
Let’s, with regret, set aside our examination of barbed wire for a bit. Here’s a phonograph that belonged to Thomas Hollis Dodge, who was born in Pima in 1897. This phonograph was the first one in the Gila Valley. The recordings on the wax cylinders didn’t have the names of the artists until 1910. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to music being transmitted into the Goddard from satellites positioned more than 22,000 miles above Earth and I have access to 95% of the catalog of human song recording, including the one on this blue cylinder if only we knew what it is. For now, I’ll have to be happy with “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes, 1963). And I am.
The placard on this manual foot-pump organ states that it was purchased by Adiel Sanchez and Reyes Colvin Sanchez in 1915 and used many years in a church in Sanchez, a town about 20 miles west of Pima, and later used in their home. I love the wear marks on the pedals, and I’m sure the people playing this organ made beautiful music.
The placard for this item notes that its first owner, W.W. Pace, “had to put up his own lines to have this telephone.” It’s one of the first telephones installed in Thatcher, which is a town just west of Safford on the way to Pima. Nancy’s family will note that this phone is a fine Western Electric product. I took all of these photos at the Eastern Arizona Museum with my phone, which doesn’t have the beautiful wooden construction of the model shown here.
Here’s something I found really interesting: this is the wedding photo of Albert M. Haws and Alice Cluff Haws from October 30, 1911. They’re a very handsome couple. A trunk on the floor under the photo contains Alice’s wedding dress and clothes worn by some of their later children. The interesting part is …
… next to the 1911 photo above is this program from the celebration of the couple’s fiftieth wedding anniversary on October 28, 1961. Albert and Alice were married for six years before the United States entered World War I, and celebrated their 30th anniversary a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They were married eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and, a few months before their 50th anniversary, the Soviet Union and, later, the United States sent men via rockets into space for the first time. Still a very handsome couple, and I appreciated that the family shared its history with museum visitors.

The Eastern Arizona Museum is a great example of a community historical institution that continues to serve its community. There are plenty of resources for families with roots in the area to continue genealogical research, and there’s a huge variety of exhibits that nearly anyone will find of interest. And, as the Haws family shows us, museums can put personal family gatherings in the historical context of larger world events. Especially when the museums are in historic buildings, one has an opportunity to wonder about all of the people who stepped through those doorways in the many decades before, and who may have used the objects now on display: farmers, bankers, mothers, young students … what were their lives like in the 1890s or the 1910s or the 1960s? What made them laugh, and what made them stay up sleepless at night? We can all learn a lot from history, and great community institutions like the Eastern Arizona Museum are a perfect place to do just that.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

January 16, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt established Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 to protect ancient Native American-created structures in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico. It’s a fantastic destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of the southwest United States (and getting there is rewarding as well).

Nancy and I visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on a Sunday in mid-January. Because dogs aren’t allowed on the trail to access the dwellings, we decided to board Gunther that weekend. This national monument is very isolated: despite being only about 45 road miles from Silver City, New Mexico, the drive takes about an hour and 45 minutes because of a large number of extremely tight turns.

The road (part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway on New Mexico State Highway 15) is paved and well-maintained, although we saw plenty of ice and snow along the roadside.
The drive isn’t only through dense forests: there are also plenty of extraordinary vistas to enjoy. This is looking to the northeast from NM Highway 15. It’s at least another half hour to the monument from here.
Due at least partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, the monument’s visitor center was closed (which we knew prior to leaving Silver City that morning). We proceeded to the trailhead that takes hikers to the dwellings themselves, but first stopped at a pullout to read about a 1966 excavation that uncovered evidence of nearly 2,000 years of consistent human habitation at this particular site. Evidence of a pithouse structure dating from the year 200 was found, along with other buildings from between 650 and 1000, as well as Pueblo rooms from the period between 1000-1300, and finally a relatively modern three-room adobe homestead dating to the year 1883. The highway on the right side of the photo, which leads to the cliff dwelling’s trailhead, was built in 1966 over some of the excavated ruins; the stone outlines in front of our pickup represent the location of the Pueblo structure dating from between 1000 and 1300. This site is just a few steps from the Gila River (to the left of this photo), so it had easy access to consistent water for all of those inhabitants over the centuries.
The monument has a bookstore adjacent to the trail leading to the dwellings, and this American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was hanging out on the bookstore’s roof. There was a time that I didn’t think too much of crows (the big park that we once lived next to in central Denver had a very large and vocal group of them), but I’ve since begun to appreciate them more. They’re very smart and adaptable birds. While Anglos tend to have negative connotations of crows, many Native American cultures view them with quite a lot of respect. I took this guy’s appearance before our hike as a positive sign, although it’s very possible he was just eyeing my pre-hike peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is the trailhead view of the cliff where the dwellings are located, although the dwellings themselves are on the other side of the cliff and not visible from this point. The Mogollon Mountains, which include the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, are located in the caldera of a supervolcano that erupted about 28 million years ago. The eruption, one of several that occurred at about the same time in the same area, had an explosive power 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980. The volcanic material fell to the ground and, because it was incredibly hot, welded together into a rock called tuff. Later volcanic eruptions covered the tuff with another type of volcanic rock called andesite. All of the ground level of this area was once near the top of the cliffs. Following the eruptions, millions of years of erosion by water, wind and other forces created the sedimentary stone that’s in this and other cliffs. Harder types of rocks at the top of the cliff keep the ground there from eroding as quickly as the softer rocks below. A creek flowing through the area gradually carved out a canyon, and also dislodged huge boulders to expand holes in the cliff that would become caves. About 700 years ago, the Mogollons built their dwellings in those caves.
This is the West Fork of the Gila River, which starts a few miles just north of the dwellings and which one crosses over a bridge to begin the hike. The West Fork joins the Middle Fork of the Gila River a couple of miles east of this bridge near the monument’s visitor center, and they converge with the East Fork a few miles further downvalley. We’d see more of the Gila River in the weeks to come.
The short hike, a one-mile loop that passes the dwellings, is one of the more pleasant ones Nancy and I have been on in a long time. It’s shaded by trees and by the walls of the steep canyon through which Cliff Dweller Creek, a year-round source of water that converges with the Gila River, flows. The canyon and surrounding area are home to a number of species of animals like deer, turkey, and javelina – all of which provided the Mogollon in their day with food as well as materials with which to build tools. Between the animals, the trees and plants, and the water of Cliff Dweller Creek (the Mogollons likely called it something else), the cliff dwellers had everything they needed to make a home.
I regret not keeping count of how many bridges cross Cliff Dweller Creek on the way to the dwellings, but it was at least a dozen. Having helped build parts of quite a few trails, Nancy and I appreciated the work that went into developing and maintaining this one. Even though we were in southwestern New Mexico, we were glad we both had jackets for this hike – it was chilly in the shade.
To wit: I thought the material on the canyon wall on the left was evidence of a popular place for birds or maybe rodents; as we walked closer I realized that it was frozen water coming from a spring that feeds the creek.
After a very pleasant walk in the canyon, the trail rises gradually to provide this view (with a telephoto camera lens) of the dwellings. The person at the structure on the left provides a sense of scale; we were to find that she’s an National Park Service volunteer named Lena. The black streaks arising from the caves are evidence of human habitation: carbon from cooking and heating fires from 700 years ago and even further back. Soot on the cave ceilings indicates that humans lived in these caves for thousands of years before the Mogollon arrived and made improvements.

Archeologists believe, based on studying designs on pottery found within the ruins, the Mogollon people who built and lived in these dwellings originally came from the Tularosa River region, which is about 60 miles north of the monument. From dendrochronology that dates timbers used in the construction of the dwellings, researchers believe the structures were built between the years 1276 and 1287.

About 40 structures, ranging from large communal rooms to small storage areas, were built in five natural caves within the cliff. The dwellings provided homes for 12-15 families.
Lena, the NPS volunteer, said that about 90 percent of the present-day dwellings is original; the rest has been work done by NPS to help protect and fortify the structures. It’s notable that walking around the structures within Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is permitted and encouraged; that’s not the case with all NPS cliff dwelling sites because of (wholly understandable) concern about destruction from human traffic. Nancy and I have really enjoyed visiting some of the more remote NPS locations in New Mexico and Arizona, in part because of the lack of crowds.
This wood beam, or viga, is original to the cliff dwellings, and along with a series of other vigas and additional materials supported another floor above this room. The tree that the wood log came from was felled 500 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t place anything next to it for a sense of scale (it’s 750 years old), but I’d say about 18 inches of the viga is protruding from the wall.
Here is an intrepid researcher, from her tenuous perch high atop a wooden ladder, peering into the depths of one of the structures. What clues will she find as to what really happened?
This is a view looking through the natural cave opening to the canyon wall on the other side of Cliff Dweller Creek below. The holes in the walls of the structure are where vigas were placed to provide support to another floor of the still-existing room.

Despite putting a lot of effort into the construction, the Mogollon lived in these dwellings for only a short time before moving southward in about the year 1300. While research continues to determine reasons for their departure, most evidence points to a widespread and prolonged drought that forced many Native Americans into larger communities in present-day northern Mexico.

Present-day Native Americans say that the Mogollon never left; their descendants became the Zuni and Acoma Pueblo tribes of present-day New Mexico and the Hopi tribe in present-day Arizona.

The Mogollon weren’t the last Native Americans to live in this area. Evidence shows that the Apache moved to the upper Gila River in the sixteenth century. The storied Apache leader Geronimo was born very near the cliff dwellings, at the headwaters of the Gila River, in the early 1820s.

Because of the nearly two-hour drive from Silver City, the largest municipality close to the dwellings, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a destination one goes to by accident. However, it’s well worth the effort to get there, and we’re both looking forward to a return trip in the future.

Big Tree Trail

January 15, 2022

Silver City is situated on the southern border of the Gila National Forest, a 3.3-million-acre region in southwest New Mexico. This national forest, which is just slightly smaller in acreage than the state of Connecticut, includes 170 miles of the Continental Divide and ranges in elevation from 4.500 feet in the Chihuahuan Desert to nearly 11,000 feet at the summit of Whitewater Baldy. In its boundaries are three national wilderness areas (in which the only travel permitted is by foot, horseback, or canoe; there are no roads):

  • Gila Wilderness, which was the nation’s first designated wilderness (established on June 3, 1924); 558,065 acres
  • Aldo Leopold Wilderness, named for the great conservationist who’d urged the establishment of the Gila Wilderness; 202,016 acres
  • Blue Range Wilderness, which adjoins Arizona’s Blue Range Primitive Area along the borders of the two states; 29,304 acres

The Gila National Forest also includes Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the home to Mogollon Native Americans in the 13th century which was established as a national monument in 1907.

It’s also home to a number of developed campgrounds, one of which is the Cosmic Campground: the first designated International Dark Sky Sanctuary in North America as well as the first to be situated in a national forest. Dark Sky Sanctuaries are areas established to preserve their light-free environments at night; they’re great for stargazing and other astronomical research.

Nancy and I planned to go to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, where dogs aren’t allowed, on Sunday, January 16, and the dog-boarding business in Silver City didn’t accept dogs on Sundays, so we dropped Gunther off on the morning of January 15 (he had a terrific time on the weekend, by all accounts) and headed to one of the many hiking trails in the Gila National Forest, Big Tree Trail.

True to its name, the Big Tree Trail leads to an alligator juniper tree that towers over most of the other trees in the area. The trail connects with a number of other named trails in the immediate area, making for a number of different one-way and loop hiking options. Our hike turned out to be a five-mile loop, and it was a fantastic experience.

The trail is mostly level and wide, with great views of the mountainous region all around. There are a number of different types of pine and spruce trees, along with a wide variety of grasses, shrubs, and even lichen (note the yellow lichen on the rock in lower right). We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but did spot and hear a couple of woodpeckers at work.
Before we get too far down the trail, however, I wanted to share this photo of the parking lot at the trailhead for the Big Tree trail. This was about 9 AM on a Saturday morning. That’s our pickup on the right and the Jeep on the left arrived a couple of minutes after we did. Anyone who’s tried to find parking at a trailhead within an hour of a Front Range city in Colorado, especially on a weekend, will understand why I wanted to take this photo.
This is not the Big Tree, but Nancy and I both remarked on its pleasing symmetry. It was a beautiful day for a hike.
While there are great vistas to be enjoyed, the trail is also heavily wooded in places and it’s difficult to see what’s ahead of you. However, it was readily apparent, even before seeing the wooden fence around it that this is indeed the Big Tree. It’s in a very pretty grove about two miles from the trailhead. The U.S. Forest Service, which ought to know, ranks this tree as the second largest alligator juniper in all the land. It’s 63 feet tall, and its trunk has a diameter of 70 inches and a circumference of 18 feet.
The crown spread of the Big Tree is 62 feet: it’s nearly as wide as it is tall. Perhaps the Big Tree’s most impressive statistic, though, is its age: according to the scientists, it’s 600 years old. The Big Tree had already been growing in this forest for 70 years when Columbus set sail for the New World. Standing under its boughs was a mighty rewarding experience for both Nancy and me.
You may rightly wonder how the alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) got its common name. If you figure it out, please let Nancy or me know.
Anything green on the ground (that’s not evergreen) in the middle of January tends to stick out. Although most of the foliage on the trail was dormant on our hike, I noticed this little green plant under the Big Tree (that’s one of the corner fenceposts on the left; Ken’s hiking poles are on the right). It’s white horehound, which has been valued for its various (and purported) medicinal properties for centuries. It’s also used in the making of horehound candy, which Ken really, really likes.

After a pleasant snack break at a picnic table underneath the Big Tree, we began our return to the trailhead.

We took a different route back, which included a stretch of trail along this bosque growing next to a seasonal waterway. It’s probably quite lovely to listen to the cottonwoods when they’re leafed out.
I liked the different colors of lichens on this basalt. There are about 3,600 known species of lichens in the world. Lichens are actually two different organisms in a symbiotic relationship: fungi and algae. Fungi help in the decomposition of organic matter but they don’t produce their own food; the algae do that for them. The basalt rock was ejected from a volcanic eruption millions of years ago; the Gila National Forest was the site of many eruptions over the millennia.
This picture was taken close to the trailhead on our return to the pickup. This pretty cluster of black-spined agave reminded us, although we’d walked through patches of snow on our hike, that we were still in the Chihuahan Desert.

The Big Tree hike was immensely rewarding, and Nancy and I are looking forward to enjoying more hikes in the area when we return to Silver City.

Motor Tour of Copper Country

January 9, 2022

True to its name, Silver City, New Mexico, was founded in the summer of 1870 by silver prospectors who’d found some mineral deposits in the area. Native Americans had been extracting minerals, including silver, copper, and gold, from the area for centuries, to be followed in later years by Spanish and Mexican miners. The silver deposits soon played out for the Anglos, but the town kept the name even as extraction interests turned to the prodigious amounts of copper to be found in the area.

And make no mistake: copper is now king in Silver City. The Chino Mine is 15 miles east of Silver City; it’s the third-oldest active open pit copper mine in the world. The Tyrone Mine, another open-pit operation, is 10 miles south of Silver City. Many residents of Silver City and the area are employed by the industry and references to the resource can be seen everywhere: the roofs of many houses and businesses are made of copper.

Copper has been taken from the ground for 10,000 years, but 95% of the copper extracted by humans has been done so in the last 100 years and more than half of that has been done in the last quarter century. That’s the impact of continually improving mining technologies and processing techniques. Those improvements will need to continue: there are vast stores of copper within a mile of the earth’s surface, but most of it is economically unfeasible to extract using current mining processes.

What’s the value in copper? Why do companies expend great effort and expense to dig it out of the ground? Copper has two qualities that make it extraordinarily useful: it’s malleable, and it’s a great conductor of both electricity and heat. It can be bent or twisted or flattened to whatever shape is desired, and then used to conduct electricity in power lines of all sizes or used to fashion cookware or rooftops. Forty-three percent of the copper produced in the United States is used in construction and 19% is used in electronics. Byproducts recovered from copper mining include molybdenum (which is an element used for hardening steel and other alloys of iron): almost half of the molybdenum produced in the United States is a byproduct of copper mining rather than mining for molybdenum directly. Seven percent of the gold produced in the country comes from copper mining.

Copper is, of course, also used in alloys with other metals to produce coins.

A few days ago, I was sorting through several collections of coins in the Goddard (we go through a lot of quarters to do laundry) and came across this 1942 penny. It’s 80 years old, and, although it looks like it’s seen some pretty heavy usage in the last eight decades, it’s held up pretty well because it’s made of metal. Pennies in general have an interesting history. The first pennies minted by the U.S. government, produced in 1787, were 100% copper and about half again as large as today’s coins. Shortly before the U.S. Civil War, in 1856, the composition changed to 88% copper; in 1864, the alloy changed again to 95% copper and 5% zinc. This is what the penny in the picture is made from. Because of the need for copper in the production of war materiel, pennies minted in 1943 were made of zinc-coated steel (and, because of their size and color, were easily mistakable for dimes). Coins returned to the normal production process in 1944. In 1982, the mint started using 5% copper and 95% zinc, and pennies made today are made with a base of 97.5% zinc and only 2.5% copper plating.

We spent the last month of 2021 and will spend the first few months of this year in the heart of the United States’ copper-producing region. New Mexico is the No. 3 copper-producing state, and Arizona is the No. 1 producer; 60% of the newly extracted copper in the country comes from the Grand Canyon State.

On January 9, we took Gunther on a tour by motor of the sights to be seen of present-day and historic copper mining operations around Silver City. The city has produced a handy printed guide with suggested stops along the highways and byways in the area.

Although it was a source of copper for centuries, the Chino Mine began operations as an open-pit mine in 1910. It was developed by mining engineer John M. Sully and entrepreneur Spencer Penrose. The latter’s name will be familiar to Colorado residents: he’s the same Spencer Penrose who made a fortune in gold mining and processing in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in the late 1890s. Along with tremendous profits from later copper processing operations in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, as well as New Mexico’s Chino Mine, he invested his fortune in Colorado Springs to build the Broadmoor Hotel and many other institutions in and around the city.

This is a Google Earth image of the Chino Mine (top right corner) and Tyrone Mine (bottom left corner) in southwestern New Mexico. Both are open-pit operations. Silver City is the gray area just to the left of top center. For scale, the short horizontal line at the extreme right bottom corner, in the black band, represents a distance of two miles. The campground we stayed at is just south of the Tyrone Mine; we couldn’t see it from our campsite, but we could see parts of it when walking Gunther around the campground.

Both the Chino and Tyrone mines have been owned and operated by a variety of companies since they were developed; the current owner of both concerns is Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. The Chino Mine has about 2,200 acres of reclaimed tailings (the rocks left over from excavation), while Tyrone has more than 4,000 acres of tailings and stockpiles.

This is a view of part of the Chino Mine, looking east – the mine’s many layers on which humongous ore haul trucks drive are in the middle third of the photo. In the upper third, just left of center, is a rock structure called “The Kneeling Nun” – it appears to be a figure kneeling toward the large monolith to the right. The huge monolith and The Kneeling Nun were formed about 35 million years ago from a volcanic eruption that resulted in about 220 cubic miles of tuff, which is volcanic ash that has solidified into rock. City of Rocks State Park, located between Silver City and Deming and which we’ll have to visit the next time we’re in the area, includes part of that tuff formation. The Kneeling Nun structure separated from the rest of the tuff monolith over the years to form the present-day figure.
Here’s a closer view of The Kneeling Nun using my 300mm telephoto lens. Putting aside for a moment the volcanic eruption from 35 million years ago, the legend of The Kneeling Nun, or Santa Rita, is an important one to the residents of this part of New Mexico: briefly, some Spanish soldiers under the command of Coronado were moving through this area and one of the soldiers was badly injured in a battle with Native Americans. He was brought to a monastery near the present-day site of the mine where a nun, Rita, tended to his wounds. They fell in love, which was forbidden for both, and their relationship was reported by another jealous soldier. Rita asked for forgiveness but was condemned to death. She prayed to be turned into stone, and her wish was granted. Shortly thereafter, an earthquake destroyed the monastery and only the rock formation of Santa Rita remained. Santa Rita is the placename of a town adjacent to the Chino Mine, which also goes by the name of the Santa Rita Mine.
This is a view of the Chino Mine from an overlook with informative displays about the mine’s operations. That’s the tire from a haul truck on the left. If you’ve never been next to a modern-day haul truck, just know that they are huge. The top of this tire’s opening – not the top of the tire, but the tire’s opening – is about six feet from the ground, and a quarter of the tire is set into the ground. In most mining operations, the trucks and excavation machinery are kept going around the clock to maximize efficiency. While we were at this overlook, a haul truck drove by on the road on the other side of the fence. We waved, and the driver honked his horn!

The Chino Mine was one of the operations where the processes of open-pit mining (as opposed to shaft mining) were first developed in the early 20th century. The Cresson Mine above Cripple Creek, which is an active gold mine, is also an open-pit mine, as are many coal mines in Wyoming. Since 1910, more than two billion tons of ore have been removed from the Chino Mine. As is the case with open-pit gold mining, the copper ore is taken via haul truck (and sometimes conveyor belts) to a concentrator, which chemically removes the valuable mineral content from the ore. This process takes the concentration of copper in the ore from its naturally occurring .6 percent to 25% percent copper. That material is then taken by rail (because of the mines, Silver City and, to a lesser extent, Deming, got a lot of early railroad development) to a smelter in Arizona to extract the nearly pure copper element. The Chino Mine produces about 100 million pounds of copper each year.

I should note that while mining companies dig tremendous holes in the ground for their open-pit operations, they are also required to reclaim the areas after the mining operations have ceased. This involves returning much of the tailings to the mined area and reseeding it to restore the area to a nearly natural revegetated condition. Reclamation efforts have already started at both the Chino and Tyrone mines. We’ve seen mature reclaimed mine sites in both Colorado and Wyoming, and it is indeed very difficult to tell that anything like a big hole in the ground was ever there.

There are many historical mines in the Silver City area that are no longer active, and haven’t been for a number of years. The mines’ headframes, the structures that support the machinery that raises and lowers mining equipment, ore, and miners from the mine, can still be seen on the hillsides, as can their tailings piles.

Following our visits to the Chino Mine’s overlooks, we attempted to go to an old cemetery north of the mine but took a wrong turn and ended up driving a ways on a rough dirt road through the Gila National Forest. It was a very pretty drive, but since our pickup is our only mode of transportation and we definitely need it to pull the Goddard, we decided to turn around and get back on pavement.

We drove to Hanover, New Mexico, which is a couple miles north of the Chino Mine. This is St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hanover; I couldn’t find much information about it, including when it started, online. The sign on the front door stated that services had been suspended until further notice, probably because of Covid-19.

This is a shrine constructed behind St. Anthony’s. Note the historic ore cart in the foreground; mining has been an integral part of this area’s economy and culture for many, many years, as further evidenced by the mining equipment shown in the background at left center. That’s the Empire Mine, which was a major producer of mainly zinc but also copper, molybdenum, and other metals beginning in 1915. Also note the bench on the left, next to the shrine’s gated entrance …
… which is where we all enjoyed a sunny spot to have a picnic lunch (Gunther got some Milk Bones) and think about our adventures that day. The bench appears to be appropriately made of brass, which is an alloy of zinc and copper.

I used to work at a nonprofit organization in the mining industry, and Nancy has had an interest in mines for many years. It’s interesting, then, to both of us to see mining operations, those currently running and those from yesteryear alike. Mining is critical to our nation’s economy and to our daily lives: as a flyer produced by the nonprofit that I worked at stated, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” Our vehicles, our cellphones, our homes’ electrical wiring: none of those would be possible without mining for copper and other mineral resources.

Monesterio de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria de Guadalupe

January 8, 2022

We took a day trip to visit Silver City, New Mexico, in December while we were still staying in Deming, which is about an hour south of Silver City. We stopped at the town’s visitor center, as visitors do, and the very helpful volunteer there happened to mention that there’s a monastery north of Silver City. She added that visitors could enter the chapel for the Divine Service, which was conducted in Gregorian chants. That really piqued our interest, as it would anyone who was around in the 1990s and had the “Chant” CD (and everyone had that CD in the 1990s). We didn’t have time to visit the monastery that day, but we resolved to do so when we were staying in Silver City in January.

And so we did.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, founded in 1991, is about 10 miles north of Silver City on some very winding National Forest dirt roads. The monastery is home to a number of Benedictine monks who spend their days (which start at 3 AM) in worship and at work, including farming, construction, woodworking, and other pursuits. While in the Goddard that morning, we looked at the schedule for the monastery’s Divine Office online and endeavored to be at the 12 noon service.

While we were still a few miles from the monastery, parts of its buildings kept popping out through the forest trees.

The drive to the monastery, especially when we saw parts of the buildings emerge from the forest, reminded both Nancy and me of approaching Neuschwanstein Castle when we were in Bavaria in 2008. Although it’s only 10 miles from Silver City, the trip takes about 30 minutes because of the road conditions and tight turns.

This is the entrance to the monastery. Although the monastery is deep within the woods surrounded by the Gila National Forest, the cactus and ocatillo (the spindly succulent on the right, which is more closely related to blueberries than to cacti) reminded us that we were not far from the Chihuahan Desert.

Although Silver City is in southwestern New Mexico, the monastery is at an elevation of about 6,700 feet and, because of the deep shade afforded by the surrounding pine trees, there was still some snow on the ground from a New Year’s Eve snowfall. We arrived just a few minutes before noon and found our way to the chapel, as the bells from the tower overhead were calling the monks to the service.

The arched entrance and bell tower of the monastery’s chapel. St. Benedict founded his first monastery, apparently without the intent of founding an entire order, in about 529 in Italy.

There were a few monks already in the chapel when we entered, and more gradually entered until there were perhaps 12 or 14 when the service began. I didn’t want to take photos, and I won’t write too much about the service itself other than to say that it was indeed conducted in Gregorian chants and in Latin (I recognized the word “Amen” and that was about it), and it was an extraordinarily calming and restorative experience that Nancy and I enjoyed immensely.

This is the view looking northwest at the Gila National Forest from the chapel’s entrance. This monastery is one of about 100 Benedictine houses in the United States.

Did You Know / Did You Care #5

One delightful December day while we were staying in Deming, New Mexico, Nancy went for a leisurely walk around the campground but returned tp the Goddard after a few minutes to get our binoculars. “I want to make sure I’m not seeing a UFO,” she said, and she once again departed. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, of course, and went back to what I’d been doing. A few minutes after that, she asked me to go with her on a short walk. I agreed. and we walked to the other side of the RV park’s office. Nancy pointed at something in the sky south of us while handing me the binoculars.

This is a horribly blurry photo that doesn’t show the TARS in its best light, but it was, at the time, a few miles south of us and a mile or so up in the air (the page at the link below has a much better image, along with everything you’d care to learn about the TARS program). This photo was taken with a 300mm zoom lens.

Did you know / did you care that the border between the United States and Mexico is monitored by airborne radar systems? The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) is an unmanned inflatable aerostat (a type of dirigible, but it doesn’t have its own power) that monitors ground and low-level air activity around the border between the United States and Mexico, and there’s one currently stationed in the airspace a few miles south of Deming (which is about 30 miles north of the border with Mexico). The radar data gathered by the aerostat, which is moored with 25,000 feet of cable, is transmitted to a ground station for analysis. The TARS south of Deming is the only one in New Mexico; there are two in Arizona, three in Texas, and a few more monitoring ocean activity in Florida and Puerto Rico. The TARS program is administered by the U.S. Air Force.

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