THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN VULTURE CITY

Arizona has many ghost towns, but among the finest is Vulture City near Wickenburg. It began life in 1863 after Henry Wickenburg discovered the Vulture mine (supposedly he was retrieving a vulture he’d shot when he found it). Gold fever would lead to a town of some 5000 people with a school, post office, saloon, stores, brothel, assay office (and, in later years, a gas station) becoming, at the time, one of the richest towns in Arizona. In order to feed a town of this size, Jack Swilling reopened irrigation channels in the Phoenix Valley that had been dug by Hohokam Native Americans and established a grain route; Wickenburg was directly responsible for the development and growth of Phoenix.

KODAK Digital Still CameraOver the years, the Vulture Mine produced $200 million of gold, although it’s likely almost as much simply disappeared into various pockets. The assay office was particularly prone to being burgled and thousands of dollars of gold was stolen over the years. 18 men are supposed to have been hung from the Ironwood tree which still stands (next to Henry Wickenburg’s cabins), all of them guilty of stealing gold or ore, although there’s no record of any such hangings actually taking place. It’s a good story though.

Henry Wickenburg sold the mine in 1866 for $85,000 but was swindled out of all but $20,000 after the owners claimed he didn’t have clear title to the mine. He spent years trying to sue the owners, running through every penny he had. On 14 May 1905, ill, tired and destitute, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Vulture City lasted until 1942 when the mine was closed on order of the government. Production had slowed considerably years before and the job had become ever more dangerous. In 1923, seven men were killed when the ceiling of a large underground chamber collapsed in on them, burying them and their twelve burros in the Glory Hole. Although the mine did reopen in the 1940s, it wasn’t for long and it soon closed permanently. Today Vulture City and the Vulture mine is privately owned and private property, although it does offer tours on weekends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE SADDEST TRADING POST ON 66

One of the earliest known photos of the Toonerville Trading Post, then selling Texaco fuel and with a bright mural around the top of the building.

Even in its heyday, Route 66 was not the continuous benign bright ribbon that some might imagine. Almost without exception, life was as hard as anywhere else – sometimes harder – and that highway traffic was comprised not only of the military, the commercial traveller and the tourist, but of darker elements. Some places seemed to attract sadness and tragedy more than others, and one such place was Toonerville in Arizona.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

The Toonerville Trading Post, one of four along a short stretch of Route 66, was built and opened by Earl Tinnin in 1935. He and his wife, Elsie, ran the post and raised two children there, Helen and George Earl. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck. Apparently, while playing with toy guns, the 14-year-old George picked up a real weapon; the .32 pistol went off and shot him in the left side of his face, killing the boy. In these days of health and safety, the incident raises questions – why was a real gun mixed in with toys? Why didn’t a boy of almost fifteen who had been raised in an isolated area and thus presumably around firearms recognise the difference? It was recorded as an accident, and the Tinnins continue to operate the trading post for a further seven years until, in 1954, Earl sold Toonerville to Merritt Dow ‘Slick’ McAlister and moved to Flagstaff to run the Nor Star and Ben Franklin motels.

The interior of the Toonerville Trading Post [Coconino County Sheriff’s Department]

McAlister had previously run the Vermilion Cliff Lodge on Route 89 for six years, but as manager rather than owner, and so he must have jumped at the chance to be his own boss with the purchase of Toonerville. Born in 1911, McAlister was, by some accounts, a feisty character for much of his life, the subject of numerous reports of threatening people with his pistol and getting into fights. Indeed, as a 21-year-old, he was involved in a dance hall brawl in which a young man was shot and almost died, although there’s no indication McAlister was at fault. However, by 1971, McAlister was 60 and apparently a changed character who rarely even carried a gun. He had run the post for over sixteen years with his third wife, Pearl, who he had married in 1947. She then had a 14-year-old son, Bronson ‘Buster’ Lamoure (a daughter, Rita Mae, had died while a baby) who appears to be the closest to a child that McAlister had, despite his three trips down the aisle.

As the couple approached retirement age they were preparing to wind down. They’d made attempts to sell the trading post with possibly more enthusiasm they had in keeping it going. As Route 66 was realigned and then I-40 opened, the trading post stood apart from the road with just a single GASOLINE sign to promote it. (The trading post did have the only local alcohol licence in the area which brought in local trade.) It may have been this loneliness that, on the afternoon of 30th August 1971, attracted three young people to stop; contemporary newspaper reports first said it was two black couples in two cars, but it appears to have actually been two males and a woman in a small blue sports car and a light coloured sedan.

Within moments of their arrival, Slick McAlister lay dead and his wife desperately injured with a gunshot wound. She had been shot in the back of the head as she cooked hamburgers for the trio, one of whom then shot McAlister in the chest before they ransacked the shop and living quarters, stealing $70 but missing a larger stash of money. However, while they may have assumed the couple were both dead, Pearl later regained consciousness and managed to ring their friends, the Greys, who ran the Twin Arrows trading post a mile down the road. The Greys arrived to find Pearl in a pool of blood, Slick dead and the hamburgers still frying on the stove top.

The Coroner’s Jury examine the murder scene and the open cash register. [Arizona Daily Sun]

Police initially thought they had a major lead when they believed that Slick wrote down the license plates of any cars stopping for gas. They would later discover that he only did so when the customer was paying by credit card (and it appears that the trio stopped for fuel at Twin Arrows after the robbery), but not before a gentleman from Tucson whose number plate was on that pad was well and truly scared and forced to prove his car had been in the garage for several days.

Slick McAlister’s gravestone in Pinal Cemetery, Central Heights, Arizona.

Two brothers and a girl were arrested shortly afterwards in Las Vegas, but Mrs McAlister couldn’t identify them and their fingerprints didn’t match those found at the scene. And from that point on the trail went cold. No-one has ever been arrested for the crime and Pearl died in 1999, still not knowing who had slain her husband and almost killed her. In 2014, the Toonerville murder was reopened by the cold case officers of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. No new evidence or leads have yet come to light.

Toonerville around a month before Mary Smeal’s death. I haven’t had the heart to photograph it since.

But it wasn’t to be the last tragedy at Toonerville. In recent years, the trading post was converted to a private residence and occupied by Mary Smeal, a leading member of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona and chief financial officer for the Hopi Tribe Economic Development Cooperation. Mary had campaigned to save and refurbish the Twin Arrows trading post nearby; many people knew that she had been one of the volunteers involved in preserving and repainting the iconic arrows in 2009, fewer knew that she had paid for all the materials herself. Her next project was to restore the Toonerville property but that all ended a year ago this week. On 16th November 2016, colleagues became concerned that the normally conscientious Mary hadn’t turned up for work. A police welfare check discovered that she had been shot dead by her partner, Jeffrey Jones, who had then turned the gun on himself.

Now Toonerville stands abandoned again, the scene of three deaths wrapped in mystery and about which we will probably never know the full truth.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

THE HIDDEN SIDE OF HACKBERRY

With its Mission-style architecture, the school was the grandest building in town.

Almost every traveller on the section of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona, stops at the famous Hackberry General Store. But few realise that there is more to Hackberry than a cold soda and some picturesque photo opportunities with old cars. Just to the south of the General Store and Route 66 lies the remains of what was, from 1874 until shortly after the Great War, a thriving town.

Originally a mining camp at the foot of the Peacock Mountains, Hackberry supported the twin trades of ranching and mining – indeed, it was the former that brought the railroad to Hackberry in 1882, as much to transport cattle as to carry ore from the Hackberry Silver Mine. By the time the mine closed, some $3 million of gold and silver had been dug out and perhaps one of the obvious indications of the temporary prosperity of the town can be seen in its now disused elementary school.

By the time this photo was taken in 1924, the school had been open for 7 years. Sadly, I don’t know whether the teacher is the ‘pleasant young Miss Jones’. Photo courtesy of the Mohave Museum of History and Arts

At a time when most schools were little more than wooden shacks or barns (for example, the Red School in Valentine to the west), the community of Hackberry commissioned a rather grandiose stone building. In May 1917, the School’s Board of Trustees called for bids for the erection of ‘a one-story public school building, to accommodate at least 80 pupils and cost not to exceed Seven Thousand Dollars; building to include all necessary wardrobe closest, teacher’s room, library room, etc, and to have chimney and fresh air vents for heating and ventilating purposes and to be as nearly fire-proof as the sum to be expended will permit.” You have to love that ‘nearly fire-proof’, but clearly not if it was going to cost more money!

The design that was accepted turned out to be a quite ornate Mission-style building with red roof tiles, two tiny decorative towers and even a Spanish-style bell. Nor did the Trustees hang about once having made a decision. At the end of August 1917, the Mohave County Miner reported that contractor Axel Ericson was completing the cornice work on the school (incidentally, Mr Ericson had just won the contract for his next job, which would be installing radiators and steam heating in the Hotel Brunswick in Kingman).

The bell still seems operational, but I decided not to try…

The school had two classrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and living quarters for a teacher, one of the first of whom was a Miss Jones who, a visit to Kingman being enough of an occasion to make the local newspaper, was described as ‘a pleasant young teacher’. To the young children who attended Hackberry Elementary School – they ranged from kindergarten age to the 8th grade – the building must have seemed almost like a castle. Teachers came and went; children grew up but often stayed in the town. Many of them were Griggs and several generations of that family were taught in the school. In fact, virtually everyone in Hackberry now (although that’s only around 20 people) is either a Griggs or related to the family.

An abandoned basketball hoop beside the school.

But, by 1994, the Board of Trustees (all of them, by the way, retired and without children in the school) decided that the little school should be closed. The parents of the 22 remaining pupils fought the decision but without success, even though the reasoning seems in hindsight a little vague. Joseph Averna, one of the three Trustees called the school ‘inefficient and ineffective’ (it quite possibly was, the tendency to follow the curriculum was, by all accounts, less than enthusiastic) and, on the eve of the meeting to decide the future of the Hackberry Elementary school, proclaimed; “We are going to drag [the parents] kicking and screaming in the 20th century. The people who pay the bills want the school closed.” He then went on to admit that no-one had actually looked at a budget, nor did they know how much money would be saved by the closure. Nonetheless, the decision to shut the school was made the following day.

Today children are bussed to schools miles away, leaving Hackberry as more of a ghost town than ever, while the school – which is owned by the Griggs family – stays resolutely shut and fenced off. The family hopes one day to refurbish, but no new generation of Griggs will ever be taught there.

Hackberry Elementary School, still as if the children had just left for the day.

THE VALENTINE DINER OF SANDERS

IMG_1767Perhaps the biggest surprise to me about the Route 66 Valentine diner in Sanders, Arizona, is that it does actually look like a Valentine diner. Shabby and sliding rapidly into decay like so many of its peers, but still clearly of its type.

IMG_1796Why a surprise? Well, because, as far as I knew, the Route 66 Diner in Apache County’s Sanders had taken a Valentine diner and gradually eaten it, subsuming the original building into three containers and increasing the space so the original eight stools were replaced by seating for 60 customers. But, by the time I visited a few months ago, all those extra extensions had disappeared and the diner stood by itself, fading under the Arizona sun and having closed its doors on its final customer a few years before.

IMG_1813This particular Valentine prefabricated diner (it was clearly not purchased outright by its first owner as it still has the safe in which the owner would deposit a portion of his weekly takings to be collected by a Valentine agent) was first situated in Holbrook. It was then bought and moved to St John’s although, due to problems with zoning, it was never opened.

IMG_1794However, it was while the little diner was in St John’s that it was spotted by one Ena Middleton. Ena has true Route 66 heritage: she not only grew up on the Mother Road but is the grand-daughter of the infamous Henry Miller of Two Guns. She says that, peering through the windows, she fell in love with the napkin holders. She bought the diner with her husband, Frank, and then moved it to Sanders. It was then moved once more, still within Sanders, where it was so busy that it had to be extended – the aforementioned containers – although 99% of its trade was local and not Route 66 travellers.

IMG_1776While still open, the Route 66 Diner had been up for sale, Ena and Frank wanting to retire to their land, partly due to ill-health. It seems that there have been no takers, other than for the container extensions to the little Valentine diner.

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THE KELLEYS OF KINGMAN

Mr and Mrs Kelley on the occasion of their 66th wedding anniversary.

There are stories in every town on Route 66 and, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a brief glimpse of one. In 2010, almost exactly seven years ago, Kenneth and Kathleen Kelley of Kingman celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary, appropriately enough on Route 66 where they had lived much of their married life and that was marked with a small gathering of classic cars at the Powerhouse in Kingman to which we were invited.

Kathleen shows off the commemorative plaque given to her by the Route 66 Cruizers Club.

The history of the Kelleys was a quiet but enduring love story. Kenneth grew up in New Mexico and joined the Army at the age of 20. In April 1943, he sailed on the USS Monterey from San Francisco to spend the next 28 months in Europe as a member of the 505 Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne (he chose the Airborne Unit because it paid more money which, as the youngest of eight children, he could send home to his family).

Kenneth and Kathleen on their wedding day on 26th August 1944.

As a paratrooper he saw action, but his biggest battle was to get the girl he met while stationed in England to marry him. The first time he saw Kathleen Denton, Kenneth thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. They dated for several months although Kathleen admits to standing him up several times. Kenneth proposed half a dozen times. Kathleen said no six times before finally relenting. They were married on August 26th 1944 in Leicester, England, and a year later, Kenneth was discharged from the Army and returned home. By now, they had a son, John, and Kathleen and John sailed to New York and then took a long train ride to join him; they settled in Deming, New Mexico, where Kenneth started his career in copper mining.

They moved to Kingman in 1962 where Kenneth eventually became the mine superintendent for Duval Mining Corp at Mineral Park and he always said it was the saddest day of his life when the Mineral Park mine closed in 1981. Since moving to Kingman, the Kelleys had lived in a house on Route 66 and so it was appropriate that a local car club should mark their 66th wedding anniversary at the Powerhouse. We found that, despite having lived in America for most of her life, Kathleen’s British accent soon began to return as she talked to us!

Kenneth passed away on 24th December 2016 after 72 years of marriage with his beautiful girl. Not a showy life, not a remarkable life, but a life well lived. It was a pleasure to have met you, sir.

Just minutes after the celebration, the skies opened and this was where we’d been standing!

CATCHING THAT DREAM

September 2012

September 2012

For the last seven or eight years, every time I’ve visited the defunct Meteor City Trading Post on old Route 66 in Arizona I’ve taken the same photo; a big rig on I-40 ‘passing through’ the dream catcher outside the trading post. As you can see, the dream catcher has not fared well over the years.

September 2015

It has long been claimed as the world’s largest dream catcher, although the Guinness Book of Records accords that honour to one in Kalevala, Russia. This one is, at least, the largest dream catcher on Route 66!

 

April 2017

 

Now that Michael and Joann Brown of Jefferson, Indiana, have purchased Meteor City and plan to refurbish the site, I am hopefully that my next version of this photo may see the dream catcher back in its original glory.

THE BIGGEST SKULL IN ARIZONA

I’ll admit that I will drive a long way for a Big Something, and who wouldn’t drive down to the very south of Arizona to see a 30-foot-tall cow skull? Sadly, it’s not real although maybe that’s a good thing; Arizona can be lively enough without cattle the size of four story buildings roaring about.

 This particular skull stands just off Highway 90 on South Nogales Highway, around 25 miles south of Tucson. For years it welcomed diners to the Longhorn Grill although the skull was originally constructed for a bait shop which stood between two lakes, now long gone. Made of concrete, it was the work of Michael Kautza who was also responsible for other huge sculptures in Tucson.

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Over its life time, the building it dominated housed various different businesses including a clothing store and a roofing company, but for much of its life it was the Longhorn Grill (as well as featuring in several movies such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). In 1993, Ed Madril started the restaurant but, by 2012, business had dropped off so much that the building was in foreclosure. It went on the market with a price tag of $319.000, and then $299,000, but was sold at auction to a buyer from Patagonia, Jeff Ladage, for $155,000. However, that sale fell through.

20170415163817090464000000-oBack on the market, the Longhorn Grill was purchased by John Gourley for a knockdown $130,000 who turned the place into part events centre, part gallery. Gourley, a metal sculptor and retired real estate broker, intended to add large murals and palm trees and spent thousands of dollars on cleaning the place up. The idea was that it would host weddings, parties and community events. However, Amado is a tiny town with a population of less than 300 people. The Longhorn Grill could accommodate most of them at once (and cook for a third of them at time thanks to its barbecue pit on which could be grilled a hundred burgers at a time) and it seems that the area just didn’t have that much call for an events venue.

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Today the Longhorn Grill and its famous skull are silent and up for sale again for a substantial $325,000. People stop for a photo of the massive head and then themselves head across the road to the Cow Palace for a burger.