Sunday, April 20, 2014

Copper, Turquoise, & Moonshine: Gleeson, AZ

It’s seems like a long time since I last posted on City of Dust but I guess it hasn’t even been a month. I’ve covered some miles since then, so maybe that’s why it feels like I’ve been away awhile. Now we’ve reached our last stop on the Cochise County Ghost Town Trail: Gleeson, Arizona. When the post office opened in 1890, Gleeson was actually known by the somewhat flashier moniker, Turquoise. You can probably guess why it was called that. In fact, turquoise mining in the area goes back to the Native Americans, who collected the mineral from a mountain known later as…Turquoise Mountain. No less than Tiffany and Co. had bought up the turquoise mines by 1890. But it was copper, lead, and silver that brought most Europeans to the area beginning in the 1870’s.

The post office actually closed for a time in 1900 and when it reopened in 1904 the town had moved a few miles closer to water and was known as Gleeson, after miner and Irishman John Gleeson. Gleeson owned a very productive copper mine and had found the water. While the former attribute might've gotten a town named after you in southern Arizona, in this case it was the latter. By this time, Gleeson’s population was about 500.

At first, Gleeson’s main problem was that it kept catching on fire. It burned several times and, on June 7, 1912, the most devastating conflagration incinerated 28 buildings, virtually every structure on both sides of the main street, and was so fast-moving that witnesses believed it had been stoked with oil and matches. While $100,000 in damage had been done, the town was rebuilt and would soldier on for a couple more decades, becoming a bootlegging hot spot when both Arizona and New Mexico banned liquor in 1915 and getting ravaged by the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Later, during federal prohibition, the Musso family, owners of a major mine, were said to have hidden booze below the fish pond in their backyard. In 1980, Philip Varney reported something like a vault below what appeared to be a pond in the back of what remained of the adobe Musso House. I was, sadly, unable to find the place.

Finally, the post office left in 1939 and the last mine shut in 1953.

The most obvious feature left in Gleeson is the jail (above), built in 1910 and an exact duplicate of the one in nearby Courtland. But unlike in the total ghost town of Courtland, after years of neglect a couple residents of Gleeson restored their jail, perhaps because they long ago learned not to take it for granted. An early Gleeson jail had a wooden roof and a criminal quickly broke through and climbed to freedom. The town also had a “jail tree” and for a while wrongdoers were simply chained to it.

One day in January 1917, the Gleeson jail held four barrels of bootleg liquor at imminent risk of being “liberated” by an enterprising citizen who’d already tried to drill a hole through the floor of the railroad freight room where the barrels had been stored. This effort to drain the precious liquid failed when the drilling went wide and the hole in the floor was noticed. Then someone (the same person?) tried to break INTO the jail overnight to get the barrels out. Another failure. The whiskey was poured out in front of the jail the next day.

So, I guess it’s understandable that the Gleeson jail has become something like the town’s focal point. In fact, it now looks downright inviting and is apparently filled with artifacts.

Adjacent to the jail is the old school (above and at top). Philip Varney presents a photo of the pillars flanking the front steps with a narrow, graceful arch connecting them. At some point, the arch clearly fell down but the pillars remain.

The adobe ruins of the hospital (above) are also identifiable, in the hills behind which were the mines. And while the building that housed the Silver Saloon is apparently standing, I couldn’t be certain of its location. Perhaps it’s the building just down the wonderfully named High Lonesome Road. It makes me happy to know that this road has gone by that name since Gleeson’s early days. I guess some things might not change after all.

However, High Lonesome Road is also where Royal Richard Lockett, a 66-year-old butcher, was robbed and murdered in 1913 while on his way by wagon from Gleeson to Courtland to meet the El Paso and Southern. Strangled, stabbed, and then dragged behind his wagon at mid-day by two men near “Dead Mexican Canyon,” a name which would seem to indicate previous trouble in the area, Lockett’s assailants were never found. Tracks in the sand showed that Lockett’s dog had followed the killers for some distance, perhaps evidence that the men were known to both Lockett and his canine companion.

And, on that note, we'll leave Cochise County. The road west from Gleeson leads right into Tombstone, but The Town Too Tough to Die will have to wait. Next time we’ll travel way up north to I-40 and visit the neighbor of Two Guns, Twin Arrows.

For more information on the Ghost Town Trail of Cochise County, visit the official website. That’s where I got a lot of information about Gleeson for this post. Gleeson has its own web page with links to stories on bootlegging and influenza in Gleeson, as well as the sad story of Royal Richard Lockett. The Gleeson Jail also has its own page and is open the 1st Saturday of each month and by appointment. Unfortunately, I did not know that until recently. As usual, Philip Varney is worth having a look at, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

And You Will Know Me by My Jail: Courtland, AZ

Traveling southwestward down the dusty Ghost Town Trail puts us in the town of Courtland, a ghost if ever there was one. You won’t find the odd holdout or hermit here. There is no one for miles around in this slice of the southeastern corner of the Dragoon Mountains; only the remains of a couple buildings, the most interesting and intact being the old jail, shown above.

Named after Courtland Young, part owner of the Great Western Mining Company, Courtland, Arizona was actually established by his brother, W.J., in 1909. The post office opened quickly, on March 13 of that year. The area was considered to be one of the most promising for copper in the state and soon other mining operators entered the fray, including the Calumet & Arizona, Copper Queen, and Leadville Companies. Within a couple months, 8,000 feet of underground shaft was in place.

The population eventually reached 2,000 and there were the usual amenities, including saloons, hotels (the “Courtland” and “Great Western” being the most popular), restaurants, and stage stations. The newspaper, the Courtland Arizonan, started printing almost immediately. But there were some unusual things for the time in Courtland, including an automobile dealership, ice cream parlor, movie theater, baseball field, and horse track. Water was also rather unusual in this part of the world and, in 1911, five miles of water main were laid by the Courtland Water and Ice Company for those who didn't drink only whiskey. All this is gone now. Nearly.

For a while Courtland had no jail. Prisoners were held in an old mining tunnel until an unhappy inmate tried to burn the door down by lighting his mattress on fire. The prisoner survived, probably only to languish a bit more in the slammer, and also prompted the construction of a sturdier facility. It must’ve been sturdy indeed, because it is the only feature in Courtland that is not mostly rubble. It also has a twin, in nearby Gleeson. We’ll visit there next.

Courtland, like the surrounding area, felt the effects of Pancho Villa and his men as they raided north of the Mexican border until 1916, when General "Black Jack" Pershing pushed them back south for good.

Just before 1920, it became apparent that the copper ore was running out. Tests showed that a limestone bed lay at about 300 feet below the surface. By 1920, mining operations were actually beginning to lose money. The newspaper shut down, and the writing was then clearly on the wall. People fled Courtland en masse. The post office didn’t close until 1942 though. One wonders who was posting letters.

(The photo below shows a store which, when Philip Varney visited in the 1970's, still possessed a front on which faint lettering could be made out. Not anymore!)

One person who didn't need the post office was Big Nose Kate’s former husband, George M. Cummings, an Irish blacksmith who spent some time in Courtland after Kate divorced him around 1900 for being an abusive drunk. He apparently didn’t think too highly of himself either and committed suicide with a shotgun in Courtland in 1915. “Head cancer” was reportedly one of the causes.

As with our previously featured town, Pearce, Arizona Ghost Town Trails provided the best background on Courtland. Of course, Philip Varney’s account was interesting, too.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Getting on the Ghost Town Trail: Pearce, AZ

Pearce, Arizona marks the beginning of the Ghost Town Trail. Start heading southwest out of town down the gravel road that goes past Courtland and Gleeson and eventually drops you off in Tombstone and you will find yourself in some very desolate territory. No doubt you’ll encounter someone from Homeland Security, who will laugh at you for wanting to travel over something like thirty miles of rutted dirt with perhaps a few drug runners scattered about in the hills. But all that will come later, as Pearce itself is still occupied by a few folks and is a rather well-kempt little cluster of buildings. It must feel much as it would’ve in the late 1800’s.

Pearce is named for Cornishman James (Jimmie) Pearce, a rancher and hard rock miner from Tombstone who accidentally found gold AND silver while horseback riding in 1894. Jimmie immediately staked a claim, opening the Commonwealth Mine in Fittsburg, a mile east, said to be one of the richest mines ever worked in the state, producing over 15 million dollars in gold. Thus was born Pearce, the last of the Arizona gold rush towns.

The Pearce family quickly lost their enthusiasm for mining though and before long had sold to John Brockman for $250,000 and a boarding house for Mrs. Pearce to run. The agreement was that Brockman had nine months to mine enough precious metal to cover the cost of purchase or everything, including what Brockman mined, would revert to the Pearce’s. In the end, Brockman covered his payment in six months with gold to spare. Apparently everyone was happy with the deal. Mining then peaked quickly, in 1896, around the time the post office (shown above) arrived and the population really boomed, many people moving their entire homes from Tombstone.

Brockman’s operation suffered a few annoying fires and he sold in 1902. But a couple years before Brockman’s sale, Burt Alvord had turned from Pearce lawman to train robber and the infamous Alvord-Stiles gang set-up in town. However, the gang was mostly dead or in jail by the time the railroad finally arrived in 1903. Before that, to deter theft from folks like Burt Alvord and Billy Stiles, gold coming out of the mine was made into bars too heavy to be transported by horseback alone and taken down the road to Cochise by wagon.

By 1919, 1,500 people lived in Pearce. There was a movie theater, hotels, saloons…the works. But, by the 1930’s, the Commonwealth Mine was played out, the Great Depression was in full swing and almost everyone packed up and left, including the railroad, which took its track with it.

There are a number of very cool old structures remaining in Pearce. Perhaps most striking is the old general store, shown at the top of this post, built by Soto Bros. & Renaud in 1896 out of adobe, wood, stucco and decorative tin. I’ve read that there are many interesting artifacts inside, but when I tried to have a look there was no one around. In fact, the building appears to be for sale, so who knows what the future holds? The post office, just across the street, is a private residence. To the north are two jails: The “old” jail, which has reached such a state that even the least devious among us could easily break out, and the “new” jail, shown here, which was built in 1915 and used until around the time the mine closed in the 1930’s. The “new” jail is constructed of 10” thick poured concrete walls reinforced with rebar and contains two cells. The doors are iron and the only ventilation is through tiny windows at the top. During a summer’s day in southern Arizona this would be a most unpleasant place to find one’s self.

The best and most concise resource on Pearce is probably Arizona Ghost Town Trails. There is some more history and photos of both jails at You can learn a little more about Burt Alvord and his gang HERE. As usual, initial inspiration and direction came from Mr. Philip Varney.

So, of course, we’re going to head down the lonely Ghost Town Trail. Next we’ll have a look at Courtland, AZ.