Apache Trail

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Description

It's a rough stretch of road that has enough mystique to draw in tourists from all over the world. Arizona Stories explores the Apache Trail and how it was built.

Transcript

Narrator:
It's miles and miles of high Sonoran Desert , accessible by a road that is famous around the world. The beauty of the Apache Trail was noted by President Theodore Roosevelt, who toured it on his way to the dam named after him. He said, "the Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me, it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful." the Apache Trail runs 41.5 miles from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Dam. It started with a dream to control the Salt River . In 1903, construction of Roosevelt Dam began, and a road was needed to haul material to the site. It took two years to complete the initial path from the Salt River Valley up through the Superstition Mountains to the slowly rising dam. Merchants in the Valley foresaw a potential economic watershed.

Michael Sullivan:
The Salt River Valley Water Users' Association, which is a precursor for Salt River Project, located the dam site, found a good place for that to control some of that flooding and also get irrigation water down to the Valley. But what they lacked was a way to get from the Valley up to the dam. At that time the way into Tonto Basin, where the dam is located, was out of Globe, but a road to Globe wasn't going to do the merchants and folks in Salt River Valley any good at all, and they're the ones that were championing the project, so they wanted to be able to get the contracts to bring stuff up. So long and short of it is they managed to get the road put in so they could have those contracts.

Narrator:
This abandoned section of the Apache Trail looks much as it did over 100 years ago. Michael Sullivan, an Archaeologist for the Tonto National Forest who has worked with State officials upgrading the road, says some sections of the Apache Trail follow paths used by Apache Indians before European arrival. But that's not why the road is named the Apache Trail.

Michael Sullivan:
There are parts of it that we're pretty certain were in use as Indian trails, as Apache Trails, but the bulk of the trail, the Apache Trail as we know it today, was an engineered road put in in 1903 to 1905. And the name came from a later period in the late teens, early '20s when Southern Pacific started bringing tourists out here. They would bring tourists on their trains into Globe and unload them onto wagons and take them around to visit Roosevelt Dam, which at the time was a huge engineering marvel, and people came from everywhere to see it. And then they would come back down the trail through what we call the Apache Trail today and get back on the train at Mesa . And to highlight it, one of the people at Southern Pacific came up with the name Apache Trail. Originally, the road was known as the Mesa-Roosevelt road, not a real sexy thing to sell to tourists everywhere.

Narrator:
Those who built the road are long gone, but Eva Tulene Watt's father and brothers worked on widening the road from 1919 to 1923. Her family camped along the Apache Trail during that time. Her younger brothers sold water to workers, and her mother cooked for them. She recalled the technique used by workers to widen the road, which was similar to the way it was built.

Eva Tulene Watt:
They'd start scraping it out, put the wall, and then they had to work on the -- down the road part. That's how -- that's the way they used to clear it up, with a shovel and a pick. That's all they used.

Narrator:
Watt writes of her memories in a book about her life entitled “Don't Let The Sun Step Over You”. She recalls a time when workers were blasting out the road and it seemed to be raining rocks.

Eva Tulene Watt:
We used to run every time they start blasting the road up. Those rocks, they roll on top of us. There's a big boulder sitting way over on the side. We used to go close to that one, sit behind it, and all the rocks are all falling over our head.

Narrator:
Since the time when Watt lived on the Trail, much has changed. About one-third of it was paved in the '50s and '60s, but that stopped after public outcry. In the past, the Trail has been moved, at one point requiring a barge to take the entire trip when a portion that went through what is now Apache Lake was flooded.

Michael Sullivan:
Along the way, I think there's two or three major changes. One's over a mile long. The other ones are much less than that. So, while there have been these changes, by and large it's on the same route it was. When you take it, you're pretty much on the road that was there from 1905.

Narrator:
The Trail was built at a time when America was beginning its love affair with the car, but it was not built for the car.

Michael Sullivan:
It kind of represents that transition from the old wagon era to the automobile era, and clearly the automobile era won over on this thing, because it's famous as an automobile road. Even in 1905, it already was. The potential was seen in 1905. The first car went up it in 1908, all the way.

Narrator:
And it was never meant to last, though cars may have saved the trail, allowing Americans a mobility they never had before, perfect for a drive through the desert.

Michael Sullivan:
I used to think they loved the history on it, but they really don't. They come out here for the environment, the interaction with the desert. The road passes through two wilderness areas; they're on either side. There's not a lot of stuff out here. It's where the desert -- there's no shoulders on the road, so the desert's right up to the edge of the road, the road's curvy, it winds through the landscape. People really get a sense of being in the country out here in the desert. And for many people this is -- especially the tourists -- this is probably the only place they can get out and really touch the desert.

Narrator:
The road lives on, even as reminders of the past like this old barrel hoop rust its way back to nature. The highlights of the road also live on: the lakes, the vistas, Lost Dutchman, the Superstition Mountains , and the exhilarating drive along one of America 's most famous roads, the Apache Trail.