by Bob Mason

Someone standing at the confluence of Tonto Creek and the Salt River would have seen a strange sight in August 1889. Although this had been a favorite place for the Apache and Yavapai, by this time it was almost deserted. Native Americans had been subdued and confined to reservations. Ft. McDowell was nearly abandoned and the Army patrols had ended-only a handful of caretaker soldiers remained.

On this mid-August afternoon five civilian horsemen could be seen riding up the Salt River and halting near the mouth of Tonto Creek. The name of one of these men has been lost but another, the wrangler and helper for the group was L. E. Lamb. Three were prominent men who were on a mission that would have lasting implications for our area. Their names were: John R. Norton, James McClintock and William Breakenridge.

John Norton was a pioneer rancher in the Salt River Valley and then the superintendent of the new Arizona Canal. James McClintock was an Arizona newspaperman and later to become Arizona's outstanding historian. Breakenridge (sometimes spelled "Breckinridge") was one of the most colorful personalities in the Arizona Territory.

William Breakenridge was born in Watertown, Wisconsin, on Christmas Day 1846. He enlisted in the Army in Colorado at age 16. He was a scout and courier for Chivington's army in the infamous Sand Creek massacre in eastern Colorado in November 1864. He worked on an engineering crew for the Denver and Rio Grande railroad and the Santa Fe.

In 1876 he was hired at a salary of $300 per month as a guide for the second party of colonists to leave Boston for Arizona. For his trip, Breakenridge hired two teamsters and a night herder in La Junta, Colorado. These experienced trail men guided the group of 45 men safely to a camp just south of the San Francisco Mountains. Although the story is disputed, this party is generally credited with celebrating the Fourth of July by trimming a pine tree and hoisting the American flag to its top, thus giving Flagstaff its name.

In 1878 Colonel Billy, as he was then called, was appointed a deputy sheriff of Maricopa County. The following year he was named County Surveyor. In 1880 he began prospecting in Tombstone but failed to find enough gold to sustain that occupation.

He became deputy sheriff of Cochise County in 1881 and it was here that his reputation as a lawman began to grow. The famous John Behan had just been appointed as the first sheriff of the county. The wild town of Tombstone and its associated riches made it a magnet for troublemakers. Behan and Breakenridge apprehended many of Southeast Arizona's most feared gunmen. They were involved in the events surrounding the shootout at the OK Corral and often found themselves aligned against the famous Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil, who were lawmen for the city of Tombstone.

In 1888 Colonel Billy was elected County Surveyor of Maricopa County, the same post to which he had been appointed nine years earlier. He began to become well known as a water engineer and was the leader of the band of five horsemen riding up the Salt River this August. They were midway through a two-week circuitous trip that would locate sites for most of the major dams on the Salt and Verde Rivers.

Their route from Phoenix followed an ancient Indian trail around the north side of the Superstition Mountains that would later be known as the Apache Trail. At that time it was a precarious footpath along steep canyon walls. They noted the suitable sites where Stewart Mountain, Mormon Flat and Horse Mesa dam would be built later. Each of these basins was considered too small to provide the storage space they felt was needed for the irrigation needs of the projected Phoenix area population.

When they reached the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek, they were thrilled, McClintock wrote, for they saw a narrow gorge suitable for a high dam and a wide valley above on both streams. They spent several days taking measurements with the most elementary surveying devices. The report Breakenridge made was reported in the Prescott Journal-Miner on August 28, 1889. It gave many estimates of the width, depth and capacity of the proposed lake. After the dam was completed 22 years later these original estimates were found to be surprisingly accurate.

When the party of explorers left the site that was to be Roosevelt Dam, they rode upstream on Tonto Creek to its headwaters and to Payson. From there their route took them to the East Verde River and down to its union with the Verde, then to its junction with the Salt. Their dedication to the task is emphasized by the fact that upon arriving back at the Salt River they again rode up to the Tonto Creek confluence to confirm their impressions of the previous week. This added at least another 80 miles to their journey. This time they followed the Salt River bed, crossing it many times. Colonel Billy said it was still an easier trip than the path that would be the Apache Trail.

After his retirement Breakenridge wrote a book Helldorado that details his fascinating life. The book is available at most libraries.

Our foothills have many stories to tell. Colonel Billy's discovery trip to the Roosevelt Dam site is another example of the ability and toughness of those early trailblazers who frequented our area.

Robert Mason is the author of "Verde Valley Lore," a collection of stories about events and personalities along the lower Verde River Valley and "The Burning," a novel based on the true story of a pioneering family near Ft. McDowell in the 1870s. The books are available at the Rim Country Museum in Payson, Gridleys in Fountain Hills or from Mason at 480-471-2451 or masonhill@aol.com.   back...
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