On February 19, 2020, the Apache Trail Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a historical marker dedicated to the Apache Trail at the northeast corner of Flatiron Park.
According to our local historian, the late Tom Kollenborn, Apache Trail is the oldest American roadway. It served for centuries as a foot trail to and from hunting grounds and for Anasazi and Salado Indians as they traveled from Tonto Basin to trade with the Hohokam. It was known as the Tonto Trail and the Yavapai Trail.
The real story of the Apache Trail we know began with the need for a reliable water supply for the Phoenix region. Farming was a big part of early life in the valley and in the late 1800’s, the area was in the midst of an extended drought.
A group of farmers from Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa formed the Salt River Valley Water Users Association to build a new dam in order to have a reliable water source during drought and for protection during floods. They lobbied Congress and the president to construct a dam and canal system, pledging their land as collateral for a loan, and in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the National Reclamation Act, which provided government loans to reclaim the “arid” west through irrigation projects. The first was Tonto Dam, later named Theodore Roosevelt Dam.
In order to construct the massive dam, a supply road was necessary to transport materials, equipment and resources from a railhead to the site. There were two possible routes for a wagon road from established railheads: one from Globe and one from Phoenix/Mesa,.
The Globe option had an existing trail, though it was twisty and hilly. It was connected to a railhead and was 40 miles southeast of the dam. The Phoenix/Mesa option would require a new 60-mile road, but had two railheads. The Globe Trail was the first choice, and what was to be called the Highline Road to Globe was completed in six months in late May of 1904.
At the same time, Reclamation was still looking at the Mesa possibility due to a savings of $15 a ton by transferring freight through Mesa instead of Globe. Another advantage was that the first 22 of the 60 miles was relatively level. So, from 1903 to 1905, the mostly native American workforce (about 50% Apache) completed a road that would first be called Tonto Wagon Road, the Phoenix-Roosevelt Road, The Mesa-Roosevelt Road, and the Ocean to Ocean Highway, until late 1915. The cost of the road was $350,644 with Fish Creek Hill costing upwards to $25,000 per mile.
By 1904, there were stagecoach stations along the trail. It took stagecoaches 12-hours to make the trip. Fish Creek Canyon featured a restaurant and lodge, which burned down in 1929; Mormon Flat offered a saloon for tourists and workers alike, and Weekes Station took advantage of the travelers, charging 5 cents per head (horses included) for water.
By 1913, the Apache Trail became a popular tourist destination from Sunday drives to stays at the Fish Creek Lodge. It was featured in America’s auto tour books, and in about 1916, the Southern Pacific Railroad coined the names Apache Trail and Apacheland to promote side tours on their New Orleans to San Francisco route. Passengers disembarked at Globe and traveled in parlor cars, massive limo -like vehicles, to Mesa on the “Sunset Route”. The name Apache Trail stuck, but its popularity as a tourist destination declined with the onset of the 1930s depression.
In 1922, the state of Arizona took ownership from the Salt River Valley Water Users Association and declared Apache Trail a state highway: State Route 88. By 1927, improvements to the Trail diminished due to cost, and it wasn’t until 1949 that the state began to widen and pave the road, ending at mile marker 220 in 1961.
The rest of the road remains unpaved due to the opposition of historic preservationists and public outcry. The modern-day Trail requires significant maintenance to address a variety of issues such as rock slides and flooding.
In June of 1986, Apache Trail was designated as the state’s first historic road. The effort was led by the city of Apache Junction and the Apache Junction Chamber of Commerce.The road is also designated a Scenic Byway by the National Forest Service. The Trail celebrated its centennial in October of 2005 at the Superstition Mountain Museum.
Unfortunately, In the summer of 2019, Apache Trail suffered major flood damage. Though the damage has been repaired from Apache Junction to Fish Creek Canyon and from the other side of the canyon to Globe, it is not possible to travel the entire Trail. Apache Junction has met with ADOT to try to find solutions to repair the damage, but due to the historic label, modern methods cannot be used, thus making the cost almost prohibitive.
Fortunately, there is Current legislation, HB 2791, that proposes an appropriation of $30 million over the next two years for repairs necessary to reopen State Route 88. The city has hopes that, one way or another, in time, this historic road can be fully restored to be enjoyed by generations to come.