Beale Springs in the foothills of the Cerbat Mountains in western Arizona is more than a desert oasis. It is at the crossroads of the past, present and even future. And it illustrates the fact that history is not as dead and boring as a four day insurance seminar, even though that is the impression most of us were given in high school.
The springs are named for the intrepid adventurer Lt. Edward F. Beale. A relatively obscure figure today, Beale’s story is epic. He was a naval officer and in 1845 he was assigned to the squadron of Captain Robert F. Stockton when he met with with the Texas Congress and finalized an agreement for annexation by the United States. Beale was also an explorer, spy, frontiersman, Indian affairs superintendent, successful rancher, international diplomat. He fought in the Mexican–American War and distinguished himself at the Battle of San Pasqual in 1846. On assignment from the president, In 1848 after an arduous and harrowing journey on the sea and across the isthmus of Panama, he confirmed the discovery of gold in California.
In the 1850s he surveyed and supervised construction of the Beale Wagon Road, a favored fair weather route for travelers headed to California and a key transpiration corridor for development in northern Arizona. The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad followed much of Beale’s road across Arizona in the 1880s. So did the National Old Trails Road after 1913, and then Route 66.
For the Cerbat clan of the Hualapai people Beale Springs, and the springs in nearby Coyote Pass and Johnson Canyon, were central to their lives. Faint traces of their wickiups are still found in the area as are the occasional arrowhead. There is historical evidence that the first European visit to the springs was in 1776 when Father Garces and his expedition encamped at the site. Most of the early American explorers, including Lt. Beale camped at the site.
In March 1864, near present day Bullhead City, Arizona, William Harrison Hardy established Hardyville on the Colorado River. Steamboats transformed the river into a major transportation corridor, and Hardyville assumed an importance that belied its size as a supply center for mining camps established in the Cerbat Mountains. As the river port was located near Fort Mohave, the community also benefitted from establishment of a military and toll road built to connect that outpost with Fort Whipple at the territorial capital of Prescott. Beale Springs served as an important waystation.
This created a crisis for the Haulapai people as the springs were important for farming as well as a source of water. Further pressure came with the discovery of rich deposits of gold, silver and other metals in the Cerbat Mountains, and establishment of mining camps such as Mineral Park, Cerbat, and Chloride. Ranchers were also moving into the Hualapai and Sacramento Valley, and further restricting access to springs. In the late 1860s hostilities between the native people and miners, ranchers and travelers on the military road dramatically escalated.
A report on the escalating conflict noted, “The Hualapai War continued into the winter, with search and destroy sweeps into the mountains of western Arizona. Major combat occurred on November 7, 1867, and on January 14, 1868. In the former incident, elements of the 8th Cavalry and the 14th Infantry Regiment attacked a Hualapai village, killing nineteen and capturing seventeen women and children. In the latter, an 8th Cavalry patrol out of Fort Mojave stumbled across a Hualapai encampment in Difficult Canyon. In the ensuing fire-fight, twenty-one Hualapai were killed. In another fight on march 21, the casualty figures were more evenly balanced. A 14th Infantry Regiment contingent escorting a mail train was ambushed by an estimated seventy-five Hualapai, and the battle left two dead on each side.”
To provide protection to travelers, and pressure the Haulapai into capitulation, Camp Beale Springs was established in 1871. It was garrisoned by Captain Thomas Bryne and Company F, 12th U.S. Infantry. It remained active until 1874. At the end of the Hualapai War, the Beale Springs Indian Agency was established at the site in January 1873 as a reservation for the Hualapai Indians. The camp closed on 6 Apr 1874, when the Hualapai Indians were force marched to the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation at La Paz. The incident known as the Hualapai Trail of Tears resulted in many deaths.
The springs remained an important stop on the toll road that connected Prescott with the Colorado River. After establishment of the railroad in 1881, and the founding of Kingman shortly afterwards, a ranch and then hotel was built at the springs to accommodate travelers on the road to the mining towns in the Cerbat Mountains. In September 1874, a traveler noted, “Beale’s Springs did not differ from the other ranches encountered except that possibly it was even more desolate. A German lived there who must have had a knowledge of cookery, for we bought a peach pie which we ate with relish. We paid him a big silver dollar for it.”
In the years that followed the springs remained an important part of area development. The waters were piped into Kingman which helped curtail the need to supply the remote desert crossroads with water by rail. A swimming pool/reservoir was added after 1900, and the springs became a popular picnic area. In 1914, a “modern” highway was constructed through the site and over Coyote Pass to Chloride. Today the historic oasis is the crown jewel of the Cerbat Foothills Recreation Area, a network of hiking and mountain bike trails in the scenic Cerbat Mountains.
Marty and one of the horses that trailed us as we sought out remnants of the National Old Trails Road
What do you call a day that includes a Route 66 road trip, an awesome possum breakfast at a classic Route 66 restaurant, exploring not one but three historic highways and seeking out Arizona railroad history, and a shared adventure with an old friend? Well, in normal times you would call it a great day. In the era of COVID 19 you call it a very rare treat.
It was to be a short run of just 200 miles round trip but being seasoned desert adventurers, and as the Jeep is now 23 years old with an unknown number of miles (a story for another day), we packed a shovel, water, a few edibles, cameras, a few quarts of oil and basic tools. And as the quest was to find remnants of the National Old Trails Road west of Seligman, Arizona, I also carried a copy of the Arizona Good Roads Association guide book to roads in Arizona and southern California that was published in 1914.
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and berries, we hit the road at first light before the sun had chased the shadows from the Hualapai Valley east of Kingman. The conversation was lively as we are both story tellers, hadn’t had a visit for a spell and have aged a bit, and we both had desert adventures to share. The pace was slow as there were things to point to in the brush and desert along Route 66.
A link that enabled dating the car shell.
The first stop was just east of Grand Canyon Caverns. Some years ago Marty had found traces of what may have been an early alignment of the National Old Trails Road, the fast fading remnants of a building that had most likely once served as a garage and livery stable, and the picked bones of an old car. On a previous stop at the site Marty had found an ancient piece of iron with ornate Cadillac script. This and some of the trash at the site enabled us to pin down a rough date for the car as well as the former business – pre 1910. I suppose some of us never out grow the childhood excitement that comes with a search for lost treasure, and discoveries that spark the imagination.
The next stop was a few miles to the east. As we followed the faintest trace of old road through the dry grass and the junipers, confirmation that we were on the right track appeared in the form of a stone masonry culvert. That quickened the spirt as I reflected on Edsel Ford’s travel journal from July 16, 1915 and the notes he had made after driving this very road. Here was a tangible link to more than a century of transportation. Was this the alignment followed by Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield during the 1914 Desert Classic automobile race that had followed the National Old Trails Road east from Los Angles to Ash Fork, Arizona?
The second breakfast, a brunch of sorts, at the one and only Road Kill Café in Seligman included a visit with Debbie and her husband, the owners. The awesome possum breakfast was delicious and the conversation lively as they had spent most of their lives in Seligman or the immediate area. They were able to fill a few holes, point us in the right direction, and inspire plans for the next adventure before even completing the first one. And after breakfast we explored the back streets of Seligman in search of automotive treasures.
We continued east along Route 66 past the old Crookton railroad overpass, and then followed an older alignment to a long forgotten rest area. From here we set off on foot to follow the earliest alignment of Route 66, and segments of the National Old Trails Road. As an added bonus we found an even older road and vague hints that this was most likely a trace of the 1850s Beale Wagon Road. By this time the temperature was closing in on 100 degrees and the sweat was rolling into our eyes, but we pressed on speculating, sharing discoveries found under the junipers or among the rocks and discussing plans for a return excursion when the weather cooled during the fall.
On the return trip we made a couple more stops. One was to explore an interesting section of old road bordered by two concrete curbs near the Crookton overpass. Route 66? National Old Trails Road? Little discoveries raised more questions than they answered; remnants of a telegraph pole with threaded wooden dowel for the insulator, a weathered railroad tie with 1948 date nail, a broken Coca Cola bottle with Needles, California stamp. A herd of horses let curiosity overcome concerns and became our travel companions as we followed the old road across the high desert prairie of dried grass.
The last stop was at the 19th century railroad siding at Pica. The depot gave every indication that it would soon be little more than a forgotten relic and a pile of dried lumber amongst the grass. The big steam driven pumps and pump house that was hereon the last visit are gone. The towering water tanks that dated to the late 19th century and the era of steam engines still stood tall. Surprisingly, a graffiti artist of extraordinary talent had used them as his canvas creating a masterpiece or two. The things you find in the most remote of places, amazing.
The drive home was a leisurely discussion of discoveries made, tall tales heard and shared, and savoring the vast landscapes that have soothed my soul for nearly sixty years. Even in these trying times, the best medicine is still a road trip, or even better a road trip on Route 66, old friends, good food, a desert adventure and discoveries that provide a tangible link to another time.
This morning I have what is hoped to be an exciting post that will
encourage an Arizona adventure or two. First, however, I would like to thank the sponsors behind Jim Hinckley’s America, the multifaceted project that now includes a video series and Kingman, Arizona historic district walking tours developed in partnership with Promote Kingman, a Friday morning Facebook live program, the blog, a YouTube channel, photo gallery on Legends of America, and podcast. And, of course, there are the presentations and books, including a new release, Route 66: America’s Longest Small Town. The entire project is built around my gift for telling people where to go, and a desire to provide the information needed to make those adventures memorable and enjoyable.
So with that as the introduction, I would like to thank the folks at Grand Canyon Caverns, Promote Kingman, and the Route 66 Association of Kingman. Of course I would be quite remiss if I didn’t thank folks like you who through contributions to the Jim Hinckley’s America tip jar, as well as with comments, book purchases, and attendance at events make all of this possible.
The post office in Gold Road, Arizona on Route 66 courtesy Mohave Museum of History & Arts