|An eastbound UP manifest is passing Cochise, Arizona. In the background, a westbound is crossing Wilcox Playa to begin the climb to the summit at Dragoon.|
Dragoon is the Arizona summit of the Union Pacific's southern transcontinental route across the Southwest. It is not a town, nor even a village -- a few modest clapboard dwellings scattered like rabbit pellets in the bowl between the Dragoon and Little Dragoon Mountains. At night, when the wind is down, you would swear that no one lives within a thousand miles of this place. Yet people do live here, not only the living but also the ancestors who died years ago but are ever-present in the sand, mesquite and cloudless sky. Between the dust towering over Wilcox Playa and the coyotes howling across Cochise Stronghold, the black monolith of history rises from the desert, reminding all that life is never as tranquil as it seems.
I sometimes wonder if the history of the American West has been wildly exaggerated, as when an old man recalls events from his youth that either did not happen in the manner remembered or else did not happen at all. But then I hear names like Cochise and Doc Holiday and Big Nose Kate (there really was such a person), and I read about them in the historical literature, and I realize that every now and then events are actually more fantastic than anyone can even imagine.
So it is with Dragoon.
|Eastbound stacks have crested the summit at Dragoon and are rolling downgrade toward Wilcox Playa through mesquite that have lost their leaves in January. The Little Dragoon Mountains rise in the background.|
Any discussion of this place must begin with Wilcox Playa, which from the surrounding mountains looks like a skating rink in the middle of the desert. Roughly eight miles wide by 10 miles long, this dry, salt-encrusted lake bed radiates sunlight like a mirror. Once filled with water in the Pleistocene (the most recent ice age, ending about 10,000 years ago), portions of it have been used by the Air Force as a bombing range. The area is endorheic, meaning that water drains into it from all directions -- east from the Dos Cabezas Mountains, south from the Dragoon Mountains, west from the Little Dragoon Mountains and north from the Pinaleno and Galiuro Mountains. Standing in the basin, one feels as though the entire planet is collapsing inward, that one is about to be sucked into the bowels of the anti-Christ. When the wind blows, which is often, dust rises almost as high as the surrounding peaks.
|Westbound Amtrak #1 is climbing toward Dragoon. In the background, dust rises above Wilcox Playa, obscuring the Dos Cabezas Mountains.|
|Eastbound Amtrak #2 is crossing Wilcox Playa.|
From Dragoon, the Union Pacific tracks run due east downhill for about two miles through short, stubby mesquite trees that intermittently cover the grassland like steel wool, providing few photographic opportunities. At the bottom of the steepest part of the grade, the tracks turn northeast and continue in an absolutely straight line downhill toward Wilcox Playa, passing several irrigated pistachio farms, the trees of which in winter are leafless and barren, like coatless relatives attending a funeral. Before reaching the dry lake bed, the tracks pass Cochise, Arizona, a once thriving community of several thousand, now reduced to less than one hundred. The village does support a school for the children who live in the surrounding desert.
Scott Fitzgerald once said: "“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” I want to say something similar about people who live in the desert. They, too, are different They have no soft edges, no faintness of heart nor deep misgivings about the future of mankind. They live in a moment focused exclusively upon water. They dig their wells deep. Like creosote bushes, they don't live too close to each other. Water is everything.
|Mid-trains rolling downhill through mesquite.|
|A westbound manifest is turning due west and beginning the steepest part of the climb to Dragoon.|
The village of Cochise, created by the Southern Pacific as a coal and water stop, contains the historic Cochise Hotel, a small, white clapboard and stucco structure with its name emblazoned above the front porch, facing west toward the tracks -- only about 20 yards away. The clapboard, the day I saw it, was peeling. No vehicle was parked in front. I climbed the porch and found the front door locked, so I knocked. No one answered, so I knocked again. Still no answer. I walked around back and peered in a window but saw no one. A dog walked across the street to say hello. I found out later that in 1899, Big Nose Kate, the female sidekick of Doc Holliday, worked at the Cochise Hotel after Holliday's death.
|Eastbound stacks roll past the Gunnison Hills toward Cochise and the Wilcox Playa.|
|Westbound manifest in same location.|
|Eastbound toward Cochise on a cold day in January.|
Mary Katherine Horony Cummings was a Hungarian-born gambler, prostitute and side-kick of Doc Holliday. Her parents emigrated to America in 1860, settling in Iowa. Mary Katherine gained the nickname "Big Nose Kate" for obvious reasons.
Her parents both died in 1865 when she was 15, and she and her younger siblings went to live with relatives. At 16, Kate ran away to St. Louis where she produced a son for a local dentist who, along with the son, later died of yellow fever.
In 1876 she moved to Texas, met Doc Holliday and soon was living and gambling with him. The couple then relocated to Dodge City, Kansas, where Holliday opened a dental office, which produced little income. Most of his money came from gambling. The couple argued frequently, fought with fists occasionally and were sober coincidentally.
In Dodge City they were befriended by Wyatt Earp, whom they followed to Tombstone, Arizona, in search of the money that was flowing from copper mines like distilled water. After one of her many fights with Holliday, Kate signed an affidavit implicating him in a stagecoach robbery and murder. Wyatt Earp and his brother Virgil produced witnesses who swore that Holliday was elsewhere at the time of the robbery, and Kate then said that she was drunk and did not understand what she had signed. The district attorney dismissed the charges. Holliday was released from jail and forgave Kate. Legend has it that they got drunk again.
|Downgrade to Cochise, with Dragoon Mountains in background.|
|An eclectic westbound approaches the summit.|
This brings us to the "Gunfight at the OK Corral." I put the name in quotations, because not everyone agreed that it was a "gunfight." Some, particularly relatives and friends of the Clantons, called it a "massacre," in much the same way that the Cheyenne refer to the "Battle of the Washita" as the "Washita Massacre." I don't intend to retell the story, because it has already been told too many times. However, late in life, Big Nose Kate claimed to have witnessed the shootout.
Apparently, she and Doc Holliday were in Tucson when Wyatt Earp's younger brother Morgan arrived, asking Holliday to return to Tombstone to help arrest Billy and Ike Clanton, who along with several other members of a gang loosely referred to as the "Cowboys," were raising hell in town. Holliday agreed, asking Kate to remain in Tucson, but she refused, riding with her man to that southeastern Arizona town within shouting distance of the Mexican border.
Kate claimed to have watched everything from the window of her boarding house. She watched Holliday and the three Earp brothers (Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan) gun down Billy Clanton, Tom McClaury and his brother Frank. The Earps and Holliday were later charged with murder, but after a preliminary hearing, the presiding judge dismissed the case, ruling that the four were performing their duty as lawmen and thus exempt from prosecution. (Apparently, Virgil, as sheriff, had deputized the others before the fight -- a pretty smart thing to do, as it. turned out.) Ike Clanton, unarmed, not participating in the shootout, was killed six years later while resisting arrest for cattle rustling.
|The power on these westbound stacks has crossed Wilcox Playa and is beginning the climb to Dragoon.|
|Two stack trains meet on Wilcox Playa.|
Cummings, however, turned out to be another desperate alcoholic, but unlike Holliday, he continually abused Kate and could never make up with her. She left him and in 1900 moved to Cochise, where she worked for John and Lulu Rath, owners of the Cochise Hotel.
When she was 80, Kate became one of the first female residents of the Arizona Pioneers' Home in Prescott, established in 1910 for destitute miners and pioneers of Arizona Territory. In keeping with her character, she was an outspoken activist for other residents, contacting both legislators and the governor about bad food, worse mattresses and generally wretched hygiene. She died November 2, 1940, five days before her 90th birthday.
|The summit at Dragoon.|
|Westbound stacks have crossed Wilcox Playa and are climbing through Sulphur Springs Valley on the way to Dragoon. In the background are the playa and the widely separated dwellings characteristic of the desert.|
|Same. Rincon Mountains in background.|
We cannot write about the Cochise Hotel without discussing its namesake, the famous Chiricahua Apache Chief who waged a personal war against the United States for a decade and might have prevailed had not he ultimately been defeated by the one foe who never loses -- old age. By the time he made peace, Cochise suffered the same aches and pains as do all old men and, again like all old men, wanted to spend whatever life was left him in tranquility. But in his younger years, when the government had tried to capture him under a flag of truce, he was a bold and brilliant tactician who, like Robert E. Lee, won battle after battle against a superior foe.
The event that spawned open warfare was called "The Bascom Affair" by the government. The Apaches called it "Cut the Tent."
In January 1861, two Apache parties raided the ranch of John Ward. One group stole 20 head of cattle; the other seized a twelve-year-old boy. The next morning, First Lieutenant George Bascom led a detachment of dragoons (mounted infantry) to examine the trail and found that the tracks led to the San Pedro River, into the heart of Chokonen Apache country. (The railroad summit at Dragoon was named after such soldiers.) Cochise, as leader, was thus the prime suspect.
As it turned out, Cochise had nothing to do with the raid, but no white man knew that at the time. Here is what happened.
The Army ordered Bascom to "pursue the Indians and recover a boy made captive by them," plus "follow the trail until the cattle are found and recovered." The lieutenant was authorized to use whatever force he felt necessary.
Bascom's command followed the trail across Sulphur Springs Valley and Wilcox Playa to Apache Pass, a narrow defile between the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua Mountains, a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail and a favorite Apache camp site. (The Southern Pacific did not follow the stage route over this pass, instead tracking north around the edge of the Dos Cabezas Mountains.)
|A loaded Canadian Pacific coal train crossing Columbia Lake creates the same inverted reflection in the water that the UP stacks created in the hot air at the surface of Wilcox Playa.|
|The sun has set on the tracks but not yet on the Little Dragoon Mountains as these westbound stacks crest the summit at Dragoon.|
Cochise was camping in his winter headquarters and likely was informed by a scout that federal troops were approaching -- not a particularly significant event since soldiers were regularly in the area. Bascom continued across the valley and up the pass to the Butterfield Overland Mail station and sent messengers to the Cochise camp, announcing that the Army wished to parley at a site away from the station.
Cochise did not come quickly. Bascom grew impatient and sent a second messenger. Near sundown, Cochise arrived, not anticipating any trouble, bringing only his brother, wife, a couple of his children and two warriors.
Cochise and the warriors entered Bascom's tent to talk. Bascom began questioning the Chief, who denied any involvement in the raid and said the kidnapped boy was being held in the Black Mountains. If Bascom would wait 10 days, Cochise promised to do all he could to bring the boy back. In his written report, Bascom claimed to have agreed but then told Cochise that his entourage would be held as prisoners until the boy was returned.
Bascom's report then stated that Cochise was released. Every other report from a white man indicated that Cochise was not released; instead, he escaped. Five of the six accounts stated that Cochise cut a hole in Bascom's tent.
The Apache version of the story was that Cochise was told he would be held as a prisoner. He then cut a slit in the tent and escaped. Cochise himself verified the story, later confirmed by Geronimo.
An eyewitness to the event, Sargent Daniel Robinson, wrote the following:
Finally it was suggested that the sub-chief [Coyuntura, Cochise's brother] should go and find him [the kidnapped boy] and that Cochise must remain as a hostage. This ended the talk. As quick as lightning both drew forth concealed knives, cut open the tent and darted out, Cochise to the front -- at whom the interpreter fired. The sub-chief (escaping through the rear) tripped and fell and was captured.
|Westbound autos approaching the summit.|
|Westbound stacks have crossed Wilcox Playa and are turning into the steepest part of the grade.|
|Westbound manifest. Little Dragoon Mountains rise in the background.|
"Shoot him down!" Bascom shouted. Multiple men fired multiple rounds and wounded Cochise in the leg. Still, he escaped to the top of the hill, took one quick look behind, then disappeared. His warriors and relatives were not so fortunate; all were captured and held hostage.
An hour or so later Cochise appeared at the top of a nearby hill, standing alone like a great tree, and shouted that he wanted to see his sub-chief Coyuntura. Bascom fired at Cochise, who raised his fist and swore vengeance.
That evening, Bascom broke camp and led his party, including the captives, back to the stage station.
Two mornings later, several Chokonens appeared on a hill south of the station and raised a white flag. A lone warrior approached and said Cochise wished to parley again. Bascom agreed. He and three others met the Cochise party of four in a canyon about 150 yards from the station.
(It appears that Bascom waited at the stage station, rather than returning to his post, because he was surrounded by what he believed to be as many as 600 Apaches. The actual number appears to have been far fewer, but Bascom had no way of knowing this.)
Cochise again asked for the release of his family and warriors. Bascom replied that the hostages would be freed as soon as the boy was returned. Cochise once again denied having the boy.
This is when three Butterfield employees left the station, riding out to the parley and asking Bascom for permission to mediate with Chochise, whom they had dealt with before and considered a friend. Denying the request, Bascom said that he would not rescue them if they were taken prisoner. The three ignored Bascom, set out toward the main Apache group, where they believed Cochise would join them.
Cochise bolted for cover, and the main Apache party opened fire on Bascom's group. The Butterfield employees scattered. One was shot in the back, though he was brought to safety and later recovered. A second employee was killed and a third taken captive.
The two sides fired intermittently at each other; Sargent Robinson believed that some Apache were killed. That night Apache fires blazed from the mountain peaks, and the soldiers heard a war dance.
|Westbound stacks. Wilcox playa rests tranquilly in the background, with the Dos Cabezas Mountains rising above.|
|Westbound Amtrak No. 1.|
The next day near noon, Cochise appeared on a hill above the station with the Overland Mail captive, named Wallace, whose arms were tied behind his back, with a rope around his neck. Cochise offered to exchange Wallace and 16 government mules for the Apache captives held by the soldiers. Bascom again refused, reiterating that he would not release his captives until the boy was returned.
That evening, Cochise and his band attacked a wagon train led by Jose Antonio Montoya, headed to Las Cruces with flour. Nine Mexicans and three Americans were captured, plus all the mules. Cochise ordered the Mexicans tied to the wagons, where they were tortured, then killed, and the wagons burned. The Apaches took the Americans to camp.
Cochise then instructed Wallace to write a message to Bascom, stating that the four Americans now held captive would be traded for the Apache hostages. The Apaches left the note on a bush near the stage station, but no one retrieved it for two days.
When Cochise did not receive a response, he likely felt insulted and thus determined to take more hostages. At Apache Pass, his war party intercepted the eastbound stagecoach from Tucson, descending upon the unsuspecting crew and passengers in the night like a tsunami of dust and sand, swirling in all directions, blinding, choking. The stage driver was shot, so another Overland Mail employee took the reins and miraculously guided the stage safely to the station without the loss of life or hostage.
|Westbound stacks leaving Wilcox Playa.|
|Mid-trains on the playa, passing a manifest.|
|An eastbound at the summit.|
The next day there was no fighting, as when the wind dies. Cochise and his warriors used the respite for special prayers and a war dance. Bascom needed reinforcements and a doctor for the wounded and so, after dark, sent a small party through the night to Fort Buchanan, Bascom's post. (Bascom likely did not attempt to transport his entire party through the darkness because so many soldiers, horses and mules would have attracted considerable attention.)
At dawn, the storm broke. Cochise sent warriors to Apache Springs where the soldiers watered their stock each morning. After the last animal had drunk its fill and the soldiers had begun the return trip to the stage station, the Apaches appeared from the hills above, moving to block the soldiers' route back to safety.
Fighting was short and fierce. Firing almost continuously, the soldiers drove the Apaches back, with wounded on both sides. The animals fled into the mountains, leaving the soldiers on foot, still firing. Sensing that victory was not at hand, the Apaches vanished into the hills.
At the same time, Cochise led a second group to the stage station, hoping to catch Bascom unaware. The lieutenant reacted quickly, however, fortifying his defenses, and Cochise decided not to attack, retreating with his warriors.
Bascom lost 42 mules; the Overland Mail 14. One mail employee was killed, and Sargent Robinson was wounded. The Apaches later stated that three warriors had died.
|Near the edges of Wilcox Playa, scattered vegetation has begun to take root.|
|The beginning of the grade off the dry lake bed.|
For the next several days, Bascom remained inactive at the stage station. For reasons known only to himself, he sent out no scouting parties. If he had, he would have discovered that Cochise and his warriors were long gone to the south. Eventually, reinforcements arrived, and Bascom led over 100 men to search the mountains for Apaches. None were found.
The scouting party did find bodies of the four Americans taken captive by the Apaches -- horribly mutilated, pock-marked with lance holes. The corpses were buried in shallow graves, easily identified, almost a quarter mile from the charred remains of the Mexican wagon train. Cochise clearly intended for the bodies to be found, which sealed the fate of the Apaches being held by Bascom.
The three male captives (including Chochise's brother) requested that they be shot instead of hanged. They also requested whiskey. Bascom denied both requests.
The men were hanged on the boughs of the oak trees under which the Americans were buried. Ropes were pulled high so that wolves would not mutilate the corpses. Bascom ordered Cochise's wife and two children released.
Thus began Cochise's hatred of everything American. His hatred was an open wound growing steadily larger, deeper, an unrelenting pain in his soul. "I tried the Americans once," he said late in life, "and they broke the treaty first."
Throughout the 1860's he waged gorilla war on all whites in Arizona, an implacable foe that the Army could not subdue. Eventually, in old age, Cochise agreed to a peace treaty -- an old man by then who only wanted his remaining years to be calm. But the hatred never left his heart. [My discussion of the parley that led to the treaty can be found at https://www.waltersrail.com/2022/09/west-of-dragoon.html. A great resource for the history of Cochise and his people is Cochise: Chiricahua Apache Chief, Edwin R. Sweeney, University of Oklahoma Press (1991).]
|Eastbound Amtrak No. 2 on the northern edge of Wilcox Playa, where desert saltgrass is firmly established.|
|On a chilly January morning, UP 8103 West has crossed the summit at Dragoon.|
|The playa after rain.|
The map also shows the route of the Southern Pacific constructed in the late 19th century. The railroad takes a much more circuitous route around the northern edge of the Dos Cabezas Mountains, thereby avoiding the steep grades. This raises the question: why did the stage line cross the rugged pass instead of staying in the flat desert to the north?
Before construction of the railroad, travel across Arizona was the province of horses, mules and oxen, all of which needed grass, potable water and shade (in the summer). The route of the Southern Pacific crossed the worst of the desert, providing no grass or shade. The only water available came from alkaline wells; animals would not drink it.
Apache Pass, on the other hand, was the location of a fresh water spring. The mountains generated sufficient rain to support fertile grass and oak trees. The trail through Apache Pass had been used for centuries by Native Americans, and Cochise often made his winter camp there. Since the stage coaches were pulled by horses, Apache Pass was a necessary station stop, as it provided the only water and grass for many miles in either direction. Needing neither, the railroad stayed in the flatlands.
|Mid-trains beginning westbound climb to the summit.|
|More mid-trains -- overlooked by Little Dragoon Mountains.|
In 1857, the Postal Service awarded a contract to the Butterfield Overland Mail Company for service from St. Louis and Memphis to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The contract paid $600,000.00 per year for twice weekly mail service taking 25 days each way. Butterfield had to man and stock the route at its own expense.
In the 21st century, it is almost impossible to visualize the ruggedness of this service. The trails from St. Louis and Memphis joined at Fort Smith, then ran together through what is now southeastern Oklahoma but was in those days the Choctaw Nation, populated by the Native American tribe that had been forcibly removed from its home in the Southeast. This country was mountainous and untamed, almost aboriginal -- inhabited mostly by bears, wildcats, water moccasins and even alligators in its southernmost reaches.
And once the Red River was crossed, the wilds of Texas lay ahead, including the fearsome Comanches, who had brought the Spanish Empire to its knees in a series of battles across the High Plains. Then on through the desert of New Mexico and Arizona, home of the equally fearsome Apaches.
The map below shows the route [see https://www.westerncoversociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/pg161_9-6_Map_Butterfield_Overland_Mail_Route-1024x519.jpg]:
The first trip left St. Louis on Thursday, September 16, 1858, and arrived in San Francisco on October 10 -- just under 24 days. The first eastbound left San Francisco September 15 and arrived in St. Louis October 9 -- just under 25 days. For comparison, it took American astronauts about three days to reach the moon. Today (November 2022), I can drive from St. Louis to San Francisco in about 24 hours and fly in three. (Captain Kirk can teleport instantly.)
On February 1, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union. On February 18, the state took possession of all U.S. army forts and equipment. There followed the seizure of some Butterfield rolling stock and horses, on the theory that the company was an arm of the federal government. Although not a state, the Choctaw Nation sided with the Confederacy (many Choctaw were slave owners), and the Butterfield Company feared for its operations in what became southeastern Oklahoma.
On March 2, 1861, Congress discontinued the southern mail route and moved all shipments onto the central route through Wyoming and Nevada, where the Union Pacific would soon construct the first transcontinental railroad. The last westbound Butterfield stagecoach left St. Louis March 21 and arrived in San Francisco April 13. The final eastbound left San Francisco April 1, reaching St. Louis 30 days later on May 1.
|A westbound manifest passes the Apache Generating Station on the southwestern shore of Wilcox Playa.|
The Southern Pacific was constructed from west to east and reached Dragoon in 1880. Unlike Benson to the southeast and Wilcox to the north, Dragoon never grew into a community of any size. Originally, a few small clapboard structures were built along the tracks, plus two railroad section houses where the SP stored equipment. As nearly as your author can determine, no station was ever constructed.
Even though there was substantial mining in the area, people did not congregate to this passage between the Dragoon and Little Dragoon Mountains, which is most odd, because at 4613 feet, Dragoon is by far the highest point on the railroad in Arizona. In the worst of summer, which in Arizona is saying a lot, Dragoon often receives a fresh breeze that seems like paradise compared to the valley of the San Pedro River to the southwest and the sinkhole of Wilcox Playa to the north. Yet the place is empty. A handful of people live here and seem quite content that the inhabitants of Phoenix and Tucson have no desire to relocate.
East of Dragoon, the railroad paralleled the Big Draw Canyon, down the steep grade before entering the flat Sulphur Springs Valley and crossing Wilcox Playa. Interstate 10 runs west of the playa, but the tracks did not take that route because it required crossing the summit at Texas Canyon on a prohibitive grade.
The tracks then ran northeasterly in a straight line for over 20 miles, passing Cochise and Wilcox, before turning east around the northern end of the Dos Cabezas Mountains and heading for the the last significant grade, at Steins, New Mexico, on the way to El Paso.
|UP 5986 has crested the grade out of the Sulphur Springs Valley and is preparing to engage its dynamic brakes..|
|Red board at Dragoon.|
If you visit this place, marvel at the railroad, the interstate and the few hardy souls that scratch a living from the unforgiving desert. But remember also those who came before, what they suffered and lost, and ponder the great mystery of the unrepentant earth and those who dwell upon it.
To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.
To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.