Charleston Dam on the San Pedro

In the 1990s, Mr. John Rose did something remarkable. Using an 1880 photograph he not only located the long lost site of Charleston Dam but also found the exact spot where the photographer had set his tripod to take the picture. Rocks #1 and #2 are confirmation. This information appears in his book Charleston and Millville, AT, Hell on the San Pedro, 2011. The black and white photographs presented here are from his book and appear with his permission.

This is how the site looked in the 1990s.

This is how the site looked in September 2012, very much overgrown since earlier pictures. My friends, Matt and Gene, are standing near rocks #1 and #2. The spillway is on the right, in the trees, above Gene. It shows up as a uniform bed of rocks in the first photo and seems to have a bridge over it. It is near the center of the photo. This is where overflow water ran over the dam and back into the river.

Millville was home to the Gird and Corbin mills that processed ore from Tombstone’s mines. Richard Gird did not allow any drinking in Millville. So Charleston was established across the San Pedro River a few short feet away with many saloons and sporting houses. During Tombstone’s heyday, Charleston appears in fact and legend and in the Earp Saga as a Cowboy hangout and helltown.

The dam is about a mile south of town and once supplied water to the mills. We are told that its flumes and races were often damaged by Cowboys, its lumber stolen and destroyed. The dam washed out several times.

Here is the spot were the photographer stood behind his tripod mounted camera. Away to the north is the beginning of the Narrows of the San Pedro River. Charleston is at the base of the hill on the left and Millville at center.



This is part of the ‘stump’ of the dam. Hidden by dense vegetation, this orderly set of stones in an anomaly. We tramped all over it, following it down to the river and back up again. We found quite a bit remaining. Look again at the 1880 photo. The remains of the dam extend 20 feet out across the river beyond the spillway. And yet they remain hidden as the brush is so thick. These are substantial remains.

Down on the river and across the way on the eastern bank, there are no noticeable remains. There are no tumbled boulders in the riverbed as there would be if the dam had washed out. At the mid-line of the photo is a level structure, the bed of the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad which extended down to Bisbee after the Charleston mills had closed and the dam was no longer needed. As so often happens, I think building materials were borrowed from one structure to create another, in this case from the dam to the roadbed of the railway.

Here is the spillway from the angle it is seen in the first photo. The bridge would have been right above center and the men in the picture stand where the trees are now.




Nearby the initials JLP are scratched on a rock with the date 1887. Was he associated with the dam? I don’t know. Was he a Cowboy? Again, I don’t know. His initials appeared toward the end of the period the dam was in use. There was activity here all the way up into the 1960s at least.




This appears to have been some sort of mill-race and ditch for water. There is a water mill on the ground nearby. All of the trash and even the nails associated with this are twentieth century. There is a power line to this point that originates at a ranch on Charleston Road. The ranch was occupied at least until the 1960s and maybe later. The cans and trash are not 19th century and there is an electric refrigerator (1950s style) and stove in the ranch house. Was this water operation, that seems to lead to the dam associated with it? Probably not. It seems to be only coincidental that they seem to be connected.

More of the dam.

Is the dam important? It’s a piece of history. It shows us how it was constructed and perhaps even more interesting, how it ceased to be a dam. For those that say the San Pedro is the only river in Arizona that was never dammed, ooops. Today, except for the beaver, it may be the only free-flowing river, but it wasn’t always so. It was dammed by man in at least four places during the 1880s for irrigation and to run the mills.

For myself and my friends, this is a step in learning to recognize what a 19th century dam looked like, so that we can find others. One such dam, south of Contention City may hold a key to unlocking the site of a stage station and robbery. Finding that dam and others like it will give us an idea of how much acreage was under cultivation to support Tombstone and the river mill towns.


About dhocking

Doug Hocking is an independent scholar who has completed advanced studies in American history, ethnology and historical archaeology. He grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and attended school among the Indios and paisanos of the Rio Arriba (Northern New Mexico). He retired from the military as an armored cavalry (scout) officer. His novels immerse the reader in the times, terrain and cultures of 19th century New Mexico. Doug lives near Tombstone with his wife, dogs and a feral cat. He writes both fiction and history and is currently working on a biography of Tom Jeffords and has two historical novels in print: Massacre at Point of Rocks and Mystery of Chaco Canyon. His articles have appeared in True West, Wild West, Buckskin Bulletin and Roundup.
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Archaeology, Bisbee, Cochise County, cowboy, Ghost town, Historical Archaeology, Mining, Tombstone. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Charleston Dam on the San Pedro

  1. The 4.Amigos says:

    Had an enjoyable day last Tuesday, after the second try we found the rocks that correspond with the 1880 and 1990 picture by John Rose of the dam, part of the Charleston/Girds dam, and a flume. Great work Amigos. Enjoyed the day!

  2. John Prats says:

    I’ve been all over Millville and Charleston several times and never stumbled upon the dam ruins. Can you help me cheat? GPS coordinates?

    • dhocking says:

      You really have to know what you’re looking for and looking at. The old dam site is about 1/2 mile south of the bridge where a rocky ridge comes right down to the river.

  3. Phil means says:

    Well done ! I lived at serrasite mine coupla miles north of there in the 50s didn know about the dam till now

  4. Angelica Gonzales says:

    Thank you for your article . I’ve been doing some geneology research and I read that my grandfather used to swim in that dam when they were kids . This was in the early 30s and it was hard to find a record of this dam. This article was a nice find to my research.

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