Tres Alamos ghost town

Starting from the road north of Benson, Arizona, our trail took us down into a deep wash that flowed from west to east toward the San Pedro River, temporarily dry at this point though showing signs of recent flow. We turned north, downstream, for half a mile to where Tres Alamos Wash runs into the river and turned east for half a mile up the wash to where the old stage road rises up the side near the old stage station and town, a junction where lines coming from the south meet those that run east to west.

Melted Adobe Walls

“In the gorge below [Tres Alamos] and in some of the meadows, the stream [bed] approaches more nearly the surface [of the floodplain], and often spreads itself on a wide area, producing a dense growth of cotton-wood, willows and underbrush, which forced us to ascend and cross the out-jutting terraces. The flow of the water, however, is not continuous. One or two localities were observed where it entirely disappeared, but to rise again a few miles distant, clear and limpid.” (Parke 1857:25).

We visited Tres Alamos in September 2012,

Stage station walls

Matt, Dennis, Paul and I, hiking in from the west bank. What we observed was a stream bed 100 to 200 hundred feet wide and devoid of water despite recent rains. It was obvious that the stream had run two or three feet deep during the recent monsoon (July-September). There was still mud in places and perhaps indication that water was still moving just under the surface. The banks of the river in this place are 20 and more feet high and the same applies to Tres Alamos Wash. Parke was there in February and is talking about a spot four or five miles north (downstream, ergo below) Tres Alamos.

“The stream is about eighteen inches deep and twelve feet wide, and flows with a rapid current, at about twelve feet below the surface of its banks, which are nearly vertical, and of a treacherous miry soil, rendering it extremely difficult to approach the water, now muddy and forbidding. The banks are devoid of timber, or any sign indicated the course or even the existence of a stream, to an observer but a short distance removed.” (Parke 1855:9).

Here Parke is talking about a spot approximately eight miles above (south) Tres Alamos. There are other records that have the river dry at this point in 1859 and as a clear running stream almost level with the surrounding plain. Parke’s description, except for the lack of water, is what we saw near Tres Alamos wash. Some sources suggest that the river alternates between cutting and filling. We located the spot where the stage road climbed out of the wash and it indicated that the river had been cut this deep for a long time, at least as long as the stage road had been there.

Looking toward the Rincon Mountains to the west across the San Pedro River

Why do the descriptions differ so markedly? They are describing different points along the river. They are describing it in different years and different times of the year. February is in the middle of the dry season. A river dry in September will be very dry the following February unless something unusual happens, for instance, an El Niño year. Parke records the Lewis Springs area near what would later be Charleston as thick with cottonwood and mesquite. We have photographs from the 1880s that show the area denuded. Did the miners and mills strip away all the vegetation?

Different observers describe what they see differently. The San Pedro river has three sets of banks. There is one set where the water flows years round about 10 feet wide which can often be nearly insignificant, not high at all. There is another set 100 to 200 feet apart which can be 10 to 30 feet high. And finally, there is the bench, very old banks more than a mile apart and up to 100 feet high that seem to date to the end of the last ice age. What was once the town of Tres Alamos is on top of the bench. From the town one descends down the stage road to what appears to be a broad flood plain. The river is half a mile away. It is also 20 or 30 feet below this plain and the road makes a second descent into the wash which it follows to the river. There appears to be a road back up from the wash to the flood plain about one quarter mile below the descent, perhaps the river road from the 1870s and 1880s. The first time I saw this flood plain, I did not descend into the wash or know it was so far below me. It appears to be a level expanse all the way to the river.

This is what I had expected.

A can of ham from the 1880s

Tres Alamos got its start in the 1768 when farmers from Tucson came here under military protection to raise crops. The broad plain appears perfect for farming. Unfortunately, water is too far below to be easily accessed on the eastern side. The farms and a village must have been on the west bank where there may be a flood plain hidden by a dense skirt of mesquite we have as yet not penetrated. Why did they come here? Water for irrigation must have been readily available. But where? And where did the stage exit the river on the west? With the decline of the Spanish empire, soldiers became less available to guard farmers and the area was abandoned.

The stage road down to the flood plain. Trees visible near the top are growing in Tres Alamos Wash near where the stage road descends again to the level of the wash bottom and river.

In the 1830s, Mexican farmers came to the area raising crops to support the garrison at Tucson and the ranches further south. They were gone by the end of the decade.  Another attempt was made in 1848. The next visitors came in 1857.

 In June 1858, while traveling

Tin Can. Did Phocion Way drop this? Probably not, but it’s almost that old

across southern Arizona via the “Jackass Mail,” Phocion R. Way wrote in his diary that due to the menacing Apaches, traveling “. . . is like running the gauntlet.” He then wrote, “We are now camping on the San Pedro river to get our suppers. It is a small, short and muddy river . . . I have just been bathing in its murky water and feel much refreshed . . . We follow this stream 6 or 7 miles (to Tres Alamos?) and then strike out west and leave it. If no accident happens, we will be in Tucson tomorrow night.”

The Jackass Mail preceded the Butterfield Overland Mail but unlike the Butterfield, didn’t have much in the way of stations. That’s why they often camped as Phocion Way notes. This might have given rise to later stories of the Butterfield having a station here when it seems to have been at the Middle Crossing near modern day Benson.

In the 1860s, families again farmed at Tres Alamos. And after the Civil War, Anglos came. In 1874, post office opened and remained until 1886 when the town seems to have died for the last time. Today there are farms and ranches in the area.

Someone’s fancy china

Grace McCool said: “Until 1955, the large old buildings with high-arched windows and doors were impressive, but treasure hunters and heavy rains undermined the foundations and the walls have fallen. The adobe bricks have melted back into the soil from which they were made. . . [It is] a ghost town that has given up the ghost.”

Many questions remain. Was the site originally called Tres Alamos? Does anything remain of the Spanish and Mexican sites? Did the Butterfield pass by here? Where did the stage road exit the river? This is a work in progress. It organizes my thoughts along lines of where to look next in literature and on the ground and what to look for.

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 18th Century, 19th Century, Arizona before the Civil War, Butterfield Overland Mail, Ghost town, Historical Archaeology, Stage Station, Tombstone, Tres Alamos. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Tres Alamos ghost town

  1. An archaeologist would love this site as much as you do. Settlement layered upon farm since the end of the 18th century, the occasional rusted tin artifact. No wonder you’re fascinated by this site. Keep digging and keep us posted!


  2. Henry Parke says:

    I’m very much enjoying reading about Tres Alamos Ghost Town, and I’m very eager to know who the Parke that you frequently refer to is!

    Much obliged,
    Henry C. Parke

    • dhocking says:

      The man referred to was Lieutenant John Grubb Parke (September 22, 1827 – December 16, 1900) who surveyed across Arizona seeking a route for a railroad. Portions of his account are found in Goode P. Davis, Jr., Man and Wildlife in Arizona: The American Exploration Period 1824-1865, 1982. He was from Philadelphia and graduated from West Point in 1849 taking commission in the Topographical Engineers. He emerged from the Civil War a Major General and was later Commandant of West Point. You can find more information about him in Dan L. Thrapp’s Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography or by reading his “Report of Explorations . . . Near the 32nd Parallel of Latitude, Lying Between Dona Ana, on the Rio Grande, and Pima Villages, on the Gila.” in HED 129, 33rd Congress, 1st Session, 1855.

  3. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company Trail did not go to Tres Alamos and there was no Butterfield stage station located there. There are many primary references stating that the Butterfield San Pedro River Stage Station was just opposite present day Benson. Of course, Benson did not exist until nineteen years after the Overland Mail Company ceased operations in Arizona.
    The National Park Service is presently working to make the trail a National Historic Trail. I have been working with their Congressional researcher for three years. He has declared my new book “The Butterfield Trail and Overland Mail Company in Arizona, 1858-1861” the definitive book on the trail in Arizona. The Butterfield San Pedro River Stage Station’s history is documented in the book.

    • dhocking says:

      I certainly agree with them on the value of your book! It is excellent.

      After the Civil War, the transcontinental mail route doesn’t seem to have come back to Arizona. Tres Alamos is a puzzle along with Croton Springs and Point of Mountain. Maps from the late 1870s and early 1880s show these as points on a stage road along with Sulphur Springs. When Tom Jeffords worked the route in the late 1860s, he seems to have been using mail riders from Santa Fe via Socorro and Mesilla to Tucson. That might have given rise to the notion that the Pony Express was on this route. In the 1870s, mail and passenger service seems to have come in from California and from Santa Fe to Prescott. Tres Alamos was on the road to San Carlos and Camp Grant. The stagecoach for part of that time was a two-wheel, one horse affair.

  4. Miles Johnson says:

    My GG grandfather, John C Johnson, had a homestead at the intersection of the Babocamari creek and the San Pedro river from February 1876 until September 1876. He was selling produce to the local Army forts. John died near his homestead on September 13, 1876. His son George took John’s body to C.M. Hookers Station. Mr. Hooker had his employees bury John in the local cemetery. A rock larger than a man can lift was placed on his grave. We have been researching the location of Tres Alamos and the cemetery for over 50 years. Your research provides the best data on the location of Tres Alamos I have found to date.

    Hope you contiue your research and post more pictures.

    Also, the Dunbar family may have had a stage station or hotel in Tres Alamos.

    • dhocking says:

      In the 1870s, Tres Alamos was a crossroads for stage lines and there were stations on both sides of the river. Lines ran down Ash Wash to the river and changes were made for Fort Thomas and San Carlos on the Gila River to the north. The lines continued on to Point of Mountain and changes were made for Fort Grant and for Willcox and Fort Bowie. Who had what line changed all the time. One ‘stage’ was no more than a two-wheel cart carrying mail from Tucson for the military.

    • James Lauder Hardy says:

      J. C. Johnson is my GG grandfather on my mother’s side, who left California in 1876, and with his oldest son George Pen Johnson, went to the Arizona Territories to homestead. Here, September 13, 1876, J. C. Johnson was killed by Indians and laid to rest.

  5. Paul Cruz says:

    Hello Doug,my family was the Montgomerys of Tres Alamos,John H.Montgomery 1830-1879 great grt. grandpa and Maria Fraijo Montgomery 1840-1890 my great grt. grandma.He was in the 8th Legislature of Az. territory and appointed postmaster of Tres Alamos Dec.2 1874.He died on the banks of the San Pedro River of natural this day 2/14/14 dad says he is buried in area near Tres Alamos.

  6. Paul Cruz says:

    Thank You Mr.Hocking,I would like more info on these where abouts if possible.. This is the closest I have been to finding John H.Montgomery. I checked with Benson Historical Society,ranchers in area,bookstore etc. No one seems to recall where I could find him. Thanks again, P.Cruz

    • Daniel G. says:

      Hey Paul, Looks like we are related.
      Is your father Manuel Sr or is that your grandfather?

      • Paul Cruz says:

        Hello Daniel, My dad is Manuel V. Cruz (Neno) My grandpa was Manuel Cruz Sr. Do you live in Arizona?

        • Daniel says:

          No, I live in L.A. California.
          I was recently updating my Ancestry tree with the information I received from your grandfathers book. I don’t recall who my mom got it from, she just said a cousin.

  7. Brad Hartliep says:

    Very interesting. I would love to read your book. I have been wanting to hike and search for Tres Alamos, and the whole area in general, for a year or so now – I wish I had known about your excursion, I would have offered to go with you. I still spend most of my time in Texas right now, but grew up in Southeast Az and recently acquired land about a half mile from San Pedro and Tres Alamos Wash on the West side (Ocotillo Road) …

  8. Anthony Nunez, Santa Maria, Ca. says:

    My grandmother’s parents, Antonio and Rosa Grijalba, were both born in the Arizona Territory in 1842 and 1849. They owned “Tres Alamos.” They obtained the land grant in 1876 with President Ulysses S. Grant’s seal. The ranch consisted of 180 acres. In 1892, they acquired eighty more acres signed by President Harrison. I have the original land grants. I sent a copy to the Historical Museum in Benson. My father was born in Benson in 1910. He told me my grandfather, Juan Nunez, was from San Luis Obispo County, California and was a cowboy on the cattle drives in the late 1800’s.He met my grandmother at “Tres Alamos.” How “Tres Alamos” was disposed of in 1900 is unknown. My father was told the story that Geronimo watered his horses while passing thru.

    • dhocking says:

      I was hoping to see more of this. I know Tres Alamos well.

    • dhocking says:

      I’ve seen those documents in Benson. Geronimo certainly was nearby a number of times.

    • Justin H Nunez says:

      I think you wold Uncle Tony! I am Justin H. Nunez, oldest son of Johnny James Nunez III, oldest son of Estelle Valle and Johnny James Nunez,Jr., son of John G. Nunez who was the son of Francisca and Juan. I have been trying for years to find out more about Juan Nunez and farther back. I would love to get a copy of our land grant. Tata mentioned it a few times but nothing specific. I hope you receive this.

      • Terry Nunez says:

        Hi Justin! Send me your address and I will send you a copy of the “Tres Alamos” land grants. I also have some history from the Nunez side of the family.

  9. Paul Cruz says:

    Hello Mr. Nunez,My name is Paul Cruz, My grandpa was born in 1912 Benson,AZ. My dad is still in Tucson,AZ. I met the ranch folks at Tres Alamos and they are very nice. We can visit any time.If you can please get this book Borderline Americans by Katherine Benton-Cohen this has both of our families heritage and understanding.My dad is 79 yrs old Mr. Nunez and is always up to family discussion..Thanks Paul

    • Terry Nunez says:

      Hello Mr. Cruz. Unfortunately I don’t know too much history of “Tres Alamos.” My Father, Antonio Nunez, three older brothers and one younger sister, were all born in Benson from 1905-1912. My aunt Edilia was born in 1912, the same year as your grandfather. The Grijalba’s had four children. Uncle Arturo, the only son, was born in Tucson in 1878 along with my grandmother Francisca who was born in 1882. One sister, Beatrice, married a Mr. Fricker and they lived in Tucson. The Nunez family moved to Glendale, Az. in 1917, where my uncle Jose was born. Uncle Jose has a son living in Phoenix. His name is Tommy Nunez and he was the first Mexican-American professional referee in all major sports. He was a referee in the NBA for 26 years. He is a fourth generation from “Tres Alamos.” The Nunez family, along with Uncle Arturo, moved to Santa Maria, Ca. in 1924. Uncle Arturo was managing “Tres Alamos” when he filed a claim under the Homestead Act in 1907, to remain on the rancho. It must have been shortly after, “Tres Alamos” was disposed of. Uncle Arturo was a mysterious fellow. He was a bachelor all his life and he was always living in various towns throughout the central coast of California. Half the time we never knew where he was living. The only time I remember seeing him was on Thanksgiving Day. He would show up at our house in his old coupe and join us for dinner. My father was his favorite nephew. My father would fix high-balls and they would sit in the living room and converse in Spanish before dinner. My mother was Swedish, so we never knew what they were discussing. He passed away in 1963 in Santa Margarita, Ca. When my father went through his effects, he found the “Tres Alamos” land grants that he had kept all these years. I walked thru the Cemetery in Benson, last May but I didn’t find any graves that belonged to the Grijalbas. Thanks! Anthony Nunez

  10. Carl says:

    Doug Hocking. I collect AZ territorial items and I have an original War Department telegraph dated june 22, 1878 to a D.M. jacobs & co. for a 6 pound hammer to; Tres Alamos Dunbar Co. D. by G.W. Atkins. Let me know and I’ll send you a picture of it. Carl

  11. Ginger says:

    In 1960 my family lived at a ranch I remember as Tres Almos. It had been a stage coach stop. The ranch house we lived in had a fireplace in each bedroom & outside entrance. There was a fire & the main house burnt down leaving several small Adobe huts for workers, the barn & other building. I used to find allot of arrow heads on a small hill overlooking the house. Fireman came from Benson. Do I have things mixed up Or do you know of any other family living there with working cattle ranch? Do you have any record of a fire around that time?

    • dhocking says:

      I don’t have record of a fire. Benson would have been the nearest fire department. The rest sounds right. Several families in the area run cattle. There is a small hill that once had a Hohokam village on it and that is probably where you found arrowheads.

  12. Rhonda Sabala says:

    I am extremely interested in your work!

    My 2nd-great grandfather had a homestead in Tres Alamos. His name was Desiderio Madrid.
    He is listed in the 1894 Voter Registration as living at Tres Alamos.

    For some reason it is difficult to find information on my Mexican-American and Native American ancestors, yet I grew up with the family stories. The Madrids were farmers and ranchers. They had their homesteads in Tres Alamos but also owned properties in Benson. I’ve been to Benson’s Our Lady of Lourdes, the Historical Museum and Society, the Visitor’s Center (has a Madrid on their 1880s map), and Cochise County offices, trying to get directions and information.

    My family has members buried in High Street and 7th Street Cemeteries. I am interested in finding out who is buried at Tres Alamos.

    We’re trying to find the right location. His brother, Simon, had a tract, and so did Felix Madrid.
    Here is the BLM link for one parcel. Is this a Tres Alamos location?

    Side note…a great mystery is trying to find out more about my 2nd-great grandmother, Ysabel Herrara and great-grandmother Melquiadez Anjelita ‘Lita’ Betancúr Sabala/Savala. Both died in Benson. I don’t know where Lita is buried. Ysabel is buried at 7th Street but her grave was burned in a fire. All that’s left is a piece of metal mounted on a new grave likely donated by the historical society.

  13. dhocking says:

    Tres Alamos is in township 24S 20E. The parcel referenced is in 16S 20E and the nearest town is Klondyke. Tres Alamos covered a fairly large area. It was ranches and farms along two irrigation ditches, one on either side of the river. There was a school for a while and a stage station. There is a book about Tres Alamos in the library at AHS in Tucson on 2nd st. Some of the names you mention are familiar from that book.

  14. Karen Woodward says:

    Hello, my great grandparents Thomas and Agnes Dunbar ran the stage stop in Tres Alamos, had a cattle ranch and Thomas was the Postmaster there. He also served two terms as an Assemblyman and was instrumental in the creation of Cochise County. Thomas is also credited for bringing the first school teacher to Tres Alamos. His brother John O. Dunbar was the first County Treasure for Cochise county and became a well known Publisher in Phoenix. John was also a good friend of John Behan and I believe they even did business together. Thomas and Agnes are buried in Tombstone. Thanks for writing about Tres Alamos, always interesting to read about what people have found there or share a bit of history about the citizens of Tres Alamos.

Leave a Reply