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.
“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,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.
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.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.
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 travelingacross 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.
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.