How Tortilla Flat was named is an enigma, and to this day it remains an enigma.
The Tortilla Flat road stop was founded in 1904 during the construction period of the great Roosevelt Dam and appears on most Arizona road maps. The location was ideal because of available water in Tortilla Creek, and soon after the establishment of the station a shallow well was also dug.
The purpose of the Tonto Road (Apache Trail), which proceeds up Tortilla Creek and then Mesquite Creek, was to get around the Box Canyon of the Salt River.
Settlers living in Tonto Basin after 1878 often used the river route to the Salt River Valley if it was a dry summer. There is good reason to believe the old timers camped on the flat across from present day Tortilla Flat, however that was long before the construction of any buildings, tents or roads.
The first tent houses were constructed in early 1904, for use by the road gangs working on the haul road between Mesa and the Roosevelt Dam site. A deeper well was later dug and the site continued to serve as a change station for teamsters who drove twenty-mule teams over the Mesa-Roosevelt Road.
The Apaches and Yavapais probably used this trail through the mountains to raid the Pimas along the Gila and Salt Rivers. The first Anglo-Americans to travel along this trail were probably mountain men who accompanied Paulino (Powell) Weaver when he trapped beaver and searched for gold alongthe Rio Salinas (Salt River) in 1827.
Anglo-Americans began to migrate into the area shortly after the signing of the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. This migration was reduced considerably during the American Civil War 1861-1865. After the war, it was American prospectors who found old Mexican workings north of the Pinal Mountains. These old workings eventually [led] to the discovery of the Old Dominion Mine in 1869. The Dominion produced a chunk of almost pure silver the size of a globe, and Globe, Arizona was named after this discovery. Globe eventually became the eastern terminus of the Apache Trail.
On March 10, 1875, the famous Silver King Mine was discovered just north of the present town of Superior. The development of the Silver King [led] to a need for fresh beef to feed to the miners, which soon resulted in a small thriving cattle industry. The demand brought more cattle drovers, sheepherders and farmers to Arizona Territory. Cattlemen and sheepherders lived in Tonto Basin and throughout the mountains of central Arizona. These early pioneers opened the Yavapai Trail from Tonto Basin to the Salt River Valley, a trail that would eventually become part of the Mesa-Roosevelt Road.
The Apache Trail, in a true sense, does not follow the exact path of the old Yavapai Trail, later called the Tonto Trail.
Earlier in this article I touched on the source of Tortilla Flat’s name. One version indicates the name originated with John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat. Actually, Steinbeck wrote a fictional novel about Spanish speaking people living in a barrio (Mexican ghetto) near Monterey, California in 1935. Tortilla Flat received its name long before Steinbeck wrote his novel, and it isn’t difficult to believe that Steinbeck borrowed Tortilla Flat’s name for his book.
Last week in Part One, I gave some of the history of the area around Tortilla Flat and touched on the source of its name. One version indicates the name originated with John Steinbeck’s novel “Tortilla Flat.” Actually, Steinbeck wrote a fictional novel about Spanish speaking people living in a barrio (Mexican ghetto) near Monterey, California in 1935. Tortilla Flat received its name long before Steinbeck wrote his novel, and it isn’t difficult to believe that Steinbeck borrowed Tortilla Flat’s name for his book.
Another popular version for the source of Tortilla Flat’s name involves a local landmark near the old Tortilla Ranch. There are some huge horizontally stratified rocks near the ranch that look like stacked Sonoran style tortillas. Cowboys working on the old Tortilla Ranch claimed the Spanish named one of these huge rocks Tortilla.
However, the following story may be the best source for Tortilla Flat’s name. This story is quoted in a letter to Mr. Ross Santee from the late Mr. Russell Perkins.
In earlier days when this was just a trail, some citizens of the Tonto Basin country had been to Phoenix for supplies. On their way back to Tonto they camped at the flat across the creek. That night it rained and they were water bound and had to stay there several days. In the meantime their food ran out except for some flour so they made tortillas. This was all they had to eat for several days and Mr. John Cline, one of the party, named this place Tortilla Flat. Mr. John Cline lived in Tonto Basin for over seventy-two years.
George Cline supported the claim that John Cline named Tortilla Flat and Mormon Flat. The Clines are some of the earliest settlers in the Tonto Basin region.
Tortilla Flat served as a stage and change station from 1904-1915. The Southern Pacific Railroad decided to promote the Mesa-Roosevelt Road as a tourist attraction in 1915. A Southern Pacific ticket agent changed the name of the road to Apache Trail because it sounded more Southwestern. Tourism was born along one of America’s most beautiful highways as a result of this change and promotion by the Southern Pacific. By 1917, the Southern Pacific Railroad offered the Apache Trail as a side trip on their Sunset Route. The railroad promoters used deep pockets to promote the Apache Trail across the United States with colorful brochures and thousands of dollars in periodical advertisements. This brought thousands of tourists to the Apache Trail and Tortilla Flat long before U.S. Highway 60 was completed in 1922. These tourists are the ones who have kept Tortilla Flat economically healthy over the decades. Horse-drawn Concord stages were used on the Apache Trail until about 1915 when they were replaced with motorized coaches.
On March 19, 1911, Tortilla Flat had a visit from a [sitting] president of the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt passed through Tortilla Flat, riding in a Franklin Motor Car, on his way to dedicate Roosevelt Dam, which was named in his honor. Roosevelt later said the following of the Apache Trail:
The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me, it is most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful.
The lodges, inns, and hotels along the Apache Trail between Government Well and Roosevelt Dam have been consumed by fire. These include Government Well, Jack’s Place, Tortilla Flat, Fish Creek Lodge, and the Apache Lodge at Roosevelt Lake. Tortilla Flat survived some forty-five years without a major fire, the longest of all the inns or hotels along the Apache Trail.
Tortilla Flat burned on April 21, 1987. It has since been rebuilt. Tortilla Flat has proven to be a tough little town that neither earthquake, flood or fire could destroy. This small community is a testimonial to the tenacity of its owners who believed so strongly in the American way of life.