Tuesday, October 10, 2000

The Old Cow Tank at Bluff Springs

October 10, 2000 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Several months ago I was riding in the mountains with a friend of mine when we decided to ride over to Bluff Springs, which is located northwest of Miner’s Needle Summit. As we rode along the trail I told him about the old concrete water tank at Bluff Springs and explained how I had worked on the old concrete tank many times during the 1950s during my employment with the Barkley Cattle Company. I told him the concrete tank’s source of water was a small seep at the base of the cliff on Bluff Springs Mountain.

Many times I recall climbing through the brush to reach the seep and then cleaning it out so water could flow down the pipe to the concrete tank. This was a weekly ritual almost during the dry hot summer months, and it was a long hot ride from the old U Ranch to Bluff Springs Mountain.

The Bluff Springs concrete tank was about seven miles from the Quarter Circle U Ranch near Back’s Draw. Can you imagine the determination and energy necessary to build such a concrete tank so far from an improved road? Pioneer cattlemen would do just about anything to get water to their stock.

The concrete tank at Bluff Springs was about six feet by three feet by three feet high. The walls were about four inches thick. I recall the first time I saw the tank in 1948. My dad and I had hiked into Bluff Springs from the Linesbra cabin at the mouth of Peralta or Willow Canyon. The name varied depending on who you ask. As we walked by the old corral and headed up the draw toward the old metal line shack you could see the green sumac tree near the concrete tank. As we neared the tank the cool water shimmering in the hot afternoon sun was a refreshing sight. What a welcomed relief this old concrete tank was after hiking in the heat of the desert.

As my friend and I approached, I was amazed to find the old tank had completely vanished. All that was left of [the] tank was the concrete slab it once sat on. I was devastated as to why the concrete tank was gone. I couldn’t believe somebody had destroyed it.

At first I thought it was the work of vandals, then I recalled the Wilderness Management Plan. The management plan for the Superstition Wilderness Area and other wilderness areas calls for the removal of all man-made structures from within a wilderness area constructed during the last one hundred years. I had photographed this old concrete tank over the years on many different occasions surrounded by cattle or hikers getting water.

[Part II – October 17, 2000]

There was that part of my mind that said the old concrete tank had to go to comply with wilderness policy. Then I thought about the historical struggle, hardships and energy these old time cattlemen put into the construction of these concrete tanks. I even thought of my own trials and tribulations at this site, so far removed from accessible roads. I imagined the time and labor required in packing the cement and forms to build this particular tank. Can you imagine an old cowboy screening sand from the small wash to make concrete? I recalled how much work was required to build these tanks, let alone maintain them so there was a sufficient supply of water.

Originally the wilderness management plan called for the removal of all manmade objects or structures from the wilderness area. This plan protected early Native American sites and some old mining sites. There are many people who want to see the historical sites of the mining and cattle industry completely eradicated from these public lands that have become wilderness. We all understand the reason[s] old mine shafts are filled in, why barbed wire fences are removed and why roads are closed. I find it difficult to understand why good sources of water are removed. I am convinced the forest district has a sufficient cause and reason for removing such memorabilia from public lands.

The miners, prospectors, cattlemen and cowboys are now gone from the Superstition Wilderness Area. It is now being prepared to serve as a recreation area for [the] Phoenix metropolitan region. The hikers and contemporary visitors will be able to name their own trails and their own landmarks. I am told some of the old landmarks will remain to help guide rescue units into [the] region in case of emergencies. Eventually the wilderness will become a managed park (wilderness) with the expected ten million people that will be living in the Valley of the Sun by 2050. The Superstition Wilderness Area will certainly be a crowded wilderness in the future.

I was visiting with a land manager in Montana this past summer who expressed some very interesting observations about present land management throughout the western United States. The forests have suffered some of the worst fires in historical times when cattle have been removed. Cattle browse much of the underbrush and reduce the tinder that fuels these devastating fires. The tinder throughout the Superstition Wilderness Area is extremely dry and abundant. It wouldn’t take much to devastate this area with the worst fire in the history of the region.

The first time I visited the Bluff Springs area there was a corral, line shack and a concrete watering tank for stock, wildlife and humans. A tired and thirsty hiker or cowboy could turn the tap at the old tank and draw a canteen of water.

Today, the old Bluff Springs tank is merely crumbled pieces of concrete spread on the slopes of Bluff Springs Mountain about a hundred feet from the old concrete pad where the tank once sat. This was the final grave for some of Arizona’s early cattle history. Right or wrong, a little more of Arizona history has been lost forever.