Monday, December 20, 2004

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Tortilla Flat Museum

December 13, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The weekend of November 26, 27, and 28, 2004 the citizens at Tortilla Flat, a small settlement 18 miles northeast of Apache Junction (State Route 88), celebrated their one hundredth anniversary. A large white banner across the restaurant’s façade announced the special occasion.

The parking lot on both sides of the Apache Trail was filled to capacity. Visitors filled the boardwalk along the south side of the road. Good ol’ Country & Western music filled the air from the outdoor pavilion. Near the eastern end of the boardwalk was a small building with a brightly yellow-lettered sign that read “Museum.”

Another sign announced that the museum’s small building represented the schoolhouse that once stood in Tortilla Flat across the creek. Students attended this school under the guidance and supervision of Ms. Spencer Dingle in 1934.

The Tortilla Flat Museum represented a very interesting part of the Superstition Mountain-Apache Trail history. 

Reclamation engineer Louis C. Hill first recognized the need for a service road between Mesa and the Roosevelt Dam site in 1903. The businessmen of Tempe, Mesa, and Phoenix also recognized the importance of such a road for economic development in the Salt River Valley. Funding was obtained and construction began in November of 1903. Tortilla Flat construction camp was established in 1904.

The road was completed in September of 1905 at a cost of $551,000. More than one million pounds of freight was hauled over the government road during the first month of operation. Every ten to twelve miles along the government haul road a change station was established. Tortilla Flat was soon to become a change station after construction on the haul road was completed.

A change station was used to swap teams of mules pulling heavy loads to the Roosevelt Dam site. Change stations remained in operation until the gasoline engine (horseless carriage) replaced the mule and horse teams.

Concord stages were used on the Apache Trail up until 1910. The Apache Trail served during the transition between horse and mule teams and the horseless carriage. 

Tortilla Flat remained a change station throughout the period when mule teams were used to pull loads along the Mesa-Roosevelt Haul Road. Sometime after 1915 Tortilla Flat reverted to private ownership. The earliest private operators of Tortilla Flat provided services for the early travelers of the Apache Trail. The Southern Pacific Railroad publicized and promoted the Apache Trail nationally. Actually it was a ticket agent named E.E. Watson who worked for the Southern Pacific that named the Apache Trail in 1915. The Southern Pacific had a franchise on the Apache Trail for several years and therefore spent thousands of dollars in advertisement and promotion of the Apache Trail.

The Tortilla Flat Museum reminds us of the many owners of Tortilla Flat who shared their lives with the travelers of the Apache Trail. During this span of one hundred years many interesting historical things occurred along the Apache Trail. 

Theodore Roosevelt traveled the Apache Trail in 1911 to dedicate Roosevelt Dam. Tom Mix made movies along the Apache Trail in the 1920s. Wilbur Wright flew an airplane along the Apache Trail from Roosevelt Lake to Phoenix in 1916*. Glenn Ford starred in a major motion picture titled “Lust for Gold.” Barry Storm published “Thunder God’s Gold” from Tortilla Flat, Arizona. These are just a few things that happened along the Apache Trail during the past one hundred years.

Lois Potter-Sanders has researched much of the history of Tortilla Flat. She traced down all of te owners and was able to obtain photographs and information about their tenure at Tortilla Flat. Lois assembled many tidbits of history about Tortilla Flat and the people who lived there. She had the schoolhouse of 1934 reassembled and it now stands as the museum. The museum is small, but complete.

In the middle of the room is a school desk that serves as a platform for guest registration. The museum has been open only a short while, but hundreds of people have visited and enjoyed it. Lois opened a fantastic window into the local history of Tortilla Flat. She readily admits that without Tortilla Flat owner Alvin Ross’ support and backing, this museum would still be on the drawing boards. The Tortilla Flat Museum serves as a wonderful time capsule for the history of Tortilla Flat and the past one hundred years.

The drive from Apache Junction toward Tortilla Flat on the Apache Trail is both beautiful and spectacular. The scenery is awe-inspiring in the words of President Theodore Roosevelt who wrote of the Apache Trail in March of 1911.

The trip to Tortilla Flat will take you by many viewpoints, including Canyon Lake and many other points of interest. 

Enjoy a drive to Tortilla Flat and enjoy one of the world’s smallest, but most complete museums.

* Library Note: Wilbur Wright died in 1912, so this Wilbur Wright is a different individual, as noted by Tom Kollenborn in his article here.