c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.
Long after Native Americans, Spanish explorers and Lt. Edward Beale’s crew made their way along today’s Interstate 40 through Arizona, a settlement popped up at the junction of today’s Highway 89 leading south to Prescott. The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, which laid rails through the area in 1882, called it Ash Fork after a nearby grove of trees.
For a number of years, things at Ash Fork were just swell. A post office opened in 1883, then a Wells Fargo office, and cattle and sheep ranchers began moving in. Local flagstone was loaded onto boxcars along the railroad to build bridges and buildings. Everything was fine until residents realized they had no sheriff, and that their fair little town was seeing a chaotic wave of outlawry and debauchery.
Some of the outlaws around Ash Fork were duly hanged by vigilante committees until the law showed up. When the town became an important branch along the Santa Fe Railroad to Prescott and beyond beginning in the early 1890’s, folks hoped some of the bad guys would hop a train and skedaddle. What happened instead, however, was that more bad boys and naughty girls bought a ticket to come to town instead of leaving it.
By 1893, Ash Fork was quite wicked indeed. On February 22, for instance, the Arizona Journal Miner alone reported that a “woman of the town” had committed suicide, and a man killed E.G. Owens in the same saloon where, the previous summer, one Brog May had also killed a man named Tom West. Also, wife murderer Salvador Armijo was still on the loose. That was just in one day. Later that year, when Ash Fork caught fire and burned to the ground, it is doubtful that anyone was really surprised.
Ash Fork rebuilt. The year 1894, however, wasn’t much better as the incorrigible Bertha Reed came to town. Bertha had already been in Prescott’s court over the morphine overdose of James Gabel and the murder of Tim Casey when she was arrested for loitering in Ash Fork’s saloons. Later, Bertha went to Globe and was involved in several more escapades before disappearing in 1907.
Bertha Reed wasn’t the only troublemaker around Ash Fork. In November of 1901 Rosa Duran was charged with larceny at Ash Fork and sentenced to Yuma’s Territorial Prison for three years. She was back in Prescott by 1908, however, where she and Ella Wilton, a.k.a. the “Turkey Herder”, were arrested for robbing Yee Jackson of $40.
Ash Fork balanced its wild nightlife by having not one but two of the finest Harvey Houses in Arizona. Fred Harvey built the first one, a wooden affair across from Cooper Thomas Lewis’ Parlor House Saloon. When a kitchen fire destroyed the building and some other structures, Harvey built the massive and extravagant Escalante Hotel and dining room in 1907. The Escalante was soon billed as the nicest Harvey House west of Chicago.
The Escalante seemed to tame Ash Fork down a bit. In 1912, an article in the Tucson Daily Star explained that “Ash Fork is today as innocent as a newborn babe; she is as pure and white, morally, as the drifted snows that rim the San Francisco’s.” Of course the cleansing was due to the fact that the day before, “sixteen women of easy virtue” and their consorts were taken to jail in Prescott as a means to clean up the town. Within a year, however, some of the ladies were back. Amongst them was May Clark, who had previously killed a man in Seligman in self defense. After bonding out in Ash Fork, May went to Prescott, dressing in elaborate velvet gowns and conducting herself like a regular socialite during her trial.
May and her many consorts and colleagues gradually moved away from Ash Fork. In time, Route 66 travelers came to rest easy there and in 1947, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made an appearance in town during the filming of “Dark Passage.” Even so, the hotel portion of the grand Escalante closed sometime between 1948 and 1951. The dining room closed just a couple years later as an expansion of Route 66 destroyed numerous storefronts and homes.
The final blows to Ash Fork came in 1960 when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its main line away from town; in 1968 when the treasured Escalante was demolished; in 1977 when yet another fire burned most of the downtown area and yet again in 1987 when one last fire destroyed nearly everything left of the downtown buildings. In between such catastrophes, Interstate 40 eventually by-passed Ash Fork altogether.
The original section of Route 66 still runs through Ash Fork where a healthy handful of historic buildings survive. In 1992 there was another brief revival when another movie, “Universal Soldier” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme was filmed there—although, they say, several decrepit buildings were blown up as part of the action. Today, Ash Fork has reverted to one of its oldest industries, flagstone, while the Ash Fork Historical Society tells visitors about the town’s once wild and woolly past.
Read more about Ash Fork’s wild women in Wild Women of Prescott and Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico: A Red-Light History of the American Southwest.