Arizona's Old West Boom Town | On The Trail Of Mining Men, Ghosts & Desperados

Arizona’s Old West is Alive In Prescott, Williams and Jerome

There’s something about the Old West that brings out our inner pioneer. Galloping on our big chuffing beasts, wearing leather vests, cool hats and steer-hide chaps; grabbing the reins (or handlebar) with a firm, leathered hand. In Arizona, which held out against statehood until 1912, western towns don’t die; they just pave over the dirt trail and invite you to ride on in.

Most western towns began as boom camps, usually for silver, gold or copper mining, but fur trapping, logging, ranching and even the odd railroad also planted seeds for what sometimes grew into a city, or went bust trying. Many of these towns began as nothing more than a small shire of tents and bedrolls, which gave way to wooden shacks, which begat multistory masonry buildings—usually after the wood housing burned down a few times. Some quickly fell into the history books soon after the mines were exhausted, leaving structures to crumble, legends to grow and ghosts to dwell, rent-free.

Roll Up For the History Tour

Today’s Old West boomtowns are based not on precious metals or beef-on-the-hoof, but on tourism. The first stop on our magical history tour is the old cow town of Prescott, about an hour and a half northwest of Phoenix. The city was founded in 1864 as the territorial capital, and named after William Prescott, an author who The Arizona Miner described as“…a good citizen, a true patriot, with industry, perseverance under difficulty, amiability of character and love of country.”

Prescott, once topping Money Magazine’s “Best Places To Live” list, is an unexpectedly lush and diverse destination, where Victorian architecture dominates the downtown area as well as the city’s landmark courthouse. Located in Arizona’s central highlands at 5200 feet, the town’s climate boasts temperatures far more tolerable than the swelter of Phoenix or the bone-numbing winter chill of Flagstaff. Rolling hills, ponderosa pine, granite dells, and occasional shallow lakes flank the burg.

Prescott boasts a rough ‘n tumble history, as might be expected from a frontier town. None other than the nefarious likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate (Holiday’s girlfriend), John Miller (purportedly Billy the Kid), and our own feared Editor Cherney, were known to pass through the many swinging saloon doors along Whiskey Row, seeking the comfort of a cool beer and a warm bosom. The district was home to harlots, gunfighters, lawmen of dubious ilk, highwaymen and wayward bikers. If you ask me, not much has changed since the 1880s except for the style of horse.

Home to Jerome

Rolling northeast out of Prescott on State Route 89, we pick up Route 89A to historic Jerome. Roughly 20 of the 35 miles between the towns roll over Mingus Mountain, where twisties and hairpins cut at steep grade, treating the rider to a challenge reminiscent of celebrated U.S. 129, the pretzelized mountain road on the Tennessee/North Carolina border known as “The Tail of the Dragon.” Mingus offers some stunning vistas, but relaxing to enjoy the view could be the last thing you do if you’re not paying attention.

Soon after an overlook offering a stunning panorama of the otherworldly Verde Valley, 89A spills into Jerome. Founded in 1883, it was once declared by the New York Sun as “the wickedest town in the West” for its lewd public drunkenness, barroom brawls, general lawlessness and wanton women. It was “…a decadent rookery of saloons, dens, and cribs infested by drifters, killers, gamblers, and tarts,” added historian Herbert Young. It’s Disneyland for the disturbed, or our home away from home.

The “Billion Dollar Copper Camp” is long past its boomtown hellfire heyday, although a patina of mischief still shimmers. The whimsical village has been called a cross between Northern Exposure and The X-Files, and at one time, population topped 15,000, an unimaginable number for a town little more than a half-mile in area and now the residence of only 348 living souls by the last census (and a few not-so-living). Despite the anemic population numbers, this old ghost town has been a motorcycle mecca for decades.

The copper mines closed in 1953, but by then Jerome was already in serious decline. Within months, little was left but the skeletal remains of saloons, gambling halls and brothels, a few crumbling Victorian homes, and rusting machines.

Jerome became a hippie haven by the 1960s, and later an artsy tourist destination. Where once there were migrant diggers spending lonesome days pulling raw metal from the earth and lawless nights quenching a fierce thirst for whiskey and women, there are now modern motorcyclists making donations to the Main Street shops and restaurants.

Most weekends from roughly March through October, bikers ride in from the next town or the next state to cool their dusty throats in a spooky 110-year-old saloon, aptly called the Spirit Room. They also visit the mining museum, browse the many art galleries, buy an evil-looking T-shirt, and sometimes, on very dark nights, ask the ghosts to come out and play.

Route 66 and Williams

Rolling downhill on 89A into the sprawling Verde Valley, through Clarkdale and Cottonwood, the red rock wonderlands and New Age colony of Sedona rise up to greet the intrepid motorcyclist. Passing through the town, up spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and into Flagstaff, turning west on Interstate 40 for a run at Williams, the ride is a little under 90 miles and about 100 million years in geologic change.

Founded in 1881 as a trapping and logging camp, Williams is named after one of its woolly settlers, mountain man Bill Williams. Motoring by its handmade brick and clapboard buildings, it’s easy to get the feeling Norman Rockwell might be hanging around, leaning up against an oily Flathead, waiting for the next staged western shootout, admiring the period architecture, maybe planting his easel on the corner of Third and Main, more popularly known as Route 66.

At 6800 feet, Williams offers almost ideal summer biker conditions. Temps are typically in the 80s, with very low humidity. The town sits in the middle of the biggest ponderosa pine forest in the nation and is within an easy gallop of the Grand Canyon. Monument Valley, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert are also just a day-trip away. If Williams has the will and develops the facility, it could very well have the makings of another Sturgis.

The district was home to harlots, gunfighters, lawmen of dubious ilk, highwaymen and wayward bikers. If you ask me, not much has changed since the 1880s except for the style of horse.

Road Notes Old West Boom Towns
Jerome, AZ www.jeromechamber.com
The Spirit Room Bar www.spiritroom.com
Prescott, AZ www.cityofprescott.net
Williams, AZ www.experiencewilliams.com.