From Boom(town) to Bust

A ghost town's history tracks the ups and downs of Southern Arizona's economy

Ghost towns are common throughout Arizona, thanks to this state's rich Old West history and our tendency to abandon a community when its usefulness has been exhausted.

Take, for example, the short-lived town of Sasco, which popped up in 1902 during one of Arizona's many copper-fueled booms. Nestled between the Silverbell Mountains and Picacho Peak, both of which were being actively mined for copper ore, Sasco seemed poised to become a boomtown.

Author James Sherman, in his 1969 book Ghost Towns of Arizona, noted that Sasco was the typical burgeoning company town, complete with hotels, saloons and shops. It even had a train station, where workers caught a shuttle to the nearby mines.

But within eight years, the community—named for and essentially owned by the Southern Arizona Smelting Company (aka Sasco)—was already on the downswing. Copper prices plummeted, and the smelter that Sasco was built around was shut down due to a lack of profit.

As many as 600 people lived in Sasco—about eight miles west of the Red Rock exit on Interstate 10 northwest of Tucson­­—during its brief history. The post office, which opened in July 1907, was closed by September 1919. By that time, most of the residents had moved away.

In a bit of an ironic twist, the road to Sasco takes you past Red Rock Village, a master-planned community where Pulte Homes hoped to build 4,000 houses. But thanks to the state's housing crash, there are no more than 500 rooftops. Signs touting a "future commercial site" and a "future fire station" have been up since 2008.

Sasco's cemetery, located about a mile east of the town, contains about 100 tombstones and assorted markers. Many of the dead succumbed to an influenza epidemic that tore across the globe in the early 20th century.

The closest thing to a scandal in Sasco came in its final days, when Charley Coleman, a Bisbee resident, traveled there in April 1919 with the intention of killing two men he believed had been sleeping with his wife. Coleman, a man of "questionable reputation," according to author Sherman, jumped off a moving train outside of town one night and snuck into Sasco, only to end up getting shot to death by a saloon owner who came upon Coleman arguing with Mrs. Coleman in a hotel room.

Debe Branning, an author and ghost enthusiast who is director of a Mesa-based group known as MVD Ghostchasers, suggests on her website that Coleman's death has left Sasco haunted, and that those who visit the town's ruins can "hear children at play."

Nowadays, all that's left of Sasco are the remains of some concrete outbuildings and the smelter itself. The 30-foot tall structure, complete with a large hole carved through the middle, looms over the area from a hillside west of town.

The area has become a haven for a variety of off-the-grid uses, including target practice. On a recent Sunday morning, five people fired handguns from the back of a pickup at targets they'd brought with them. The ghosts of Sasco have also hosted paintball competitions and plenty of desert partyers.

Nearly every remaining structure is pocked with bullet holes or splotched with paintball remnants and graffiti, while broken bottles are strewn everywhere. Videos uploaded to YouTube by the Tucson Airsoft Coalition show paintball events held in Sasco.

It doesn't appear that any effort has been made to maintain the remaining structures, and the current property owners haven't indicated there are plans to do anything.

Sasco lies within a nearly 19,000-acre swath of land known collectively as La Osa Ranch. Nine years ago, it was on the cusp of becoming a mega-planned community. The Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted to allow developer George Johnson to build as many 61,000 homes and 5,700 apartments.

The area was projected to become home to between 150,000 and 175,000 people. But around the same time, Johnson was accused of illegal blading parts of the land and blamed for endangering the bighorn sheep population in nearby Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Johnson paid the state several million dollars in fines, and sold the land in 2004 to W Holdings, a Tempe development outfit owned by Conley Wolfswinkel, whose Tucson projects include Rancho Vistoso.

The company's website says that it is still "working in coordination with resource agencies" to determine the best use for the La Osa land.

Officials with W Holdings did not return calls from the Weekly.

Until then, Sasco will remain a place that Tucson's outdoor enthusiasts can visit on a quick day trip and experience a genuine Arizona ghost town.

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