September 14 - September 20, 1995

B y  K e v i n  F r a n k l i n

Out There

UP TO 350 tons of ore could be processed in the belly of its smelter. More than 600 people lived in its houses. A railway ran through it. But just 19 years after its inception, the town of Sasco was little more than a collection of abandoned buildings.

Today even most of the buildings are gone from the site, 35 miles northwest of Tucson. The wood and steel were carted away as scrap and the adobe sank back into the ground. All that remains are a few foundations--and, of course, the stories. Stories are what make good ghost towns, and this is the story of Sasco.

Founded in 1902, Sasco is relatively young as far as ghost towns go. The name is an acronym for the Southern Arizona Smelting Company. The company's decision to build its smelting plant here created the town. The once-huge facility rose out of the creosote and mesquite desert quite rapidly. By 1907 the mining town had its own post office and had become the main smelter for the prosperous copper mines of the Silver Bell district. But when copper prices fell, the operation was no longer profitable and faded back into the desert just as quickly as it had materialized--easy come, easy go.

Mine connoisseur and geologist Bob Moulton and I take off on a hot afternoon to explore the remains of Sasco. The town is easy to find, just about seven miles west of Interstate 10 where the remains of the smelter's smokestack perch upon the first major bluff west of the freeway at Sasco Road.

Only a minor pitfall waits for the mapless. The road sign at the fork of Sasco and Coachway roads has been turned so it reads opposite of what it should. Ignore arrows to the contrary and stick to the left fork at the ranch.

Aside from the misleading signs, the town is otherwise easy to find. This explains why all items of even remote value disappeared long ago in the beds of pickup trucks. In a way this is good. There's nothing left to steal, so thieves don't bother the town anymore.

The first structure we encounter is the remains of a large stone building. In one photograph at the Arizona Historical Society the building was called the Castillo Ranch. Newspaper clips from the '60s and '70s suggested it was a boarding house for mine workers. The original function of the basalt and mortar walls may remain shrouded in mystery, but sadly its current use is all too clear. Morons have been using one wall for target shooting, and a few artistic failures have taken to spray painting the walls. If only the walls could retaliate in kind.

Farther down the road are the foundations to the smelter and giant ore-processing plant. Two features in particular make impressive sights: A 20-foot-high hexagonal tower that served as the foundation to the steel smokestack still survives. If not purposely demolished, these four-foot thick concrete walls will probably last until the end of the next millennium. Today a few drunks are lounging on it, trying to make their mark on the world with a can of spray paint.

Northwest of the smokestack foundation lay the remains of the ore station. An old photograph of the area shows a locomotive crossing a trestle where men unloaded ore, apparently onto a conveyor of some sort that brought the ore into the mill. Today, dozens of two-foot-thick, 20-foot-long, 10-foot-high foundation walls line up in a row. With their uniform dimensions and purposeful design, the walls seem like the remnants of some ancient pueblo city built for giants.

While intriguing, the structural remains of the town are only part of the ghost town story. Hearing tales about the people who lived here makes Sasco more than a collection of concrete and rust. This was once a booming mining town where fortunes were made and lost, people fell in love, children were reared and, of course, bar room brawls were fought. One story out of an old newspaper recounts the fate of a Bisbee man who attempted to retrieve his wayward wife from a Sasco watering hole in 1919 and got shot for his efforts with a 30-30 rifle wielded by the saloon owner.

Less scandalous folks also called the region home, like Alice Kemper and her husband John. The two met at St. Joseph's Academy in Tucson, reads Alice's Arizona Historical Society autobiography file. Together they worked to supply the needs of the mining town. Alice was at times an employee of the Sasco Post Office, a clerk at the Sasco store and a partner in helping her husband run their cattle ranch. She and her father brought supplies into Sasco on the railroad track via a hand-pump speeder. John also made use of the rail system by riding a special bike that locked onto the tracks, Kemper writes.

Standing on the dirt-covered foundation of a long-gone house, it takes considerable effort to imagine this place as it was--a thriving town where families were raised, feuds fought, and fortunes won, all because an old mining company invested in a processing plant here. Then, with a slight flux in the price of copper, the entire place withered and blew away. The story of Sasco is the story of a thousand western boom towns, and yet, by knowing a little bit about its people, the tale of Sasco emerges as one of a kind.

Getting There:

Take Interstate 10 about 25 miles north of Tucson. Take exit 226 for Red Rock. Cross the freeway overpass, bear right and follow the Sasco Road for a little less than seven miles. You should see the smokestack foundation on the bluff. Take the dirt road to the right leading to it. This is private property, but no one seems to care if you poke around.

Scenic Guide to Tucson
Nature Conservancy Preserves in Arizona
Banff National Park/Parks Canada Home Page
Appalachian Trail Home Page
U.S. National Park Service (Information Center for the Environment)

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September 14 - September 20, 1995

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