History of Tonopah Area
by Jodey Lynne Elsner

Ms. Elsner has a MA in History from ASU and serves as Historic Preservation Commission (Peoria).

For more than five thousand years, the Tonopah desert has been a place to stop and rest for people travelling. The earliest known archaeological sites in the area date back as far as 3000 BC. Much later, such groups as the Hohokam, Patayan, Hakataya and Yavapai traveled through the area to and from the Colorado River . At Tonopah, they stopped to hunt and gather wild plants.

Roughly two hundred years ago, the first pioneers crossed the desert. In 1811, a traveler carved his name on a rock outcropping northwest of Tonopah. There are many prehistoric petroglyphs in the Saddle Mountain region and histographs from some early settlers dated 1856 and 1862. Permanent settlement of the area began just prior to World War I. Most of the settlement was the direct result of homesteading. The first homestead in Tonopah was filed in 1916 by Elbert Winters. In 1920, Winters proved-up and received official ownership of his tract of land. A number of homesteaders that followed were World War I veterans. Many of the former soldiers had been exposed to mustard gas while in Europe and suffered with respiratory problems after being gassed. Other veterans had contracted tuberculosis. The dry desert air in Tonopah helped to ease their health problems and let them lead productive lives.

Not all homesteaders were World War I veterans, some were simply people looking for a fresh start in an undeveloped region and a plot of land all their own. Not all homesteaders were men, either. In at least one case, a woman was made entryman on a property after her husband deserted her, she later proved-up on the acreage.

North of the settlement, the Tonopah-Belmont mine began mining lead and silver in the area around 1920. It was named for the large (and famous) mine in Nevada and the Belmont mountains in which it was located. The mountains were named after the mine in 1963. Approximately 50 miners were employed at the mine and lived in the area from 1924 and 1930. When a permanent settlement developed south of the mine, it too was called Tonopah (although the two were not directly related).

Around 1930, Tonopah and Winters Well (Wintersburg) saw a small population boom. Homesteading had become quite popular. The area’s first post office located at Winters Well. On February 21, 1931 , Marc Kentch became the first postmaster. Ten years later, mail service was discontinued and the post office closed. Wintersburg residents traveled to Arlington for their mail (oddly enough, not to Tonopah). The Tonopah post office opened on June 15, 1934 with John Beauchamp (a major landowner in the area) as postmaster. The Beauchamp homestead house still stands near the corner of Indian School and 411 th Avenue .

Although farming was not entirely successful in the early years, homesteading was. The United States Government relaxed the homesteading laws: entrymen still had to make “improvements” to the property, but they were no longer required to spend the entire four years on the property. The government issued a leave of absence to the desert dwellers during the summer so they could seek employment and more comfortable residences elsewhere. “Dry farming” was also allowed. Considered an improvement to the land, it constituted planting seeds or seedlings and waiting for Mother Nature to water them with rainstorms. If the weather was favorable and the crops grew, the homesteader took the produce to town ( Phoenix , Buckeye or Hassayampa, most often) and sold it. These small operations were called “truck farms.”

Some enterprising settlers decided they could market Tonopah as a resort and destination. Mineral waters beneath the area with temperatures of anywhere between 116 and 122+ degrees were some of the hottest in the southwest. Contrary to popular belief, these waters are not springs but wells and the hot water must be pumped to the surface. The Lamoreaux family built a tiny resort just north of Indian School Road where I-10 is now and touted their mineral well for its healing and soothing powers. The Saguaro Health Resort located on 411 th Avenue just south of the Tonopah post office also uses the hot mineral waters. The modest hotel, first called the Saguaro Sanitarium, was officially dedicated on June 17, 1934 . George W.P. Hunt, the first governor of Arizona , attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

Tonopah in the 1920s and 30s was a humble tourist destination and farm community. With more and more families settling in the area, schools were needed for their children. By most accounts, the Winters Well (Wintersburg) School was the first of its kind in the Tonopah Desert in 1929. Twelve years later, Ruth Fisher arrived to teach the children of Wintersburg and remained at the school for twenty-three years. She made such a strong impression on people that when the new elementary school at Indian School and Wintersburg Road was built in 1964, it was named after her. The Winters Well school was not the only one in the area. An accommodation school was built east of downtown Tonopah near the banks of the Old Camp Wash in 1931. The school would open to “accommodate” an increase in the number of children as needed. The school building moved closer to the “downtown” area in later years.

The area continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 1950s. With improvements in irrigation and farming technology, it was possible to run a successful farming operation in the area. In 1951, Otis “Mitch” Mitchell harvested the first cotton crop in the Tonopah Desert. The intrepid farmer irrigated his fields with hot mineral waters pumped from his well. Raising cattle and other stock also became a way for area farmers to make a living. Homesteading had allowed property ownership for many residents that otherwise might never had the opportunity. Some families, after proving up on their land, continued to live a transient lifestyle, but many settled in Tonopah. Improvements in the area followed with the addition of gas stations, restaurants, and other services.

The construction of the Ruth Fisher School in 1964 showed the determination of the settlement. In the early 1970s, progress came to Tonopah from the west. Interstate 10 slowly cut its way across western Arizona on its way to Phoenix through Tonopah. When it reached tiny Brenda, travelers had a choice of which route to take to Phoenix and beyond. They could either continue along US 60 to Wickenburg and then on to Phoenix or take US 60 to Salome and then head south on the Buckeye-Salome Highway to Buckeye and Old US 80. With construction of the interstate moving gradually, the government decided to pave and maintain the Salome Highway as a route for the myriad of travelers and truckers. When I-10 reached Tonopah in mid-June of 1973, travelers exited the freeway at 411 th Avenue and headed toward the Salome Highway . Thousands of semi-trucks, autos and other vehicles rumbled through “downtown” Tonopah everyday. The once sleepy desert community became a boomtown.

The boom did not last long. Construction on I-10 did not stop at 411 th Avenue but continued on to Phoenix . Tonopah area residents did not have to wait long for another large project to start. Construction of the $9.3 billion Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station began in 1976. It took eleven years to complete. At the height of the plant’s construction in 1980 and 1981, 8,500 people were employed. Among the 200 present at the official dedication in December of 1987 was then Governor Evan Mecham. Units 1,2, and 3 were fully operational in1988.
With the area’s continued growth, the Ruth Fisher School became overcrowded. In 1983, a $9 million school building was built. It was originally intended to be used as a high school. The high school was not needed at the time and the school remained an elementary school. The newer building housed the upper grades, while the older structure held the lower grades.

During the last decade, the elementary school complex has continued to grow. Today the planning area continues to be sparsely populated but it will likely experience increased development in the coming years. Much of the area remains agricultural, particularly the Arlington area, with areas of large lot residential development. The desert and agricultural properties define the open, rural feeling of the area. Within the past decade, easy freeway access, the availability of land, and the beauty of the wide-open desert have made the Tonopah area a popular area to live.