background

About Tortilla Flat - "The Town Too Tough To Die"

TF Basin

There are probably as many versions of Tortilla Flat's history as there are people to tell the tales. You may have heard a few of them, yourself. In a sincere effort to present a factual history, many previous owners were spoken with, and many stories were verified with historians and other authorities. During our research , it often happened that uncovering one tid bit would, simultaneously, uncover another, which would in turn uncover others. Undoubtedly, there is still a lot of information out there yet to be discovered. We don't pretend to have the whole story, but, of what we have, we feel we have a pretty good grasp on the real story.

In the beginning.....Tortilla Flat was a small grassy valley in the Superstition Mountains, with a babbling creek running through it. Nature placed the Flat between mountain passes that came to be used by the early Indians on their way to and from the central Arizona mountains and the Salt River Valley. The trail their journeys created became known as the Yavapai, or Tonto Trail.

Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer in America in the early 1500's. During an expedition to Florida, he was shipwrecked on a Texas island in 1528. There he was enslaved by the Indians. He escaped and made his way into the Southwest and eventually into Mexico by 1536. His wanderings brought him in contact with the Pueblo Indians, and his later reports in Mexico gave rise to the legends of the Seven Cities of Cibola, -- or the Cities of Gold. These legends were the catalyst for bring Spanish explorers and prospectors into the Arizona territory. As part of the Coronado expedition into Arizona for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Marcos de Niza traveled westward along the Gila River as far as what is now the Phoenix metropolitan area. He may have been the first Spaniard to see the Superstition Mountains.

Built in 1906, the old concrete tank is still standing today and can be seen on the right side of the road just past the bridge.
What has all this to do with Tortilla Flat, you ask? Because of it's location, Tortilla Flat, even presently, is affected by the search for gold in the Superstitions. Each Spanish expedition inspired other expeditions looking for the vast wealth in gold. In the late 1600's through the Mid- 1700's, Jesuits priests were located throughout the Southwest. Allegedly, the Jesuits had amassed a fortune in gold and didn't want to share it with the King of Spain. The king, convinced of treachery, ordered the deportation of all Jesuits in 1767. However, before their departure, they supposedly hid their treasure in various places throughout Southwest and according to legend, the Superstition Mountain region was one of these hidden places.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, and an influx of Mexican prospectors poured into the Superstition Mountain region. Don Miguel Peralta was a wealthy landowner and miner from northern Mexico. Reportedly, his expeditions recovered immense quantities of gold from the Superstitions in 1847 and 1848. All but one member of the expedition was killed in a battle with the Apaches at a site commemorated as Massacre Grounds, located at the west end of the mountains.

The Peralta legend is the inspiration for quite a few gold expeditions into the Superstitions, even today.

Along with all the prospectors came settlers, which created the need for military outposts for protection against the increasing hostilities with Indians. Military personnel, prospectors, cattle ranchers, and, of course, the Indians, used the Yavapai Trail as a route going into the Tonto Basin area. Because of its location, the availability of water, and grass for horses, it's safe to assume Tortilla Flat was a good place to camp along the trail.

Even so, historians say the Yavapai Trail was a difficult trail to traverse. There was other trails that were easier going. This was largely because of the Herculean task it was to cross Fish Creek Mountain and Fish Creek Canyon.

Legends that there was a small settlement of prospectors and/or Indians located at Tortilla Flat in the 1880s, while colorful and fun to believe, seem to be just that - legends, Historians agree that if such a settlement existed, it would appear on the old trail maps of the area, which were typically very detailed. The maps show no such settlement. Also, legal records, such as those of the U.S. Forest Service, give no mention of a settlement prior to 1904. 1800s. There was no road to Tortilla Flat prior to 1904, until construction crews built one to Roosevelt Dam. No road -- no stage stop.
Town View
Some of the nearly 400 Pima and Apache men building the road to the Roosevelt Dam in 1903.

In the small, but interesting, archives of Tortilla Flat is a letter written in 1939, from Postmaster Russell Perkins to Mr. Ross Santee, state director of the Federal Writers' Project, a government project tracing place names in Arizona, part of the Arizona Works Progress Administration in Phoenix. Mr. Perkins states that Tonto Basin pioneer, Mr. John Cline, in a conversation with Mr. Perkins, said that he [Cline] was with some folks from Tonto Basin who had gone to Phoenix for supplies. On their return they were stranded in the flat for several days by a flash flood. Their food ran out except for some flour, so they made tortillas to eat, and Mr. Cline, in honor of their victuals, christened the flat, Tortilla Flat.

Connie Phelps (co-owner of Tortilla Flat in ' 48-' 50) tells a slightly different version. Mr. Cline came to visit Tortilla Flat when Connie was postmaster and told her a similar story, except that Mr. Cline was on a cattle drive from Punkin Center (which is in Tonto Basin) to Phoenix. Mr. Cline said that Tortilla Flat was the area they used to camp on cattle drives. In Phoenix, Mr. Cline and his fellow cowboys celebrated their sale, and, having a little too much to drink, forgot to get supplies while they were in town. Which is how they ended up with only flour to make tortillas when they camped at the flat and were stranded.

Regardless which version is the most accurate, Mr. Cline seems to be the one to have bestowed the name that is now known the world over.

According to Connie Phelps, Mr. Cline was 95 years old when he told her his story. Exactly which year that was is not known, but since Connie lived in Tortilla Flat between 1948 and 1950, his visit, of course, had to be during that time. A quick mathematical computation suggests Mr. Cline was born between 1853 and 1855. Mr. Perkins' letter in 1939 says that Mr. Cline had been living in the Tonto Basin for 72 years, which could mean Mr. Cline moved to Tonto Basin in 1867 at the age of 10 or 12. That was not too early an age to be part of a cattle drive. Though no one seems to know exactly what year Mr. Cline named Tortilla Flat, the figures indicate the flat could have been named as early as 1867. Whether it was or not, (and, it seems unlikely because of Mr. Cline's young age at the time) someone else doing the same computations would have also realized the possibility, which may have led to legends that Tortilla Flat, as a permanent settlement, was established in 1867. Another legend says 1886. Both dates probably fall within the time period Mr. Cline drove cattle.

Going by available records Tortilla Flat got its start because of road construction to Roosevelt Dam (1904). Once established as a freight camp, there seems to have been some number of people living there on their own. Forest Service records show the Tonto National Forest being established in 1905 as kind of a “package deal” with Salt River Project. The Forest Service was needed to manage the land and protect watershed for the dams because cattle grazing had denuded the land, and for additional reasons. The freight camp at Tortilla Flat, as well as the other camps along the road to the dam, were therefore, on U.S. Forest Service land. Those folks who decided to make Tortilla Flat their permanent residence kept up the lease on the land for years whenever it came due up till and including today.
Teddy Roosevelt
President Roosevelt on the Apache Trail heading to the Roosevelt Dam for the dedication ceremonies.

This has been just a brief skimming of the history of Tortilla Flat. Over the years, many noteworthy and famous people have stopped in to take a look around, browse the gift shop, take a load off and/or eat a good meal. We thought it would be fun to include a list here excerpted from the Then and Now book of some people you might recognize.....
TEDDY ROOSEVELT and his entourage passed through on their way to the dedication ceremonies at Roosevelt Dam in 1911. Legend has it that he stopped for lunch, was very gracious to the proprietors and sat on the front porch smoking a cigar after enjoying lunch in the clear air and spectacular scenery.

CLARK GABLE stopped at Tortilla Flat on his way to and from Roosevelt Lake, which he visited often. It's reported that he always had tomato juice to drink.

GLENN FORD and IDA LUPINO made the movie "Lust for Gold" in Tortilla Flat and even brought their own saguaro made of aluminum with them.

ALAN LADD and LORETTA YOUNG reportedly shot some scenes for a western movie in the mid-thirties.

BARRY STORM, author of "Thunder God's Gold" lived at Tortilla Flat from 1942 - 1945, then moved to a cave not far from town.

JOHN WAYNE was also reportedly a frequent visitor.

Veteran western movie star BEN JOHNSON would frequently visit Tortilla Flat.

PAUL HARVEY and his daughter had a "good day" in Tortilla Flat.

Sources said he was a very nice man.

THE DIRTY DOZEN made an impression by how polite they were.

The famous founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, COLONEL SANDERS and his wife were charmed by Tortilla Flat.

DON JOHNSON and BARBARA STREISAND came for a visit during our rebuilding phase. They were very much incognito and reportedly enjoyed our patio BBQ and Cowboy Band.

TED de GRAZIA, the honored Native American artist came through and we hope he was inspired by the scenery.

BUCKY KITCHEYAN, Geronimo's grandson also stopped by and he was said to be a gracious man. His business card holds a place of honor among thousands on the restaurant's walls.

ROBERT CORBIN, the Arizona Attorney General in the 1980's dedicated the rebuilding of the restaurant and bar in July of 1988.

And last but not least - each and every one of YOU locals and those from abroad who have left their dollar bills on the walls of our restaurant (which includes currency from over 80 countries) - thank you so much for your contribution to our history (and wallpaper)! Just so we don't leave anyone out, additions are always gladly accepted!

For more history and information, the book "Tortilla Flat Arizona Then and Now" by L.L. Lombardi is available for purchase in our gift shop.