Striking it rich — commonly held Williams dream in 1885

In 1885, Williams residents were convinced fabulous mineral wealth existed at and south of the Grand Canyon. They also were certain the town, still with a population of less than 200, would prosper as a mining supply and transportation center.

Everyone knew, people said, that Arizona Territory was a treasure trove of gold, silver and copper. They repeated stories about the great discoveries around Prescott and Wickenburg, the Kingman area, Jerome, Tombstone and near Bisbee — where a mine was on the way to becoming the world’s largest copper producer.

The time was now, men with more enthusiasm than knowledge insisted, to stake a claim north of Williams, attract investors who would develop mines into bonanzas, and get railroad tracks laid to the Grand Canyon so ore could be hauled for smelting here and elsewhere.

For years, people dreamed of fortunes made and a very small town becoming a thriving city. Their optimism lasted into the 20th Century and finally collided with the truth: There weren’t enough mineral deposits big enough for any large-scale mining. A Grand Canyon railroad was built, but it succeeded because of sightseers.

Former President U.S. Grant died in 1885, a Flagstaff businessman was bottling soda pop and beer, another Flagstaff man was killed by a grizzly bear, and John Fox of Philadelphia introduced the game of golf to this country from Scotland. The Washington Monument was completed 36 years after construction work first started, the postal service began offering special delivery, and a French scientist named Louis Pasteur developed a rabies vaccine.

To reduce the spread of other diseases, public health officials recommended that garbage be burned instead of leaving it for pigs to eat. Only one out of six American families had a bathtub. Jumbo, the famous P.T. Barnum Circus elephant, died. A popular patent medicine for women called Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound contained 21 percent alcohol. London audiences saw the first performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” And 100,000 acres of southern Arizona desert land were being irrigated by a new system of canals carrying water from the Salt River.

Speculators from as far away as Maryland were shipping cattle to the Williams area for summer grazing as the price of beef continued to fall. They believed lots of money could be quickly made because the supply of grass was endless. The author of one book boosting Arizona described the climate as perpetual spring and promised his readers there always was good grazing even when the range was dry.

Williams cattle ranchers were members of the Mogollon Livestock Protection Association headquartered at Flagstaff. The association lobbied congress for reduced railroad freight rates and offered a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of rustlers.

The only teacher for the Williams one-room school located near the intersection of today’s Second Street and Route 66 was John F. Scott. G.M. Mason was the doctor, and he’d built a little hospital where he cared for patients recovering from surgery and those with dangerously high fevers.

There were at least two general stores, a meat market, three restaurants including one operated by the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad where dances sometimes were held, a boarding house, billiard hall, drugstore, laundry, livery stable, feed store, carpenter and blacksmith shops, an unknown number of saloons, brothels and opium dens, and a justice of the peace office.

Along with its wooden depot and restaurant building, the railroad owned locomotive repair facilities, a pumphouse and water storage tank, bunkhouses and cottages for employees. The general stores sold cigars from barrels, 100 pounds of flour for $4 and 100 pounds of potatoes for $1.57. They were beginning to stock fresh California fruits and vegetables brought by the railroad.

The big local news story of 1885 was the murder of the Williams justice of the peace. He was gunned down by a drunk who then was shot by an onlooker. This prompted a Flagstaff newspaper editor to call Williams a place infected with “lawless and desperate characters.”

Homes and businesses were illuminated by kerosene lamps because there was no electricity.

Kerosene was called coal oil then and was purchased in five-gallon cans. Housewives used the empty cans to cook beans on wood-burning stoves. The beans were boiled with pork or beef, onions, molasses and catsup.

A cowboy could order everything he needed except a horse from the 1885 Montgomery Ward catalog for $134 — saddle and blanket, bridle, saddle bags, Stetson hat, bandana, shirt and pants, chaps, boots and spurs, a raincoat called a slicker, a Colt Peacemaker revolver, cartridge belt and holster, and a Winchester rifle.

Fashionable women were buying a new travel convenience called the satchel bustle, which was a carrying case something like a modern fanny pack worn underneath the skirt just below the waist over the posterior. There was room inside for a nightgown, change of stockings, hair brush, comb, perfume, soap and a lady’s valuables.

(Jim Harvey is a Williams’ historian who contributes a monthly column depicting our town’s early days.)


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