GLEESON LIVES ON IN STORIES story and photography by Rhema Sayers
Desert Leaf 03/03/22, Updated 04-08-2022
Do you wonder where the model names come from? The ‘Gleeson’ has a very interesting story behind the name. B.A. Taylor and his wife were sound asleep at 11 p.m. on June 8,1912, when the sound of gunshots woke them. But gunfire was not unusual in Gleeson, the Arizona town where they lived, and they went back to sleep. It wasn’t until Wes Cates, constable of Gleeson and deputy sheriff of Cochise County, came pounding on their door that they realized something terrible was happening.
The Taylor’s warehouse next door to their home was on fire, and the fire was jumping to nearby buildings, including their home. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor barely got out before the house was engulfed in flames. They were so rushed that Mr. Taylor forgot he had put $375 under his pillow when he went to bed.
The money went up with the house; however, they were able to save a few things from the fire – their piano and some clothing. Taylor was also able to pull his automobile from the garage, along with a moving-picture machine and a pair of roller skates.
Cates had been making his evening rounds of the town when he had noticed smoke coming from the warehouse. He got the door open and discovered a fire in the comer where flour was stored. Cates fired five shots in the air to warn people and to call for help. Unfortunately, Gleeson didn’t have a fire department or any system for responding to a fire emergency.
Taylor got to the warehouse in time to remove two drums of gasoline and a couple of kegs of black powder. A bucket brigade was formed down the main street, but it was too little, too late – 28 buildings were destroyed. The small town was devastated. About the only building that wasn’t decimated was the jail, which had been rebuilt two years earlier out of reinforced concrete after two inmates had torn off part of the roof during an escape attempt.
The townspeople learned their lesson; they rebuilt the burned buildings with adobe, brick, and concrete. Despite the fire, Gleeson was a town with a future, as a movement arose to make it the Cochise County seat. Gleeson and Courtland (the nearest town) discussed the possibility of an electric trolley connecting the two communities.
The area’s mines were busy, and Gleeson was growing. In 1909, railroad spurs had been built to the town to transport copper ore to the smelter in Douglas. By1918, Gleeson’s population had risen to 6,000, making the town a large one for the time and place.
Today the south side of Turquoise Mountain, just north of Gleeson, is dotted with telltale signs of defunct mines: tunnels, pits, tailings piles, shafts. An old mine headframe stands alone, with only an aged water tower and the desert for company.
A few people still live in Gleeson, happy in the peace and stillness of the area, but Gleeson no longer exists as a bonafide town. It is a ghost town. The signpost that read “Population 100″in 2007, now reads “Population 21!” What happened to the little community that survived a fire and seemingly had so much to look forward to?
GLEESON’S EARLIEST DAYS
Before Americans began moving west, the Apaches controlled the land in what today is southeastern Arizona. They were interested in Turquoise Mountain, but not because of its copper, lead, silver, and gold deposits. The Apaches mined it for the prized turquoise that could be made into jewelry and allowed other tribes to mine there as well. New York’s Tiffany & Co. had popularized the blue and green stones in its pieces and was paying good prices for rough turquoise. The ultimate defeat of the Apaches resulted in the mineral being left to “the white man.”
The small town of Turquoise grew up on the side of Turquoise Mountain. It even had a post office, established October 22, 189O. But the turquoise fad came and went, and the town began to die. Its post office closed in September 1894.
Then along came John Gleeson, a prospector looking for metals, not turquoise. He found copper in the area in1896 and reopened a mine he called the Copper Belle. Although turquoise was still extracted, the area’s economic focus shifted to copper.
The town of Turquoise was eventually abandoned, and a new one was built, downhill and closer to water. It was named Gleeson in honor of the miner. A post office was opened there in 1900, when the population reached 500.
More mines opened nearby: the Tejon Mine, the Tom Scott mine, the Defiance mine, and Martin Costello’s claim – the Silver Bill Mine – which would become famous for Its exquisite wulfenite.
John Gleeson sold the Copper Belle in 1901 to the Shannon Copper Company for $100,000.
The area’s mines produced tons of copper and lead, along with a small amount of gold, silver, and manganese, and Gleeson was starting to explode economically. In 1904, the town council decided they needed a constable, and they hired Wesley Wooten Cates, who was also Cochise County deputy sheriff.
When Wes Cates started “cleaning up” the town of Gleeson, the only jail was a huge oak tree in a wash with a cable around it. Cates would chain the prisoners to the cable, and there they would stay – day and night, rain, shine, snow. He once commented that when the washes ran, the “jail” was cleaned out.
ln 1906, the community built a jail of wood with a tin roof. In 1910, three prisoners tore off enough of the roof to escape – briefly. The wooden jail was then replaced with one of reinforced concrete. It withstood the 1912 fire and still stands today.
Gleeson was mostly a quiet town, unlike its rowdy neighbors – Tombstone and Pearce – but it had its moments. In 1901, Charles Edney, who had been appointed justice of the peace (JP), colluded with the constable at the time, P. D. O’Donnell, in a scam: the constable would round up drunken miners and take them before the JP, who would fine them. (This was in the days of the big oak tree jail.) Most men would pay the fine rather than spend any time in the wash, chained to the old oak.
Unfortunately, the JP’s scam led to the death of a young man in 1902. The scheme was exposed, and the JP fled town.
AFTER THE FIRE
The most notorious villain locked up in the Gleeson jail was a young man named Luther Price, who spent the night of July 10, 1917, there. Price was a disreputable member of a respected ranching family from the Chiricahua Mountains. At age 18, he was sentenced to three years in Yuma Prison for stealing horses. In fact, Price would steal just about anything. In 1913, he murdered a friend of his. When caught, Price blamed two other men, including his brother-in-law, who had nothing to do with the murder. Price eventually confessed and was sentenced to life in prison at Florence.
On May 13, 1917, the young Price and two other inmates successfully escaped from a chain gang repairing roads, and he headed to Mexico. That didn’t work out too well for him, as an outbreak of smallpox there forced him to return to his mother’s ranch in the Chiricahuas. Fearing that he was infected, he surrendered to the constable in Gleeson to get treatment, resulting in his overnight stay in the jail there. After isolation and recovery in Tombstone, Price was returned to the Florence prison, from which he was released after six years, having contracted meningitis. He died a few days later in his mother’s arms.
World War I (1914-1918) brought a bonanza to Gleeson, as the town expanded with the wartime increase in demand for copper. At one point, the town had a two-story schoolhouse, a hospital, a concrete-reinforced jail and an oak hanging tree, a red-light district, a Chinese restaurant, and 14 saloons.
The end of the war brought the soldiers home to America, along with the 1918 “Spanish” flu, a particularly deadly form of influenza. The flu skirted Gleeson like a wolf circling its prey. A few people in Bisbee were stricken, then one or two in Pearce and Tombstone, then someone in Courtland. Finally, the population of Gleeson was hit. Hundreds caught the illness in town, and the mortality rate reached about 20 percent. The hospital ran out of beds and began putting patients on straw mattresses in the halls. At least 50 million people died of the Spanish flu worldwide, with about 675,000 of them in the US.
With decreased demand for copper after the war, copper prices dropped, miners were laid off, and some mines closed. There was a brief increase in copper prices in the early 1930s, and a Hollywood movie, The Mysterious Rider, was filmed In Gleeson in 1933. But by 1939, the town was clearly dying, as the post office had closed in 1938. The last mine closed in 1957, although the Silver Bill Mine was periodically opened and closed until 1978.
Little remains of what was once Gleeson’s hospital, but you can still see some of the structure from days gone by.
The buildings in Gleeson are mostly gone now, too. The magazine Lost Treasure (1966-2018) started publishing articles about gold and other valuables hidden in the walls of the homes and stores in the deserted mining towns in America. Over the next decade, the ruins of Gleeson and other ghost towns deteriorated, owing perhaps to the weather or to treasure hunters. Now, just a few crumbling walls, the mining dumps, and the lonely headframe of the Copper Belle remain.
Gleeson is only a day trip from Red Hawk at J6 Ranch. Take some time and discover the town, feel the past in the present.