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Ariz. ghost town appeals to the living, too

4:54 AM, Jan 13, 2014   |    comments
  • Shortly after moving to Gleeson in 2005, Tina Miller bought and restored the adobe jail. It is now a museum. In Gleeson’s heyday in the early 1900s, more than 10,000 people called the mining town near Tombstone home. Miller, shown with friend Mike Henman, is one of a few people who live there now. (Photo: David Wallace, The Arizona Republic)
  • One of the last businesses in Gleeson was a bar, where a mural depicts the area. The building has also been a store, a gas station and a home.(Photo: David Wallace, The Arizona Republic)
  • Tina Miller, with friend Mike Henman, is one of a handful of people who live in Gleeson.(Photo: David Wallace, The Arizona Republic)
    
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PHOENIX -- Each town sprang out of the dirt in a blink. A prospector would ride into the hills to follow creeks and ridgelines until he found a few nuggets and the digging began.

When word got out, people soon followed. Canvas tents sheltered saloons, brothels and stores until buildings took their place.

Once the ore played out, the towns emptied, buildings sagged and leaned in the desert.

But people hang on in Arizona's ghost towns, long after the copper or silver or gold is goneand most of the buildings have collapsed. They serve as caretakers or saloonkeepers, or they retire and stick around because the town feels right, just the way it is.

Their reasons vary. Some come to get away from something, some are looking for something. They find a sense of community in places brimming with solitude. They find treasure in things like nature, beauty and friendship, long after the mines have closed.

Tina Miller can stand in front of one old jail and point to another. The first Gleeson jail was simple. It was a stout oak along a wash that runs through this southeast Arizona mining town.

Lawmen chained prisoners to the tree until the scofflaws had sobered up or served their time. Children would toss rocks at them, according to local legend,until a prisoner tired of the game and threw one back.

As Gleeson grew, a wooden jail was built, then another. The third jail, an adobe building, sits down the road from Miller's home.

The jail had been spray-painted and vandalized over the years. Miller thought it was on state trust land until a "For Sale" sign appeared on it. She soon learned that someone overseas had bought it and put it up for sale.

"My thought was, 'My God, what if someone buys that and turns it into a Circle K or bulldozes it down?'" Miller said. The place needed a lot of work. But Miller and Gleeson resident John Wiest bought it, and people from the community pitched in to help. They cleaned up rats' nests, restored the adobe, fixed the roof and painted over the graffiti.

"I was just restoring it. I never thought it would be a museum. I never thought it would get that far," Miller said.

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Gleeson, originally called Turquoise, was formed when prospectors working the hills along the southern Dragoon Mountains tired of coaxing water out of the ground. They moved their little town into the flats and drilled new wells and in 1900 they renamed the town Gleeson. The mines stayed busy, and eventually the town had a YWCA, movie theater, school and hospital. They went from the jail tree to a wooden jail to a concrete one in about 10 years.

Census figures excluded women, children, Mexicans or Chinese, Miller said, but local historians estimate the population may have been as high as 10,000.

Gleeson is about 13 miles from Tombstone, site of the shootout at the O.K. Corral and numerous gunfights. Records from the Cochise County Coroner's Office from the early 1880s to 1901 list the various causes of death in the county. There are a few drownings, which seem out of place in the middle of the desert, as well as occasional deaths from morphine overdose, alcoholic stimulants and other causes.

But most deaths came from gunshot wounds. A local historian tallied the number of deaths during this time at 480. The number of deaths from natural causes was 43.

Local historians have collected records from Cochise County, the state and other sources and placed them in a shed next to the jail. The jail itself is a storehouse of Western memorabilia - old bottles, photos, posters and other period pieces that Miller and others have accumulated over time.

It also has become a local museum and community gathering place, a touchstone in a place full of history.

"It's our roots. It's our Western roots," Miller said.

Now, Wiest spends some of his weekends talking to tourists about local history.

"The coolest thing is you can live and walk where they walked. You can feel the bustle of the community. You can walk around and you might find an old pot shard from the ancient Indians. ... It's one of the few places that is still wide open spaces. We're not covering it up with asphalt," Miller said.

Today, you can see scars in the hills from abandoned mines, the contours of old rail lines, a reminder of the town's past.

Tina Miller has put the jailhouse property up for sale: "It's time for someone else to come along and take up what I've started," she said.

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"We think about the West being settled by these stouthearted pioneers," said Arizona State University history professor Eduardo Pagán. "A lot of scholars of the West take a different view. It was out of a quest for profit." It wasn't about elbow room, or scenery, or a change of pace.

There were exceptions - the Mormons came west to escape religious persecution, for example, but "the settlement of the West is really about economics," Pagán said. Most of the mining towns started out as tent camps. Some prospered and grew, riding economic peaks and valleys. Markets flooded. Prices dropped. Mines played out. People moved and the map became dotted with ruins. Ghost towns.

"What you're looking at are the remains of failed business," Pagán said.

One of the last businesses to operate in Gleeson was the local bar, which has a big, bright mural of the local landscape on one of its walls and a pair of cowboy boots hanging from the ceiling. The roof has collapsed, the paint is peeling, and there are still a couple of longnecks lying on a table.

Ron Dungan, The Arizona Republic

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