1980 >> October >> Apache Pass  

Apache Pass: Vital Communication Link Between East and West
by H. G. "Bea" Hyve

Reprinted from "INSULATORS - Crown Jewels of the Wire", October 1980, page 23

What do the words "Apache Pass" mean to you? Probably not very much. To many people, it is some obscure geographical location, mentioned in countless western movies and novels. But are you aware that Apache Pass is a very real place? Did you know that over 100 years ago it played a major role in the story of communication in the Southwest? Yes, it is true that although the Pass lies quiet and serene today, it was once the scene of much activity, and was a vital communication link between East and West. And only after control of this strategic mountain pass was wrested from the Indian and came under the domination of the white man did regular, safe, and effective communication develop between the extensive territory we know today as California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 

Apache Pass is located in southeastern Arizona. The Chiricahua Mountains and the Dos Cabezas range come together seem to overlap at their bases, and the resulting narrow defile between them is Apache Pass. Zane Grey once described it as a "tortuous crack in the hills, dark and yellow, almost haunted." The scenery is wild and picturesque. Great spurs and shoulders of yellowish rock jut out from above, with a variety of shrubs and cacti growing in tangled profusion in the eroded surfaces and gaping crevices. The Pass has a stark beauty all it's own, found nowhere else on earth. It has been described as having "a majestic aloofness". 

Although the peaks surrounding the Pass are two to three thousand feet higher, Apache Pass itself is as high in elevation as many mountains. The summit at the west entrance is 5,115 feet above sea level. Traveling eastward through the Pass the road descends 515 feet to the east entrance, a distance of about three miles. And it is this three-mile area with which we shall concern ourselves in this story -- for it is here that most of the history took place which, for a time, had monumental import an the development of communication between East and West.

But how and why did this seemingly insignificant mountain pass in a remote corner of the Southwest become such an important communication link? For several reasons. First of all, through its shadowy gorges lay one of the few feasible routes through the Southwest to California. And despite the dangers which included a grade that was steep and tortuous, it was the shortest route from the Rio Grande to Tucson. But most important of all, Apache Spring, located near the east entrance, was the only water for miles around. Travelers from the earliest times were compelled to come through Apache Pass because of the life-giving water in the permanent springs there. To go around could mean suffering from thirst for man and animal alike. 

View of Apache Pass near Fort Bowie

The earliest written records of the Apache Pass region indicate the area was in the sole possession of the Apache Indians. They had their own communication system consisting of smoke signals and Indian message runners. They communicated in this way for hundreds of years. Whole ideas could be transmitted by the smoke signals, such messages being understood surprisingly well by the other party. Apache runners could travel up to 75 miles in one day, and the Southwest was laced with a very efficient and dependable communication system. Other methods were also used to communicate ideas, such as marking trees, tying knots in the filaments of the yucca, placing stones on the ground in a certain way, or laying a piece of buckskin over a branch of a tree or cactus -- these and many other means were used by the Apache to convey a thought or message to others.

In 1821 the Santa Fe Trail was opened, which soon brought an increase of white travelers into the Southwest, many of whom traveled through Apache Pass. At first the Apaches were friendly. There were a few incidents, perpetrated by whites, but for the most part things went smoothly. The California Gold Rush of 1849 brought even more white adventurers into the region. Then came the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, which gave all of modern Arizona south of the Gila River to the Territory of New Mexico. This placed Apache Pass into the hands of the Americans and removed it from the Mexicans, and the area saw an even greater increase in American travelers. Even through all of this, the Indians usually allowed the settlers to travel through Apache Pass unmolested, showing only curiosity for the strange people with pale skin and "white (lighter-colored) eyes".

In 1857 a contract was signed by James E. Birch for an overland mail route, and it ran through Apache Pass. This route was also used by the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line, and the company boasted that the trip could be made in only 38 days. Mail was carried by muleback over the western segment of the route, so the line acquired the name "Jackass Mail". The schedule called for two trips each way monthly. Not only was this the first overland mail service between San Diego and San Antonio, but it was the first to the Pacific Coast. Mail from San Francisco and way points came to San Diego to start the eastward trip.

Route of the "Jackass mail" from San Diego east in 1857.

One man who figured prominently in the development and continuation of this important communication system in the Southwest was Silas P. St. John. A man of integrity, courage, and vision, St. John was instrumental in building and overseeing the construction of most of the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line route. He was also one of San Diego's first carriers of the Jackass Mail. The "Harbor of the Sun" received its first mail delivery from San Antonio on August 31, 1857. On September 15 the first eastbound mail had a noisy send-off from San Diego. A rider left at noon with his saddle bags filled. St. John took the next leg of the journey from Carriso at 8:00 PM, and rode without a remount to Ft. Yuma, a distance of 160 miles, in 32 hours. His route included the treacherous Viejas and Mt. Springs grades, over 100 miles of desert, and almost 10 miles of sand dunes. (Today I-8 follows almost exactly the route taken by St. John on that hot September day, and takes just 3 hours in the air-conditioned comfort of an automobile).

Silas P. St. John
(Title Insurance & Trust Co.
Historical Collection)

The following year, in September of 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail was subsidized by the government to carry U.S. Mail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Mail was initially carried by mule and horseback until some months later, when stations were established and stock was strung along the line. At this time the era of coaches pulled by either mules or horses began. 

The Butterfield Overland Mail route also traversed Apache Pass. The schedule called for the run to be made in 25 days one way. Passenger fare was $200.

It was also in September of 1858 that St. John was overseeing the finishing of the roof of the stage station at Dragoon Springs (Arizona). Late one night he was viciously attacked along with three other Americans by Mexican workers and left for dead. They were assaulted with axes and knives. His three co-workers died, but St. John survived, although severely wounded. He eventually lost an arm from the injuries he suffered. St. John spent most of his life in express service and in Indian affairs. He retired in 1913 at the age of 78, making his home in San Diego. He died on September 15, 1919, at the age of 84. His home, located in the Kensington area of San Diego, still stands. St. John was a true pioneer in the field of early communication by mail. 

Now that the overland mail road was in service, emigrants to the West now had well-defined roads to follow. The fact that there was plenty of fresh water in Apache Pass also became well known. Travelers through the Pass grew more numerous with each passing month. More confrontations between Apaches and white men took place, and as would naturally follow, more misunderstandings. The lid was rattling furiously on the boiling kettle of red and white relations in the Southwest. And it was in Apache Pass that the lid finally blew off. And when it did, the fragile thread of communication that owed much of its life to Apache Pass, was broken. 

It was in February 1861 that a series of unfortunate misunderstandings occurred between the Chiricahua Apaches under their leader, Cochise, and the military. Cochise and his people lived in and around the Apache Pass area, and had been at peace with the Americans, allowing mail and travelers through the Pass. They even had been supplying the mail station in the Pass with firewood.

But a young Army lieutenant, inexperienced in Indian affairs, accused Cochise and his band of kidnapping and robbery. The accusations were later proven false. But the lieutenant's actions instigated a series of clashes which escalated into a full-scale, bloody war between the two races -- a war that was to last 25 years. But what is most important to our story is, that it was during this 25 year period that the communication system in Apache Pass changed from Indian control and came under the white man's control.

When this conflict began, naturally one of the first areas to be adversely affected was Apache Pass. The need for water made travel through the Pass a near necessity, but with Cochise on the warpath, very few white men came through alive. Communication between East and West could only be maintained by sending mail around the Horn on ships, coming across the Isthmus of Panama, or by using a more northerly land route and having it come down the west coast. But these methods took a long time and the news was outdated by the time it reached California. 

With the start of the Civil War in the East, this area needing protection badly was left devoid of soldiers. It was a grim situation. The citizens of Arizona felt deserted by the government, and the Southwest was held in a vise-grip of Apache terror. It is to his credit as a leader and a man, that from the time he went on the warpath until he made peace, Cochise virtually brought to a halt all communication and travel not only through Apache Pass, but in the entire surrounding area, thereby paralyzing, communication-wise, the whole Southwest.

In June and July of 1862 several battles took place in the Pass between Cochise and the military. These conflicts, which included the famous Battle of Apache Pass on July 15, 1862, made it all the more obvious that a need existed for troops to be placed in this "most formidable of gorges". Because of these experiences, and in order to protect the mail, construction was started on July 28, 1862, on Fort Bowie, and two weeks later it was finished. Now for the first time in history the white man was in full command of the spring and the route through Apache Pass. Fort Bowie was to prove an invaluable asset; the key outpost from which all future Apache Indian campaigns would be waged over the next 24 years.

Fort Bowie-1886 
Arrow and dot (right center) mark telegraph office 
(Arizona Historical Society) 

Communication was reopened for a time. Supply trains passed through safely, but the postmaster general was reluctant to resume government mail service via this route. So in March of 1863 it was decided to establish semi-monthly communication by a vedette system between Tucson and New Mexico. This system of five stations had to last for three more years, during which time the Territory of Arizona did not have a regular mail line, government or military. But at least with the vedette stations, these five military points could maintain contact with each other. 

In December of 1866 a post office was established in Apache Pass, but mail carriers were still being murdered by Apaches. Their superior knowledge of the country plus their ability to strike and disappear quickly made them almost impossible to apprehend. 

General George Crook
(Arizona Historical Society)

The war with the Apaches was still raging when Lt. Col. George Crook of the 23rd Infantry arrived in Tucson in June of 1871 to assume command of the Dept. of Arizona. A quiet, mild-mannered man, Crook was honest and fair in all of his dealings with the Indians. He was admired and respected by his men, of whom he would never ask more than he himself was willing to give. 

When Crook arrived in Arizona, the only means of communication anywhere in the Southwest was by mail, transported by government mail riders or stage coach. But the fierce Apaches had virtually stopped the mail, except in the vicinity of Apache Pass and Fort Bowie, and communication in the southern portion of the country between East and West was almost at a complete standstill. 

The idea of a telegraph line through the territory tied been suggested as early as 1865 by the governor of Arizona, Richard C. McCormick. (The first private line had been strung in 1865). Crook also soon recognized a desperate need for organized communication in the area, so that his forces could close in on the Apaches and subdue them. 

In his first Annual Report (1871) page 78, we read the following statements "Owing to the isolated condition of this department, and the scattered distribution of its [military] posts, the construction of a telegraph-line from California to this country, with branches to some of the important posts, would not only be of great service, but would be economy to the Government." It was believed that government aid should be given to some telegraphic company for the extension of lines to important points in the Territory. So, with the support of such important men as the commanding general of the Army, William T. Sherman, the plan for a telegraph system through the Southwest moved slowly ahead. 

It was felt that the best connecting point on the western end of the line would be San Diego. This city was connected to an already-operating telegraph system, having received telegraphic communication with Los Angeles to the north in August of 1870. Western Union agreed to build the line, headed by a veteran in telegraph construction, James Gamble. He said he would build the line at cost, and the Army could deduct its labor and transportation expenses from the total cost. The details of construction were outlined, and the route was decided upon, with San Diego as the western terminus. The line would pass east through Yuma, Maricopa Wells, and a branch line from there to Tucson. The main line would go to Prescott. Total distance, following wagon roads as the route from San Diego to Tucson -- 628 miles.

Across the barren area from San Diego to Yuma would be placed willow poles, 17 to the mile instead of 20 due to the absence of snow along that portion of the route. They were tarred at the bottom to increase longevity. 

Cottonwood poles would be used for the route east 75 miles from Ft. Yuma. They would cost one dollar each and be placed 20 posts to the mile. Wire for the line would cost $30 per mile for No. 10 annealed black iron wire. Glass insulators, $.25 each. Instruments and batteries from San Francisco would cost about $120 for each station. Tools for the workers and incidentals added up to about $52.95 per mile. With added expenses (payroll, etc.), the cost per mile was $79.35. Total estimated cost, $50,311.80. Although Western Union was to build the line, the military would operate it for reasons of economy for the government. 

Arizonans were strong in their feelings that the government should aid in the building of the telegraph. They felt that this would help make up for the government's running off to fight the Civil War and leaving them to the questionable mercies of the Apaches. The bill containing the proposal and budget for the project went to Washington, and McCormick, the governor, went with it. After much talk and promoting, the bill became law on March 3, 1873, and the money was appropriated. 

On June 4, 1873, a Western Union employee named R. R. Haines was hired as Superintendent of Construction. The equipment and material began to be gathered for the new line by the Quartermaster Corps in San Francisco. Contracts with civilian companies were made for the equipment. Telegraph instruments, tools, insulators, and wire were purchased from the Electrical Construction and Maintenance Company (E.C. & M. Co.) of San Francisco. This company in turn subcontracted for the wire from the Pacific Wire Manufacturing Company, also of that city. Both civilian and military overseers were appointed for the various departments.

Forty tons of wire was delivered by boat to Port Isabel (in the Gulf of California below Yuma), and then transferred to a barge which was pulled upriver to Yuma by steamer. (In the days before irrigation of the Imperial Valley and the building of flood-control dams, the Colorado River at Yuma and below was much wider and deeper than it is today, making it navigable by large vessels). Insulators, wire, and other construction material for the route eastward from Yuma was hauled to the construction sites by mule pack trains; the poles by wagon. Material for the western portion of the line, from San Diego to Yuma, was delivered by boat to National City, California, just a few miles south of San Diego.

Route of the military telegraph system
throughout the Southwest (c. 1876)
(Arizona Historical Society)

The first pole was set in the ground at San Diego on August 28, 1873, and at Prescott on September 2. The following November 11, Prescott was joined with Yuma. Yuma and San Diego were joined by wire on November 18, and many congratulations were passed over the wire between Prescott and San Diego. At last Arizona was joined communication-wise to the "outside world"! By December Tucson was hooked up to the system. It remained now to link Tucson and New Mexico via Fort Bowie in Apache Pass, thus completing the telegraph system throughout the Southwest. 

In 97 days there had been 540 miles of telegraph line built, 9,820 poles set, at a cost of $47,557,97. (over $2,700.00 under the estimated cost). It was the most important work ever undertaken in Arizona up to that time, considerable even more so when one realizes that most of the terrain covered included bottomless canyons, dizzying crags, snow-covered sierras, vast deserts; an unbelievable array of all the contradictions possible in topography. 

By 1874 Congress appropriated more money to extend the telegraph system to other parts of Arizona. And on March 3, 1875, it passed a new telegraph bill covering construction of a line connecting Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Tucson, passing through Fort Bowie. Army troops were used to provide the labor. This was possibly the most important link in the telegraph system along the Southwestern border, for it included the notorious Apache Pass. 

Second Lieutenant Philip Reade was put in charge of the new line between New Mexico and Arizona in June of 1875. He advertised in a Tucson newspaper for the purchase of poles, asking for them to be delivered along the route, which paralleled a good wagon road. Poles were to be of pine, oak, or cedar, 22 feet long, and not less than eight inches in diameter at the bottom, with the bark well peeled. Not acceptable were poles of cottonwood, willow, aspen, or poplar. Poles were to be set in the ground 3-1/2 to 4 feet deep, depending on soil conditions. Distance between poles was to be 70 yards and 1 foot, or 25 to the mile. He then described the method of placing the insulators on the poles and the stringing of the wire. From the Arizona Citizen, December 4, 1875, we read: "Insulators should be seated firmly by cutting a flat seat on the side of the pole, and nails driven home. The top of the insulator should not project above the top of the pole, but be flush with it. Wire should be on the same side of all the poles. At an angle in the line the insulator must be placed on the inside of the angle in order that the strain shall be toward the pole, and at such angle the wire may be changed from one side of the poles to the other if desirable; but lengths between angles must be on the same side of all the poles." Reade went on to describe how to make the connections in the wire, the placement of lightning rods, and the placement of supplies along the route. He left little to the imagination, and it was clear he intended to build a telegraph line that would endure. 

Large Image (119 Kb)
The military telegraph line through Tucson 
looking north at Court and Library Streets (c. 1880's) 
(Bushman Collection - Arizona Historical Society) 

The record is silent as to what type of insulators were used on this portion of the line. However, complaints were later submitted stating that the brackets for the insulators were inferior, and that the wood screws provided with the brackets for connection to the insulators were too small. And so were the nail holes in the bracket for attachment to the poles. Twelve incomplete glass insulators have been found at Fort Bowie so far, and they fall into three types.

Large Image (300 Kb)
The military telegraph line through Fort Bowie (c. 1880's) 
(National Park Service) 

Six are pony insulators, CD 102. Three of these ponies are embossed with the patent dates Jan. 25, 1870 and Jan. 14, 1879. One threadless signal-type insulator fragment was recovered, which is probably a CD 728 or 733, and is unembossed. The last five are CD 126's. Three of these five are Brookfields. Two bear the patent dates mentioned above, as well as 45 Cliff St., NY. The third Brookfield insulator of this type apparently has a patent date of March 20, 1877.

By February 1876 funds ran out, so Reade began asking citizens to provide poles. Dwellers from the key cities and farmers living in the area donated poles and offered to haul them to the construction sites free of charge. By April construction was resumed. By the first week in May, 1877, that portion of the line from Santa Fe to Tucson through Fort Bowie in Apache Pass was completed, and Arizona was now linked both east and west by telegraphic communication. And as Crook had foreseen, the telegraph was to help in subjugating the renegade Indian bands that ravaged the Southwest. 

Brigadier General Philip Reade
(In later years)
(National Archives)

But what did the Indians think of the telegraph? Although the Apaches probably understood the system, they were not much different from other tribes in other areas, who had demonstrated a superstitious respect for it. The Apaches named the "white man's talking wire" Pesh-bi-yalti. And when they chose, they could be very clever at disrupting the service. Among their many tricks was cutting the wire and tying the ends together with a buck- skin thong, making it difficult for repair crews to find the break. But for the most part, the Indians kept their distance from Pesh-bi-yalti.

Cochise, Chiricahua Apache chief 

The great chief Cochise had made peace with the Americans in 1872. (Cochise never allowed himself to be photographed. However, he may have looked very much like the above drawing which was made from a bust of him, which is on display at the Cochise Visitor Center, Willcox, Arizona). The story of brotherhood and friendship which took place between Cochise and Tom Jeffords is a story often told. But for the sake of our dissertation, it bears repeating. Tom Jeffords was working as superintendent of the mails in Tucson in the middle 1860's. After losing 14 of his mail riders to the Apaches in Cochise's territory, he decided to try and meet with the chief and ask him to allow his mail riders to go through unmolested. Their meeting resulted in a deep friendship between the two men that was to last until the death of Cochise. And it was through Jeffords that President Grant's peace emissary, General Oliver 0. Howard was able to meet with Cochise and make peace. Cochise lived only two years after the peace, and died on June 8, 1874. He was succeeded by his son, Taza. Although he had good intentions, Taza did not exhibit the leadership qualities and strong personality of his father. Two years after the death of Cochise the era of the Geronimo wars was ushered in.

Geronimo, also a Chiricahua Apache, was a medicine man and war leader -- never a chief. Bored and restless with the restrictions of reservation life, he and several other warriors, including Naiche, younger son of Cochise, left the reservation for Mexico. The year was 1876, and thus began another Apache war which was to continue for ten more years. 

By 1880 the Southern Pacific Railroad rails were laid through Bowie Station (present day Bowie), bypassing Apache Pass and Fort Bowie by about 13 miles to the north. This spelled the end of the military telegraph in Arizona. By 1882 the line to Fort Bowie from Fort Apache was one of very few stations still operating in Arizona. The military telegraph was abandoned between San Diego and Yuma also by 1882, and was replaced by the civilian (privately-owned) telegraph. 

Setting up a heliograph in Arizona 
(c. 1880's) 
(Arizona Historical society) 

As the Geronimo campaign raged on into the mid 1880's, it soon became apparent that a more mobile means of communication than the telegraph was needed. An instrument was necessary that was compact enough to be packed on the back of a mule, simple enough so that it could be set up anywhere at a moment's notice, and yet provide instant communication. The answer was found in a simple combination of sunlight, mirrors, and Morse code, called the heliograph, or heliostat.

With the coming of the rails and the abandonment of the military telegraph, the heliograph came into extensive usage. The "field" heliograph consisted of an adjustable mirror mounted on a tripod. The heliograph stations were usually situated on mountain tops, and operated by a team of signal corpsmen, a sergeant and three privates. Messages called "heliograms" were flashed from some 27 stations across the sunny skies of New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The mountains in Apache Pass contributed to the importance of Fort Bowie as an important heliograph station. In fact, the station on Bowie Peak (above Fort Bowie to the south) was the hub of all the stations in Arizona -- here more messages were sent, received, and repeated than at any of the other stations in the system. 

The average distance between stations was about 25 miles, although sometimes the mirror flashes could be read as far as 50 miles away. The heliograph was introduced into the Southwestern Indian wars by General Nelson A. Miles in May, 1886. (Miles had replaced General George Crook as commander of the Dept. of Arizona earlier that year). These "talking mirrors", the Army's equivalent of the Indian smoke signals, were instrumental in helping the military to close in on Geronimo and his band. When he surrendered to Miles through the efforts of Lt. Charles B. Gatewood in September of 1886, the heliograph system was discontinued. Arizona was at last free from Indian depredations. 

A telephone line between Fort Bowie and Willcox (27 miles west) was established in 1890. It replaced the telegraph as the post's only means of rapid communication with the outside world. And in October of 1894, just before the fort was abandoned, Lt. P. 0. Lockridge and a detachment from the post tore down the telegraph line between Fort Bowie and Willcox. 

Fort Bowie was abandoned by the Army in 1894, having seen 32 years of continuous service as the guardian of Apache Pass. Says Richard Murray in his "History of Fort Bowie", "Of all the posts set up ... which were involved in the Apache struggle until the end, none served a more important purpose, nor was more strategically located, nor had a more colorful history than Fort Bowie." 

Arizona was admitted to the Union in 1912. Roads began to be built all throughout Arizona. About this time a graded road was constructed through Apache Pass, following closely and generally (north of the old Butterfield Trail blazed in the 1850's. The old trail is still visible in some places in the Pass). The graded road is still used, although the main highway, I-10, follows alongside the Southern Pacific tracks and passes 13 miles to the north of Apache Pass. 

In 1964 Congress authorized the making of Fort Bowie a National Historical Site, and formal establishment took place on July 29, 1972. One can visit the ruins of Fort Bowie by taking the Apache Pass Road south out of Bowie. A pleasant hike of about a mile and a half will bring you to the site of the fort.

Apache Pass -- a place of rugged beauty, mystery, and enchantment. It lies peaceful now under the bright Arizona sun, its wild and haunting scenery hearing only the soughing of the wind and the occasional hum of an automobile as it threads its way over the dirt road. As one drives through Apache Pass today, it is hard to imagine that this three mile cut between two mountain ranges was once such a vital link in the history of communication in the Southwest. 

- - - - - - - - -

When I was young I walked all over this country, east and west, and saw no other people than the Apaches. 

After many summers I walked again and found another race of people had come to take it. -- Cochise. 

- - - - - - - - - -

I wish to give special thanks to Mr. Bill Hoy, Ranger-in-charge at the Fort Bowie National Historic Site, for his help with my story. He not only answered all of my questions patiently, but provided the photo of Fort Bowie showing the military telegraph line, and was kind enough to read my manuscript and check the accuracy of my statements. 


Arnold, Elliott, Blood Brother. (1947). 
Bourke, John G., On The Border With Crook. (1891). 
Goodwin, G., and Basso, K., Western Apache Raiding And Warfare. (1971). 
Grey, Zane, Fighting Caravans. (1929). 
Herskovitz, Robert M., Analysis Of Material Culture From Fort Bowie, (National Historic Society, Arizona. 1975).
Lockwood, Frank C., The Apache Indians. (1938). 
Murray, Richard Y., The History Of Fort Bowie, (Master's thesis, Univ. of Arizona. 1951).
Rue, Norman L., Words By Iron Wires Construction Of The Military Telegraph In Arizona Territory, 1873-1877, (Unpublished thesis, Univ. of Arizona. 1967).

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