When the Southern Pacific Railroad came through southern Arizona in 1880, the town of Benson was founded. The new town, was located a mile west of the earlier Butterfield Stage Station and became the rail shipping point for the booming new towns of Tombstone and Bisbee to the south.
Benson was named for Judge William S. Benson of California, a friend of Charles Crocker, president of the railroad. Judge Benson spent many years in the mining regions of the West.
The post office was established July 26, 1880 with John Russ serving as postmaster. The Wells Fargo Station was established in Benson in 1885.
An early name for this location was San Pedro River Station on the east bank of the San Pedro River. In 1852 the river ordinarily flowed in a shallow bed nearly level with the surrounding plains. However, it was subject to flooding conditions and in 1859 a strong bridge was built across it at the old fording place. The First California Volunteers used this bridge on June 23, 1862, on their march to New Mexico. This was the date on which they noted that the old station had been burned.
William Ohnesorgen (b. Germany 1849) came as a child in 1853 to America with his family to live in Texas. In 1867 he went with his uncle to Mesilla, New Mexico, and in February 1868, went on to Arizona where he clerked in Tucson for Charles Lesinsky.
In 1871 his brother brought out the old Duncan, Renshaw, and Fowler Stage Station on the San Pedro about a mile north of where the present town of Benson is located. This station became an overland stage stop. The station house consisted of a hollow square with thick adobe walls containing portholes for guns in case of attack. Eight soldiers were stationed here.
In 1378-79 Ohnesorgen built a toll bridge across the San Pedro. This place began to pay for itself in 1880 when mining supplies had to be hauled to Fairbanks, Contention, and Charleston. Meanwhile, Ohnesorgen had started a stage line from Tucson to Tombstone; he sold it in 1880. The old stage station washed away in high floodwaters in 1883.
A Spanish missionary, Father Kino brought Spanish culture to the San Pedro Valley in 1692. A tribe of Pima Indians called the Sobaipuri who had dwelt there for several hundred years inhabited the valley, previously visited by Fray Marcos De Niza in 1539.; In addition to bringing Christianity to the Sobaipuri, Father Kino brought droves of cattle and initiated a series of "rancherias" where the Indian and Spanish settlers raised cattle and grew corn, wheat, barley, figs and grapes. The San Pedro River, then called San Jorge de Terrenate, flowed freely and produced a lush river valley. For almost 100 years the Sobaipurl served the Spanish by buffering the attacks of the hostile Apaches.
As time passed, the Sobaipuri, weakened from warfare and epidemics, abandoned the villages to the north such as Tres Alamos, when Spanish assistance in the form of soldiers and missionaries dwindled. The Sobaipuri gave up more of the valley to the Apaches: by 1762, they had migrated from the San Pedro Valley to the mission of San Xavier Del Bac in the Santa Cruz Valley.
After the Departure of the Sobaipuri, Spanish ranchers attempted to colonize the valley. The mission period initiated by Father Kino was ended in 1768 by a decree of Charles III of Spain, which confiscated the missions of the Jesuits and transferred them to royal"comissionados." Military forces then replaced the guidance of the mission fathers. For a time ranches prospered by the Apache invaders grew bolder after the Sobaipuri left. The Spanish then decided to make the San Pedro a military frontier of the Sonoran province.
A new presidio was built of the site of the mission village of Santa del Quiburi. Although well garrisoned, it was virtually isolated and almost constantly beleaguered. Ambushes and crop destruction were the devices used by the Apaches to weaken Spanish domination. Pleas were made for reinforcements but few ever arrived. The ranchers therefore found it less profitable and more hazardous to utilize the land. In 1828, by official decree of the government of Mexico, all of the settlements of Arizona were abandoned. Only ruined villages, ranches and wild droves of cattle remained in the San Pedro Valley.
It was with the coming of the Anglo-Americans 20 years later that civilization returned.
After the Civil War, homesteaders migrated to the San Pedro Valley in increasing numbers. Fortified communities began at Tres Alamos and Babocomari. The United States Army with its key outpost at Fort Bowie was at that time waging a grueling campaign against the Chiricahua Apaches and none of the settlements were safe from Indian attacks. For example, an agricultural community began by a party of Mormons at St. David in 1877 was little more than a stone fort surrounded by 75 acres of wheat and barley.
A stage line known as the Butterfield Trail plied its way across the new territory and a stage depot was erected in the late 1850's about one mile north of the present Benson. This fortified depot housed eight soldiers and provided a stopover between the Dragoon Pass and Tucson.
In 1871 William Ohnesorgen brought the depot from Duncan, Renshaw and Fowler. The enterprising Mr. Ohnesorgen did a brisk business selling commodities to the travelers and local inhabitants. In 1878 he erected a toll bridge over which mining supplies were transported to the new mining camps such as Fairbank and Tombstone. His stage depot marked the beginning of Benson as a link in the network of southwestern transportation.
Benson was born of the union of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the mining regions of the San Pedro Valley. The Southern Pacific, coming overland from California, chose the Benson site to cross the San Pedro River. It was necessary to establish a junction point to obtain ore from and ship freight to the mines at Tombstone, Fairbank, Contention and Bisbee. Copper and silver ore was brought in covered wagons to Benson and then shipped out on the railroad.
Benson, named in honor of Judge William A. Benson, a friend of Charles Crocker, the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, was located on the elevated plains overlooking the river. The town of 160 acres was laid out in a square, which was dissectedby the railroad. Six avenues, named after the principal mountain ranges and rivers, were intersected by cross streets numbered one through eight. Fourth Street, south of the railroad right-of-way, became the commercial street of the town. The better residential section was located southwest of the railroad depot.
The economy of Benson grew with the demand for silver and copper; a smelter erected by the enterprising firm of Salisbury and White of San Francisco operated sporadically from 1881 to 1909. The ore was brought to the Benson smelter, converted to bullion and shipped out on the railroad. A freight depot, equal in size to that of Tucson, handled the daily shipments of copper ore (1,400 pounds a day) and other freight. A roundhouse was built to house auxiliary locomotives, which assisted trains up the steep grades.
As more railroad lines were built, Benson developed into the "Hub City". In 1881, Benson became the terminus for the Sonoran Railroad from the seaport of Guaymas, Mexico. This line built by the Santa Fe was a major route between Mexico and the United States for many years. In 1897, the El Paso and Southeastern Railroad ran a main line through Benson to Phoenix. Apparently, Benson rivaled Tucson as a rail transportation center at that time.
The railroad traffic brought in its wake a need for retail trades and services; hotel, saloons, livery stables, merchandising establishments and restaurants served the area. The transients created a brisk retail trade. The mining camps and the Latter Day Saints agricultural colonies created a trade area in the Benson sub-basin in the Upper San Pedro Valley, which persists to the present. Foodstuffs and supplies were also needed for the Territorial Reform School established in Benson in 1904. A traveler from Boston described Benson's prosperous main street as bustling, filled with cowboys, miners, railroad men, Mexicans, Americans, and Chinese.
Agriculture and ranching were aided by the drilling in the 1890's. A series of artesian wells, which increased the number of cattle, and crops that were raised in the Benson region, set the stage for the transition from a railroad town to a trade center for a prosperous agriculture region.
In 1880, the population of Benson was around 300, growing nearly fourfold during the 30-year railroad period to 1,100 in 1910. This rapid growth, not matched until the period after World War 11, reflected the prosperity of the town. A preponderance of transient males composed the population in those days and the prevailing philosophy typical of the mining regions was "get it and get out". This transient population made for a rather unstable community with little law and order. Benson had. Its share of saloons, gambling establishments and houses of Ill-repute. From time to time the stable population of Benson made strenuous efforts to rid themselves of undesirables. For example, they demolished a saloon known as "The Joint" which was the haven for the "Top and Bottom Gang" who had shot a sheriff's deputy. The gang was invited to leave town before sundown and promised a necktie party in their honor if they remained. The outlaws took a train for Tucson that evening.
Benson also had to contend with natural hazards such as fires and floods. Fires heavily damaged the business section of town in 1883, 1886, and 1905. A serious flood coming from the Whetstone Mountains inundated the western part of the town in 1896. Such was its destructive force that is swept two families into the San Pedro River and tore the Southern Pacific freight depot off its foundation.
The establishment of schools and church ' s brought greater stability to Benson. In 1895 and 1904, respectively, Catholic and Presbyterian churches were erected. In 1908 Benson had an elementary school staffed by five teachers; in 1914 a secondary school opened its doors to 45 children, some of whom were brought to school from the nearby farms and ranches In a horse-drawn omnibus. The school occupied the buildings of the former Territorial Reform School, which had relocated at Fort Grant in 1914. Home economics, manual trades and agriculture as well as the traditional academic courses were taught. By the turn of the century, a bank, newspaper, telephone system, and fire department and sheriff's office were established in Benson.
In summary, In 1900 Benson was clearly a transportation center. It began as a junction of the east-west railroad and the north-south overland trails in the San Pedro Valley. It was not the obsolescence of the steam engine as much as the natural development of the railroad system to be attracted to the larger cities that eventually hurt Benson and forced her to turn attention to other sources of revenue in order to remain in existence. It was only when the Sonoran Railroad moved its terminus to Tucson in 1910 and when the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad also switched its traffic that Benson declined. This relocation of railroads was a most serious economic loss to Benson and effectively ended her claim to being "The Hub City".
The events economic, political, and social, of this transitional period were to accomplish several far-reaching changes in Benson and the Upper San Pedro Valley. First, the railroads were to shift more their operations from Benson to Tucson. Second, mining activities were to slow down in the second decade of the twentieth century. Finally, ranching and agriculture formed from "The Hub City" to "Queen City of the San Pedro". The composition of the population changed from a majority of single males to a preponderance of married homesteaders. The impact of ranching changed Benson into a typical western cattle town during this period. The dominance of ranching culture is best symbolized by the annual rodeo festival, which started in the early 1930's. Let us examine these transitional events in detail.
In 1910 the Santa Fe Railroad built a line from Nogales to Tucson, making Tucson the northern terminus of the Sonoran Railroad. Until this time Benson had been the terminus for the line which originated In Guaymas. Another serious setback occurred in 1913 when the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad merged with the Southern Pacific; instead of using the Benson roundhouse, the shops at Tucson were now used, leaving Benson with one railroad and decreasing traffic. A brief reversal of these losses occurred during World War I when all railroads were active; however, the mining and railroad era of the San Pedro Valley was rapidly drawing to a close.
Two factors emerged which prevented Benson from becoming a ghost town: first was the renaissance of agricultural and ranching activities. Even during the railroad days, agriculture and ranching were carried on using the river water. A new impetus was added during the twenties and thirties when the water of the river was more profitable utilized by means of a system of canals, dams, and irrigation ditches. Also, farmers and ranchers were no longer dependent upon the river or a good rainfall after the discovery of plentiful artesian water.
Many homesteaders came to the region, including a large group of Mormons from Mexico. Experimentation with new crops was undertaken. Cantaloupes, lettuce, peppers, carrots, and tomatoes were grown on truck farms. Ranchers turned some of their pasturage to wheat, barley, alfalfa, oats, and sorghum. Several large cattle ranches began using land originally granted in the Spanish period; one of them was the Boquillas Land and Cattle Company, which became prominent.
The second factor, manufacturing, took the form of the Apache Powder Company. In 1926 this second largest explosive manufacturer in the United States began operations and employed around 200 men. This industry located near Benson, produces nitric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate, and other ingredients of explosives. Even during the depression, Apache Powder Company never reduced its payroll and thus buttressed the economic base of a grateful community.
In spite of these two factors, Benson still suffered setbacks such as the loss of citizens and numerous business failures during the great depression of the 1930's. The population dropped to around 900 and many citizens had to take relief employment with federal projects. These construction programs concerned with repairing roads and bridges were to prove a boom to the area in terms of improved transportation. In a sense, they literally "paved the way" for the age of the automobile and the truck. During the middle thirties, the Sunset Trail was built from Lordsburg, New Mexico, running through Bowie, Willcox, and Benson. Street and bridge improvements in Benson at that time were effected in preparation for the increased vehicular traffic. Gas stations, restaurants, auto courts, and garages were to locate on the main street and become increasingly important. The improvement in highways started during this time, culminating in the overpass built east of Benson in 1941 and was to prepare for Benson's revival as an important transportation center. The mode of transportation had changed from the Iron Horse to the Horseless Carriage, but Benson's desirable position at the junction of east-west and north-south routes remained the same.
Some people held the view that even in the face depression the town of Benson was destined to boom. General business activity was good, even though the Benson bank closed in 1931 due to the failure of the parent institution in El Paso, Texas. Cattle shipments from the valley were down at the close of the 1930's due to a depressed market. The civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA conducted work programs in Benson; these programs were considered as major improvements for Benson and the surrounding area. Numerous private structures were constructed during the mid-thirties. Gasoline stations sprung up all along the highway.
In 1940 plans for the additional roads and an underpass were developed. When the tentative plans for many of these highway improvements were being discussed, the business community of Benson was very much interested. The question was “Would any of these developments affect the flow of traffic through Benson”? The answer appeared in statistics, which indicated that traffic going through the downtown district had increased.
The transition period brought a renaissance of ranching and farming as well as the beginnings of large-scale industry. With the economic expansion and diversification came a parallel expansion of civic activities. In 1924 Benson incorporated. Some of the improvements of this period were a municipal water system, city-franchised electric power and a jail. In 1926 and 1929, respectively new elementary and high school buildings were constructed. Service clubs, fraternal organizations, and veterans’ clubs owe their founding to this surge of community spirit.
In retrospect, Benson emerged strengthened after her earlier loss as a railroad center. Ranching, agriculture and manufacturing of explosives remain important to Benson’s economy to this time. The transitional period when Benson was a cattle town was ended by World War II and post-war developments in highway construction. It is the writer’s thesis (which is elaborated in the next section) that Benson’s future development is intrinsically linked with the highway developments which started in the transitional period and which continue to the time of this writing.
The decisive event for Benson’s emergence as a highway city was the completion of a highway underpass in late 1941. Greatly increased traffic through Benson forced the community’s metamorphosis. Our discussion of this stage of Benson will cover three major topics
Changes in land use, and
Possible Directions of Future Changes.
A series of improvements on the Sunset Trail and the construction of an underpass permitting the smooth convergence of Highways 80 and 86 marked Benson’s transition to a highway city. Weary travelers used the town’s service stations, motels and restaurants. Benson became a modern oasis, especially during the summer when intense heat made driving arduous. The annual exodus of tourists escaping the rigors of northern winters provided revenue for merchants. In 1962 ten restaurants and thirteen motels were located in this town, which now called itself the “Gateway to the Land of Cochise”. When the potential of the tourist trade was grasped, the natural and historical points of interest in the areas were advertised.
Benson’s economy is considerably affected by military operations in Arizona. Fort Huachuca, reactivated in 1954 as the Army’s electronic proving grounds, is a 30-minute drive from Benson. As increase in retail trade, and increased demand for housing, and additional possibilities for employment of local residents have been the result. The pattern of living in Benson and commuting to Fort Huachuca has become a way for many and will probably continue to be for additional civilian employees hired by the Fort. Increased highway traffic and the nearness of Fort Huachuca have stimulated the unprecedented growth of Benson; there is now a well-equipped hospital, a new post office, a modern municipal building, a police force, a fire department, a public library, a Chamber of Commerce and a bank. A movie theater ,a bowling alley, a public park and rodeo field provide recreational facilities, although school sports and activities are major events. It should be noted also that several new housing additions such as Comstock, Benson Heights and San Pedro city have been recently built for new families coming to Benson.
Climate, water supply and population are three factors that will now be discussed in relation to economic trends. Climate is an important determinant of tourism and industrial location in the Benson area. Although Benson partakes of the general climate conditions of the Southwest, its elevation, 3565 feet, provides some temperature differences from the Tucson area.
It is obvious that Benson’s summer climate is slightly cooler than that of Tucson, but more important to the winter tourist, its winter Climate is also cooler. The winter temperature of Tucson permits the growth of subtropical trees, shrubs and flowers as well as the native saguaro and various cacti. Benson, on the other hand, is situated in an area of yucca mesquite, prickly pear cactus and some deciduous trees. Tucson’s climate has an average growing season of 285 days where as Benson’s is only 226 days. During the six coldest months of the year, Benson averages 11 to 20 degrees colder than Tucson, only 45 miles to the West. Tucson’s average minimum monthly temperature never falls below freezing while Benson’s does for six months of the year. This factor alone limits Benson’s attractiveness to tourists, health seekers and prospective citizens.
In regard to water the picture is much brighter because the town is located in the upper San Pedro Valley. This valley is divided into the Charleston and Benson sub-basins by the Tombstone Mountains. The 58 mile long valley, which drains 2,500 square miles, has been filled in with alluvial deposits, which are approximately 200 feet deep. Water table conditions occur in the recent alluvial deposits, which range from 10 to 80 feet in depth. This water in the underground river flows northward and is discharged at “ the Narrows”, north of Benson, with a rate of 45,000 acre feet a year. This rate is twice that which is discharged by the combined municipal, agricultural and industrial wells in the Benson sub- basin, Artesian wells in this sub-basin take about 20,000 acre-feet a year but this is readily recharged. Although there is little surface water in the river, there is plentiful underground water supply in the San Pedro Valley, a situation not widely found in Arizona where in many places water is being used at a faster rate than it is being replenished.
Population is a third factor to be evaluated with respect to economic trends. During the railroad era the population increased from 300 in the year 1880 to 1,100 in the year 1910. in the transitional period (1913-1941) the population declined slightly but remained around 950. In Benson’s contemporary period the population again increased from 1,400 in the year 1950 to 2,494 in the year 1960. Rapid growth occurred during the boom days of railroading; the population dropped slightly afterwards and then remained stable during the transitional period. It rose sharply with the emergence of the highway changes. If the present trend continues, the population in 1970 the population will be around 3,500.The population has changed in the last three decades from a numerical superiority of women.
An automobile traveler entering Benson from the west would note that the town lies in an inter-mountain valley created by the San Pedro River. Proceeding through town the many restaurants, motels, refreshment stands and gasoline stations would hold his attention. His overall impression would be that venturing off highway would he see the town, which has grown up around the railroad and highway. The following material on Benson’s physical outlay explores the manner of which the physical layout evolved as the forces acted which shaped its present pattern on land use.
Benson’s original streets were platted in a grid pattern on a 160-acre plat, which was bisected by the Southern Pacific right-of-way. Most of the buildings were originally located to the south of the tracks leaving the northern half rather vacant. Benson has developed in an unplanned fashion and it was some years after its founding that the northern part of the town began to build up. The shape of the community did not change much in the transitional period from 1913 to 1941; new buildings were erected, old ones razed and repaired; but the town did not spread much beyond its original plat. It was only with the post- war period that Benson began to grow in population and area to its present 7.5 square miles. In 1947, Benson Heights was annexed; in 1958 the Comstock subdivision was annexed; in 1960 the Council annexed 3.75 square miles bringing West Benson, North Benson, the San Pedro addition and other areas into the corporation limits.
Benson’s position on the main-line of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the junction of Highways 80 and 86 brings a heavy flow of traffic through the middle of town. The bisection of Benson by parallel highway railroad routes cannot be over-emphasized as the most important structural feature. These ground-level transportation routes effectively divide the community socially and geographically along an east-west axis. On the north side of these transportation arteries the homes are generally older and less well-constructed. South of the highway and railroad, middle-class and upper middle-class homes are found, along with the majority of churches, businesses, professional offices, paved streets and public facilities. For example, the hospital, library, city hall, post office and cemeteries are all to the south of Fourth Street. Thus, Benson is separated into two district social – economic areas by these routes.
For purposes of analysis and future planning, an existing land-use map of Benson is presented. A cursory examination of the map reveals several important facts. Commercial uses concentrate along the highway through Benson; tourist businesses tend to locate on the extreme ends where other businesses are in the middle. Public and quasi-public uses south of the highway – railroad routes. Industry, with the exception of the Southern Pacific Railroad, has located on the perimeter of the town or at a greater distance as in the case of the Apache Power Company. Commercial uses of land are found primarily along the existing highway through town but may relocate when Interstate 10 is built to the north of Benson. Presently, there are some commercial establishments located on the railroad right-of-way as well as on Fourth Street paralleling the highway. Residential land use in Benson can readily be divided into an upper middle-class area known as Benson Heights, a middle-class area from Central Avenue to Gila Avenue south of fourth street and two lower-class areas from Gila to Dragoon Avenues. Another lower-class and lower middle-class is located on the land north of the railroad tracks. Many of the homes in the lower class areas are those which the U. S. Bureau of Census would list as deteriorating and dilapidated . These homes are generally in need of major repairs and are often surrounded by unsightly yards and outbuildings.
Benson’s division by the parallel highway and railroad routes has been utilized by the U.S. Bureau of the census to create two enumeration districts: E.D.6 to the north and E.D. 7 to the south. Enumeration districts 7 contains the majority of middle-class homes and the public and religious institutions. Fifty eight percent of all the owner occupied homes in Benson, and 61 percent of all homes classified as sound-i.e., not in need of major repairs – are found here. Enumeration district 6 has only 42 percent of Benson’s owner- occupied homes and 39 percent of Benson’s sound homes. The homes in E. D. 7 tend to be less crowded and have more rooms per unit; only 15 percent of the homes have one or more persons per room as compared to 30 percent for E. D. 6. A greater number of homes in E. D. 7 have all plumbing facilities and are of recent construction. On all measures of comparison, then, E. D. 6 to the north of the railroad has been shown to be relatively lower with a regard to housing conditions. This information found in the bureau of Census report for Benson thus corroborates the interpretation that the present railroad or highway routes separate Benson into two different socio-economic areas. One qualification must be added; there is an area of newly constructed middle- class homes in the Comstock area in E.D. 6, to the east near the river.
The major factor in Benson’s future development would seem to be its proximity to the metropolitan area of Tucson. Tucson is rapidly growing eastward and closing the gap between the upper San Pedro and the Santa Cruz Valleys, diminishing the time required to commuting to work, stores and recreation. There are several implications. First, many individuals will choose to commute from Benson to jobs in Tucson. Commuting for retail trades and services will increase as Benson becomes more closely related to Tucson’s trade area. Hunters and campers from Tucson will travel to the historical and natural attractions of the Upper San Pedro Valley. For example, the archeological sites of the Sobaipuri may attract many visitors in years to come. Third we may expect an implementation of already existing military and aerospace programs in Pima and Cochise Counties. Finally, Tucson’s population growth will probably necessitate the use of water rights in the San Pedro Valley. The utilization of the San Pedro Valley water have considerable affect upon the type of crops raised in the upper Valley. As water becomes more expensive, low-cash value acreage may be replaced by truck farm crops. Truck and dairy farming will compete effectively for the water and prosper because of the growing Tucson market.
A climate which is not only a positive amenities factor but which is favorable to industrial processes which require relatively mild and dry air. An unusually well developed network of highway and railroad facilities.
Adequate gas and power services to any part of Cochise County can likely be in large quantities and at competitive prices. A location on the fringe for large markets for those who wish to produce in a decentralized locality but who must ship finished products to mass markets.
A location on the fringe for large markets for those who wish to produce in a decentralized locality but who must ship finished products to mass markets.
We have briefly sketched some of the foreseeable influences upon Benson’s future growth. While Benson may be expected to remain politically autonomous, it will become more dependent economically and socially upon Tucson. The next stage of Benson’s evolution, marked perhaps by the completion of the interstate highway to Tucson, will be that of “Satellite City”. Just as St. David and Pomerene are satellites of Benson, Benson itself will become a satellite of its larger neighbor to the west. Although we may at times decry the trend of urban growth and attempt to soften its impact, there is no denying its inexorable force. In view of its past resourcefulness in adjusting to change, Benson will retain many of its traditions while successfully handling the problems of the future.
Our journey through Benson’s history was under taken on the conviction that a knowledge of the past is a prerequisite for understanding the present. Readers who object to the division of Benson’s history into discrete stages can take comfort in the fact this device serves to focus attention on the most important sources of change. It was not the author’s intent to fit in the facts to a Proscrutean bed or obscure the continuity of history. Each stage of Benson’s change such as the railroad , irrigation systems, etc., with its accompanying way of life. Because technological change generally occurs more rapidly than changes in traditions, beliefs of business procedures, the former serve as the harbinger of widespread community change. Present-day technologies of communication and transportation have brought communities closer together and made them more interdependent and thus require a regional approach to planning. Use of resources , the attraction of new industries. Improvements of living standards and so on are no longer merely community problems but of regional significance. An understanding of the Southwest region is an important product of the series of community studies conducted by the Bureau of Business and Public Research. The forgoing report on Benson is directed to that end.