All my young life, Wickenburg was the most enchanting desert town closest to Phoenix. Even into the 2000s, it retained its main street charm.
Prospector Henry Wickenburg, an Austrian native, was the namesake of the town along the Hassayampa River. He discovered gold nearby in 1863. It became the famous Vulture Mine, based on claims Wickenburg sold to Behtchuel Phelps of New York. "The Comstock of Arizona" and "largest and richest gold mine" in the territory yielded about $2.5 million before it played out. Wickenburg himself scraped a living farming before committing suicide in 1905.
The young town was also contested by the Yavapai, who didn't appreciate the Anglo and Mexican settlers taking their land. In the Civil War, federal troops were withdrawn and the Yavapai attacked. Confederate cavalry responded but soon withdrew. Hundreds were killed on both sides before an uneasy peace settled.
Wickenburg the town played a major role in the rise of Phoenix. Jack Swilling, who also made some inportant gold finds there, saw an even richer possibility in the prehistoric Hohokam canals of the Salt River Valley. In the late 1860s, Swilling dragooned a crew of workers from Wickenburg to help excavate one, which became today's Grand Canal, and build Swilling's Ditch.
Later, Wickenburg became a stop on the Santa Fe Railway between the northern Arizona mainline and Phoenix; another line was built west to connect more directly with California. Until 1968, Wickenburg had daily passenger train service (and the depot still stands). The town was also an important stop on U.S. Highway 60 between Phoenix — on Grand Avenue — and Los Angeles.
Even as Phoenix grew into a soulless blob and once-magical places such as Prescott were subsumed by sprawl, Wickenburg retained its uniqueness with local businesses, an intact and walkable central business district and even a working movie theater. Celerity rehab centers had replaced the dude ranches of the 1930s but Wickenburg circa 2005 seemed remarkably authentic. So close to plastic suburbia of "the Valley" and yet wonderfully apart. Now it is in the fight for its life, at least as the town we knew and loved.
A U.S. 60/93 bypass has already been pressuring Tegner and Frontier streets of some of their life and famous local businesses, although downtown is still hanging in. Championship golf has arrived at the nearby Wickenburg Ranch development. Exurban tract houses are being pimped at such projects as Trilogy. Wickenburg-centric pages on Facebook are full of argument and angst over annexation.
That would be a big mistake. Far better for Wickenburgers to keep their town intact and not take on the costs, disruption, and slippery slope of the exurbs sapping the life out of the town. Happily, Wickenburg itself held only 6,685 people in 2014, a manageable 4.5 percent increase from 2010. Wal-Mart, the angel of death of small-town America, has not yet arrived. The Great Recession hammering of the growth machine has given it something of a reprieve.
Is there no last, best place in the state that is safe from the depredations of the Real Estate Industrial Complex? If Arizona had growth boundaries such as Oregon and Washington, towns such as Wickenburg (and Prescott and Flagstaff) would be better for it. The nightmare vision is Kingman, where a disastrous sprawl has almost completely denuded this Route 66 town of its soul.
The developers have their lust aimed at the Upper Hassayampa Basin Aquifer. They shouldn't get this almost irreplaceable groundwater.
An old story I first heard from a Santa Fe conductor as the train rolled along next to the Hassayampa River was that if a person took a drink of the river's water he could never again tell the truth. The short-hustle grifters who want to keep profaning Arizona's magic for their profit are already in that condition.
The Nature Conservancy Hassayampa River Preserve is a magical thing. It's too bad Arizona can't find the stewards to assemble more private land around Wickenburg to be left alone. Just that.
Read more about Phoenix and Arizona's past on Rogue's history archive.