The sheriff prepares to deliver frontier justice.
The sheriff prepares to deliver frontier justice.

Goldfield Ghost Town

Field review by the editors.

Apache Junction, Arizona

We'll say it: Goldfield is a dazzling nugget of desert entertainment. This roadside reconstruction of a gold discovery boom town delivers period characters, a mine tour, a mystery spot, a reptile museum, and legends of a lost treasure.

Reptiles and horses, this way. Bordello, upstairs.
Reptiles and horses, this way. Bordello, upstairs.

The original town sprang up in 1892, peaking at 28 buildings, with a community of up to 4,000. Five years later, after prospectors had dug out all of the gold, the population deflated, and Goldfield went ghost dark. It had a sputtering revival between 1910 and 1926 (renamed as Youngsberg), then waned again. In 1943, a fire accidentally caused by an errant military training flare burned down 60% of Goldfield. Eventually all of the buildings were gone, and parts were salvaged and carted off elsewhere.

Now Goldfield booms once again -- as a commercial Ghost Town, with a sprawling array of recreated buildings, and Wild West trappings that tourists crave.

The unofficial mayor of the privately owned town is Bob Schoose.

"I've been at it for 32 years," Bob told us. Bob is one of the owners and was a powerhouse behind the resurrection of Goldfield in the 1980s. "I'd been doing construction work and earthwork and demolition all my life -- jobs all over with crews," Bob said. "Those kind of jobs are affected by downturns in the economy. After one job in San Diego, on our way home we got to thinking of some things the economy won't affect so much -- talked about ghost towns and gold mines that tourists visit. By the time we got home, we had some good ideas for a business."

Prospector character cutout against the Superstition Mountains.
Prospector character cutout against the Superstition Mountains.

In 1983, Bob spotted a For Sale sign on five acres in Apache Junction, the site of the gold mine and historic Goldfield. While that property had little to offer, the partners bought the Goldfield Mill site, a nearby 5-acre property in 1984, and spent nearly five years doing painstaking reconstruction of the 1890s version of the town. "It's laid out exactly the same" as the Goldfield site, Bob said. "We used some of the original foundations -- the snack bar is on the site where Doc Waterbury lived -- he was the last owner of the mine -- until the 1970s." Schoose wrote a book about the site's history: Goldfield Boom to Bust - Arizona Territory 1893.

Git Yer Fortune Told by Pappy.
Git Yer Fortune Told by Pappy.

Goldfield differs from large, commercial pay-to-enter attractions. There's no charge to park and walk its streets and enter stores and restaurants, with an a la carte approach to individual points of interest. Visitors pay to enter the Mystery Shack or a museum, or to ride a horse or Arizona's only narrow gauge train. Or they buy a souvenir magnet or an ice cream cone, and watch men shoot guns at each other. The shops close at five, but the Mammoth Saloon glugs along until 9 pm.

Gunfights never end well for most of the participants. The crowd loves 'em.
Gunfights never end well for most of the participants. The crowd loves 'em.

"I'm not greedy," Bob said, "I want people to see the history of Arizona, and have a good time. Some just come in for the gunfight, but many buy a meal and go to some of the attractions."

As a kid growing up in southern California, Bob witnessed this approach working spectacularly at Knott's Berry Farm. "They didn't charge to get in." And he's also seen Wild West attractions become ghost towns after changing admission strategy: "The original Rawhide was free to enter; then they started charging to come in, and that really hurt them." Rawhide was eventually sold off and moved.

The Goldfield Gunfighters.
The Goldfield Gunfighters.

Wandering Goldfield visitors are forewarned by liability waiver signs that the site is frontier-rugged -- wooden walkways, rickety steps and handrails, uneven slopes, and the occasional confused rattlesnake. The town is built on a hill, and there are nooks to explore along with the mercantile, apothecary, bordello, and an olde timey photo salon. A miniature "Tiny Town" along the train tracks is next to a gag outhouse inhabited by dummies, which is next to a graveyard ("The Last Dig"). There are ample photo opportunities (for personal use only; Goldfield prohibits photos for commercial purposes without permission).

Our highlights:

Street Gunfights

Loud, choreographed scuffles occur hourly during the day, announced over speakers. Crowds are confined to building boardwalks and the ends of the street as a crusty assemblage of outlaws, troublemakers, and lawmen -- the Goldfield Gunfighters -- wander onto the dirt main drag, shout at each other, and then, reaching no amicable solution, blast away. (Free)

Goldfield Superstition Museum

Treasure seekers of the elusive Lost Dutchman Mine. Some brave, some unlucky, all obsessed.
Treasure seekers of the elusive Lost Dutchman Mine. Some brave, some unlucky, all obsessed.

The local historical society has assembled lots of artifacts - Native American arrowheads and pottery, dollhouse versions of town buildings. They're the kind of items encountered at a western town or county history museum, but mining-skewed, along with several notable celebrity items, including Doc Holliday's dress coat, and the buffalo robe worn by Robert Redford in the movie Jeremiah Johnson. (Admission)

Lost Dutchman Hunter Hall of Fame

Within the Goldfield Superstition Museum, the Lost Dutchman Hunter Hall of Fame chronicles notable characters who "have been integral to the Legend of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine." Starting in 1891, with the clearly imperfect deathbed directions to the mine provided by Jacob Waltz, countless hunters have sought the treasure. The Hall of Fame is a wall of bios and photos, "a good cross-section of the Dutch Hunter society," the display informs us -- from those who went broke from fruitless searches, to an eccentric writer who lived in a cave, to those injured or killed in the dangerous Superstition Mountains.

The Mystery Shack

The Mystery Shack.
The Mystery Shack.

All laws of gravity and common sense vanish when visitors enter this classic tourist structure of optical illusion and perceptual distortion. Water runs uphill, objects change size. A "ghostly pool table" draws every ball irresistibly to the same pocket. (Admission)

Mammoth Mine Tour

There's a mine conveniently tunneled under the town. The underground guided tour in the Mammoth Mine is the place to learn about late 19th century ore extracting and processing. The tour takes less than a half hour. (Admission)

Superstition Reptile Exhibit

Scaly, crawly creatures of the Sonoran Desert were Goldfield's most numerous inhabitants after the people left. Visitors see them up close (but safely) at this indoor reptile attraction, and ask the reptile expert any question that crosses their minds about spiders, snakes, and lizards. Is the gila monster really a monster? (Admission)

The zip line is a relatively recent addition to Goldfield. The line is, no surprise, gold mine-themed -- based on the old tram that hauled ore from the top of the mountains. Mayor Bob recommends it for our next visit.

Goldfield Ghost Town

Goldfield Ghost Town

Address:
4650 N. Mammoth Mine Rd, Apache Junction, AZ
Directions:
5 miles northeast of Apache Junction on Highway 88 (Apache Trail), just west of Lost Dutchman State Park at Mammoth Mine Rd.
Hours:
Daily 10-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
480-983-0333
Admission:
Tips for the gunfight, $4-$7 for the mine, $4-$6 for train, etc.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Elvis Presley Memorial ChapelElvis Presley Memorial Chapel, Apache Junction, AZ - < 1 mi.
Superstition Mountain MuseumSuperstition Mountain Museum, Apache Junction, AZ - < 1 mi.
Lost Dutchman MonumentLost Dutchman Monument, Apache Junction, AZ - 4 mi.
In the region:
Arizona Falls, Phoenix, AZ - 27 mi.

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November 22, 2017

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