Scene idea, abandoned towns, and the telegraph

1878 Hinton Handbook map of Arizona mines, telegraphs

In The Reluctant Bandit, Wanted posters aren’t giving Sheriff O’Donnell the answers he’s looking for or needs. He has to find a different way to procure information that’s quick. Enter the telegraph. It may seem odd or somewhat implausible that the telegraph would make its way into a vast and sparsely populated expanse such as the Arizona territory, but it did. It was a boon for both the military as well as for the territory’s growing economy. Mail could take months to arrive but with the telegraph there were instant or nearly instant responses. The news could change by the time a piece of mail arrived. In many cases it most likely did. Mail could also be waylaid or lost. However, with the telegraph, there was immediacy and some security.

The first military telegraph in the Arizona Territory was located in Maricopa Wells, extending out to Yuma and then North to Phoenix, Tucson, and Prescott. Maricopa Wells was established in 1857. It was a prime spot in the desert because there was water–the history of that area can be traced back to the 1600’s with the Pimas who had settlements in that area up and down the Gila River. Maricopa Wells was a watering hole, trading post, and stage coach stop. It eventually became a regular stage coach stop for the San Antonio and San Diego mail lines. The Butterfield Overland Mail company joined them in 1858, after it took over the government mail contract. Fortunes changed in 1887, when the Maricopa and Phoenix railroad was built. The site chosen for the train line was eight miles south of Maricopa Wells; this “new” site is the modern-day town of Maricopa which is thirty five miles south of Phoenix. It can be confusing, because Maricopa Wells is in Pinal County but there’s also a Maricopa County. The name for that site changed a variety of times, starting with Maricopaville. Fickle, power struggle, terrain issues? What was it about that eight miles that made such a difference? That’s where the railroad junction went in, so the telegraph, the U.S. post office, and “other valuables” were moved to this new location. The railroad of yore was a make-or-break situation for many of these little towns. It certainly was a boon for those awarded with a line running through it. Maricopa Wells is abandoned now, however, Maricopa still exists, thanks to the railroad.

When I started writing The Reluctant Bandit what I was really doing was following a scene idea that I wrote for a class. It was only a couple of paragraphs and it was for one assignment. There were specific elements we needed to include, and it was a stand alone exercise. Nothing we needed to return to. However, I happened to enjoy Charlie’s character and since I didn’t have a new project to work on for this particular class, also a requirement, I decided to run with that kernel of an idea and see where it led me. Add to that the novelty of a western, something I hadn’t considered before.

I researched what I needed to know but primarily focused on the characters and what they were telling me. I also researched a lot of abandoned towns in Arizona to get a feel for where I wanted to place these characters. Finding out about Maricopa Wells was like hitting pay dirt for me. I needed some avenue for quick communication even if it was just to set off action. If you’ve read The Reluctant Bandit then you’ll know that while the sheriff sends the deputy off to do research we don’t know if he actually did it. Spoiler alert: he didn’t. I really wanted the telegraph to run through the territory, or at least part of it, and in finding this gem it supported what I had initially drafted. I had written some of the material with the provision that I would research after the first draft phase. To be clear, I did some research beforehand, during, as well as afterward. There were some bits that took me longer to make final decisions on and some that just came to me. I wanted to keep the writing momentum going as I am easily distracted and can quickly fall down the research hole. Just call me Alice.

What I find incredible about the telegraph is all the lines that had to be run to make this a go. I feel the same about the railways. Arizona is comprised of a lot of different terrains and climate zones and it’s not always easy traveling or living conditions, depending on location. I had some readers surprised that were forests in Arizona. There’s snow, too. 😉 In fact, even Phoenix has had snow three times since I’ve lived here. It didn’t stay for long but it snowed. The high country gets lasting snow, but I digress.

One last observation: it’s astounding how quickly a town can grow and die. Some of the towns have remnants proving they existed but many do not. They are the proverbial X on some long-forgotten map.

Image above is for sale on BLR Antique Maps for a cool $8,500.

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