O'Neil Spring and Lake Mary
In the late 1870s, few men had settled in the wilderness high country of Northern Arizona. The Atlantic and Pacific railroad would not be built across Northern Arizona, and the Babbitt family, who would go on to great fame as Coconino County entrepreneurs, would not step down from the steps of a passenger car in the booming metropolis of Flag Staff for another few years. Most of Northern Arizona’s sparse population was attracted to the rich gold fields of the Bradshaw Mountains or the lush grasses and rich earth of the Verde Valley. Cold winter snow kept men moving west along the Beale Wagon Road toward California or southwest down the Overland Trail around the head of Sycamore Canyon into the new town of Prescott.
Jim O’Neil was one of the earliest men to settle in the vicinity. Originally from Kentucky, he entered the sheep business at Date Creek west of Prescott before moving to the San Francisco Mountain region because of the dry conditions in the low lands. His sheep got water from what came to be O’Neil Spring in the area now known as Kachina Village. Jim O’Neil, along with John Clark, William Ashurst, Ira Gosney and Charles Odell would become Northern Arizona’s biggest sheep ranchers. As Flagstaff was established and grew, O’Neil was selected as the first voting inspector in the original Flag Staff voting precinct. By 1886 as he prospered, he also ran a store on San Francisco Street in Flagstaff.
In the early days, one of the leading industries besides raising sheep and cattle was the very large Ayer Saw Mill (later sold to the Riordan Brothers.) This mill sat in the middle of the largest continuous stand of virgin ponderosa pine timber on the face of the earth, and the railroad had been given alternating sections for miles on either side of the track. In this, the glory days of the industrial revolution, steam power was the ultimate technology. Steam-powered locomotives brought logs in from the woods, steam-powered cranes lifted logs off rail cars, steam-driven sawmills cut lumber from logs, and steam-powered loaders put that lumber back on cars for shipment. When electricity first came to Flagstaff, it too was powered by steam generators located at the Riordan Mill.
Steam comes from boiling water. Heat came from burning sawdust and scrap left over from the milling process, so fuel was no problem. Water on the other hand was in short supply.
Flagstaff had Antelope Spring (now called Old Town Spring,) on the hill above the mill. During wet years this spring did OK but during a dry spell it would not produce enough water for the town folks and stock, much less run a sawmill.
The next nearest spring of any consequence was O’Neil Spring about eight miles south of town. The Riordans bought the water rights from Jim O’Neal and built a large stone pumphouse in the field below the spring to bring water into town. O’Neil Spring served the mill and town until 1903 when again the demand for water had grown so large that both Old Town and O’Neal Springs were not enough. That was the year Tim Riordan built a dam across Clark Valley and named the new reservoir Lake Mary for his daughter, Mary Riordan.
So next time you’re buzzing along Interstate 17 headed into Flagstaff look for a little slice of History. The old stone pump house building can still be seen in the lowlands of Pumphouse Wash immediately west of Interstate 17 in the field just north of the Kachina Village Exit.
O’Neil Spring itself is in the aspen grove at the west end of the clearing. Pumphouse Wash runs from there into Oak Creek and is quite pretty as it becomes much deeper near Oak Creek Canyon.
If you get out into our spectacular Northern Arizona backwoods, please do not litter and try to leave the area cleaner than you found it.
Enjoy Northern Arizona.
Bill Cowan’s Arcadia book on the History of the Verde Valley is available at Candy’s Creekside Cottage in McGuireville, Arizona and also from Amazon, Ebay and at various other retailers including the Verde Canyon Railroad.