For a quarter century, 1861 to 1886, Ft. Bowie was prime real estate known as Apache Pass. The Americans wanted it for their stagecoaches & supply wagons. The Chiricahua Apaches wanted it because their people had lived here for at least two centuries. Both sides were willing to pay for it in blood.
Why was Apache Pass so valuable? Because of the perennial source of water at Apache Spring just down the old road from here. The Butterfield Stage drivers who transported passengers & the U.S. Mail could water their draft animals here on their way between St. Louis & San Francisco.
The Chiricahua Apaches needed that same water for themselves & their horses. Moreover, it was their homeland, and the Americans were invaders. In 1861, the clouds of war were gathering.
In early 1861, young, poorly-prepared Lt. George Bascom arrived at Apache Pass with 54 soldiers & accused Cochise, the great Chiricahua chief, of stealing horses and abducting the 12-year-old son of a nearby rancher. In truth, Cochise knew nothing of this incident, but told Bascom that he would make inquiries and try to return the child.
Cochise had arrived with only a few family members. Clearly, he had not anticipated trouble. But Bascom lured the small band into a large tent where soldiers quickly surrounded them. Bascom informed Cochise that he & his band would be held hostage until the horses & the boy were returned. Amazingly, Cochise escaped. The other Indians were not so lucky.
A few days later Cochise returned, this time with a war party & hostages of his own. Bascom refused to trade. The storm clouds had gathered, and thus began the Apache Wars.
To protect Americans using Apache Spring from the Chiricahuas, the U.S. Army built Fort Bowie in Apache Pass. At first it was little more than an Army camp, but as the Apache Wars dragged on, it became much more substantial. The above image is of the Dress Parade Grounds. Note the position of the flagpole, then compare this old photograph with the present-day image below.
This is the Dress Parade Grounds today (September 2013). Our National Park Service has placed this replica flagpole in the same spot as the original. Looking at old photographs of Fort Bowie at the Visitor Center, & using the flagpole as reference, it’s fairly easy to determine where each of the old buildings once stood.
It was here in Apache Pass that the Americans first became aware of a powerful & relentless Chiricahua Apache warrior named Goyathlay. Soon, nearly every Anglo & Mexican on both sides of the border would know him as Geronimo. Some newspapers of the day referred to him as “The Worst Indian Who Ever Lived”.
On the peak above me in this image, Geronimo received his spiritual vision that told him he would not be killed in battle. After countless battles in which he killed hundreds of Americans & Mexicans; after surrendering 4 times to the U.S. Army; after becoming a celebrity at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair; & after leading Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 Inaugural Parade, “The Worst Indian Who Ever Lived” died of pneumonia in 1909, still a prisoner-of-war.
(Above) The stone foundation for the Guard House is in the foreground. After Geronimo surrendered for the 4th & final time in 1886, he & his small band of renegades were brought here. Soon they were escorted to the rail head at the town of Bowie, 14 miles north of the Fort, and then shipped by train to the prison at Fort Pickens in Florida.
They were never allowed to return to their ancestral home in the Chiricahua Mountains. Many died from “White Man’s” diseases. Many of their children were kidnapped by U.S. officials and sent to “White” operated Indian boarding schools where many also died of disease. In an act that seems unbelievably treacherous today, all of the Chiricahua Apache scouts that the U.S. Army had used to run Geronimo to ground, were themselves made prisoners-of-war and were never allowed to return here. To learn more, click here to see our History of the Apache.
You can get to Fort Bowie by driving 22 miles south of Willcox on Hwy 186 and turning left (east) at the Fort Bowie sign. From the highway, it’s about an 8-mile drive on an unpaved road to the parking lot and trailhead.
The 1.5-mile trail to the ruins winds past remains of a Butterfield Stage Coach Station, the post cemetery, an Apache wickiup, the Chiricahua Apache Indian Agency, Apache Spring, the original fort and finally the more elaborate 2nd Fort Bowie and the Visitor Center. We suggest you allow at least 2 hours for the round trip visit.
The National Park Service Visitor Center has a small, but fine museum, restrooms, and a picnic area that overlooks the ruins. We found Ranger Ross to be very knowledgeable and most helpful.
If you are handicapped, there is an access road that allows you to drive to the Visitor Center. Drive past the parking lot 2-miles to the “Handicap Access” sign. For access, call 520-827-2500, ext. 1.
Dining In Willcox
On the way to Fort Bowie, you may find yourself hungry in Willcox. There are two restaurants we recommend, both in Old Town near the railroad tracks.
Big Tex BBQ
130 E Maley St.
Big Tex is an old red railroad car. You can’t miss it. Big surprise. They specialize in BBQ. But their fish ‘n chips are OK too. UrbanSpoon rates Big Tex 4-Stars. We are a bit more critical and give it 3-Saguaros for food & service plus a half-saguaro for old time railroad ambiance.
790 N Haskell Ave
G-Ma D’s is a laid-back diner located in what once was a busy corner of downtown Willcox. It too has ambiance … of a sort. We give it 3-Saguaros plus a half-saguaro for quirkiness. Folks here are friendly. Ask them what kind of businesses were once here. It’s a long list.
For a list of Ghost Towns in Southern Arizona visit our page.