At the edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area, the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, Arizona, keeps the spirit of the old west alive through exhibits, demonstrations, and stories about the mountains and the people who sought their fortunes there.
The old west lives on at the Superstition Mountain Museum
The Superstition Mountains have long been a source of both mythical promise and harsh reality for those who came in search of riches. Gold miners were drawn here by the vague promise of a land filled with gold, a dream kept alive by the stories of the Lost Dutchman Mine. Shopkeepers, land speculators, lawmen, and deal makers of all sorts followed, making their own living serving – sometimes swindling – the miners. And, finally, the movie men came in search of the perfect setting for their own western fantasies.
The Superstition Mountain Museum captures a bit of all of this and more.
The Superstition Mountains
But first and foremost are the mountains.
The Superstition Mountain Museum is worth a visit simply for its location. Sitting at the foot of the Superstitions and framed by cacti, a towering rock face dominates the landscape.
There is information on the mountain itself inside the museum. Better still, a nature trail runs through the museum property back toward the mountains. It’s a pleasant walk that introduces visitors to plants commonly found in the Sonoran Desert.
The old west both real and imagined
The Superstition Mountain Museum isn’t designed to look like a ghost town. However, it does have examples of many buildings that would have been found in an Arizona mining town late in the 19th century.
The Superstition Mountain Museum is a stage set – both literally and figuratively – for the history of this area and its people. Its exhibits include authentic artifacts (including giant mining machinery), many of which are housed in historic-looking buildings. Historic-looking because, while a couple of buildings might actually be historic, most were purpose-built for the museum or rescued from the Apacheland Movie Ranch.
The old west of Apacheland
Western-themed movies became popular in the 1930s, and remained popular through the 1960s. By the 1950s these movies (originally aimed at youth) were so popular with adults that they were joined by a number of televised westerns, a few of which (Gunsmoke and Bonanza) continued to be produced into the 1970s.
Many of these were filmed on sets in the southwestern desert. One of those sets was the Apacheland Movie Ranch, located just down the road in what is today Gold Canyon, Arizona.
Constructed in 1959, Apacheland served as the set for more than a dozen television shows and thirty movies between 1960 and 1994. These include the western television series Have Gun, Will Travel and Elvis Presley’s only non-musical movie, Charro. It was also the set for many, many commercials, a few of which were filmed right up until Apacheland closed after a 2004 fire damaged most structures on the site.
The end of an era
Apacheland was actually hit twice by fire.
The first was in 1969. It destroyed all but seven buildings. However, the set was quickly rebuilt and filming soon continued.
But fire wasn’t the only danger the fragile wood set faced. Financial mismanagement and changes in the movie industry made the long-term survival of Apacheland less and less likely.
By 2004 a change in ownership had brought new life to the site. While still being used to film commercials, Apacheland was now also a draw as a tourist site and event center. Things finally seemed to be looking up after years of struggle.
Then disaster struck in the form a second fire. Although 14 of the site’s 21 buildings survived the fire (including all seven survivors of the 1969 fire), it wasn’t enough. The Apacheland Movie Ranch’s days were over.
The chapel and barn (survivors of both fires) were reconstructed at the Superstition Mountain Museum along with the gallows. Apparently the rest of the set was bulldozed and the site redeveloped.
The Elvis Chapel
The gleaming steeple of a small white church is the first thing most people notice when approaching the museum site.
It’s a perfect contrast to the purple mountain behind it.
This little church, nicknamed the Elvis Chapel, was constructed for the movie Charro — perhaps at Elvis’ request. (Folklore says he refused to do a wedding scene without a church.)
While it appears the original chapel was little more than a façade, today the solid little building houses a small movie memorabilia museum.
The large barn at the Superstition Mountain Museum was also brought to the site from Apacheland.
The barn played a role in many movies, but is apparently most famous as the scene of an extended gun battle in an Audie Murphy western (maybe Arizona Raiders, but maybe not). Today it is used for events and as exhibit space for tackle, tools, Apacheland memorabilia, and horse-drawn wagons, buggies, and coaches. There are also several vignettes that mimic old-time shops and a room marked as a saloon (which was dark when we visited).
A small general store is tucked into one corner. However, this “general store” is a modern operation, with western souvenirs and food-related items for sale.
Outside, the barn’s windmill is not from Apacheland. Instead, it was built for the site based on a windmill at another nearby movie set.
Other bits of a small western town
The museum has brought in or constructed a number of historic-looking buildings. Not a town’s-worth, but a few. Among them are a barbershop and a blacksmith’s shop. Occasional demonstrations at the blacksmith’s shop allow visitors to watch a smith at work. I don’t think they give demonstrations over at the barbershop, but it might be a good idea for a business!
There is also a jail and gallows. I’m not sure about the history of the jail, but the gallows was brought over from Apacheland with the chapel and barn.
And, of course, there is Boot Hill.
While a graveyard can tell onlookers a lot about a place, this mock-up consists of nothing more than a few funny caricatures. Apparently it’s designed to make people laugh rather than think. As such, it’s the weakest “exhibit” at the museum.
A large part of the history of the Superstition Mountains revolves around mining, so it’s no surprise that the Superstition Mountain Museum devotes a large area to miners and mining equipment.
The museum constructed a miner’s shack to show how miners lived. Or at least how some miners lived. I suspect some lived in even more primitive conditions as they struggled to dig a living out of the mountains!
There is also a small assay office. This would have been indispensable for miners looking to sell gold or other precious metals, as this is where the purity of those metals was determined. The assay office is where a miner found out if his hard work would make him rich or break him.
There is also a variety of mining equipment around. Unlike the museum’s buildings (which are generally reproductions or movie sets), the museum’s collection of equipment is the real deal.
20-stamp ore mill
And then there is the ore mill.
Yes, the gargantuan structure behind the town buildings is completely authentic, although it was moved here from elsewhere.
This is a Cossak 20-stamp ore mill – a giant device used to crush gold-bearing rock. One of the largest ore mills built, this steam-powered behemoth stands 21 feet tall with 20 cast iron stamps that can be raised and dropped more than 100 times a minute.
Built in Bland, New Mexico, in 1914, the Cossak mill was completely disassembled and moved to Arizona. It was reassembled first at Goldfield Ghost Town (which was built largely from wood salvaged from the mill house back in New Mexico). After a 13-year stay at Goldfield, it was taken apart again and moved to its current location at the Superstition Mountain Museum.
While the mill isn’t original to this site, it is very similar to one built nearby in the 1890s.
The ore mill is in working order and, apparently, they start it up every once in a while. But it’s a bit of industrial art as much as it is a machine, and I don’t need to see (or hear) it work to appreciate the craft and ingenuity created it.
Plan your visit to the Superstition Mountain Museum
The Superstition Mountain Museum is located at the foot of the Superstition Mountains in central Arizona. It’s in the northeastern corner of Apache Junction, which is itself in the eastern edge of the Phoenix area. It feels like a long way from urban Phoenix, but it’s an easy trip, requiring an hour’s drive time or less.
- The museum is open daily, except on major holidays.
- There is a small charge to enter the museum grounds. There may be an additional charge for special events, classes, or demonstrations.
- Food and beverages on the site are usually extremely limited (soda, maybe chips or a candy bar) unless there is a special event going on. However, there are lots of restaurants nearby in Apache Junction.
- Although there are some very good exhibits inside some of the buildings, this is largely an open air museum. Be prepared for the sun and heat of Arizona. Bring sun protection and water.
Whether photographing the evocative structures and mining equipment, the moody mountain, or desert vegetation, plan to visit early or late in the day for the best light. The museum closes before sunset, but there are some great opportunities for sunset photography just down the road at Lost Dutchman State Park.