May 062015
 

Wickenburg Arizona

Self-guided walking tour of historic downtown Wickenburg, Arizona
is its own old west museum experience

Wickenburg, located 54 miles northwest of Phoenix, is one of the oldest towns in Arizona and bills itself as “America’s most western town.”

The town and surrounding area has a history of agriculture and mining. The Hassayampa River flood plain provided fertile soil for farming and ranching. The western Yavapai (or Tolkapaya as they called themselves) made the banks of the river their home for centuries. Ranchers and farmers settled here in the 1800s. The area became part of the United States after the Mexican American war in 1848.

Wickenburg

An 1862 gold strike on the Colorado River near present-day Yuma, Arizona inspired miners and prospectors to search for minerals throughout central Arizona. Henry Wickenburg was one of these gold-seekers and his quest proved successful. Over $30 million worth of gold was discovered in Vulture Mine.

The community of Wickenburg was founded in 1863. Despite a disastrous flood in 1890 when the Walnut Dam burst, the town flourished and grew. The arrival of the railroad in 1895 ensured its prosperity.

Today Wickenburg is a modern community with many businesses, but the downtown core retains the old West ambiance. A self-guided walking tour provides a living history lesson.

Wickenburg old train depot

Start your walking tour at the Chamber of Commerce, housed in the old Santa Fe Depot, a building dating back to 1895. At the Visitor’s Office, pick up a walking tour guide and other information about Wickenburg. The town has 23 structures listed on the National Historic Register.

Wickenburg Railroad Engine

1900 Series Southern Pacific Dover Caboose.
Car is refurbished inside and open to the public

Wickenburg school teacher statue

Statue depicting a young school teacher arriving in Wickenburg in the early 1900s

Sculptures located throughout the downtown depict figures from Wickenburg’s past. Pushing a button on a post or wall beside the statues activates audio recordings which provide information about the figure and Wickenburg’s history.

Wickenburg Statues

Sampling of Wickenburg statues

My favourite story from the statues was the one about Elizabeth Hudson Smith, a black American woman who took advantage of the more open society in the west. She was born in 1872 to a former slave and was college educated in New Orleans. She came to Wickenburg in 1897 with her husband, who worked as a valet for George Pullman. She owned and operated the Hotel Vernetta, the finest restaurant and hotel in town, owned rental properties, co-founded the Presbyterian Church, established the opera house and taught French lessons in her drawing room. Unfortunately, the railroad and statehood in 1912 brought the racial norms of the east to Arizona and her respected position in the community dwindled as newcomers shied away. However, she operated the Hotel Vernetta until her death in 1935.

Hassayampa Building in Wickenburg

The Hassayampa Building, which was once the Vernetta Hotel.
It now houses an inpatient and residential treatment centre for eating disorders.

Desert Caballeros Western Museum

Desert Caballeros Western Museum

With the speaking statues and the walking tour guide, all of downtown Wickenburg feels likes a living museum. But the town also contains an excellent more traditional museum. The Desert Caballeros Western Museum opened in 1969 in the building that had once been Brayton’s Commercial Company, a general store built in 1906. The building and many of the exhibits were destroyed in a 1972 fire. A new building was constructed and the museum re-opened in 1975.

The basement of the museum is a reconstruction of turn-of-the-century Wickenburg. Among other items it contains a reconstruction of the general store, a territorial home from the 1880s and a 1900 era ranch. I recommend using the headphones which provide audio information as you walk through the museum. There is an amazing amount of information available and it really brings the museum to life.

The main floor contains a permanent and temporary art gallery. The permanent collection contains a number of pieces by Frederick Remmington, who specialized in depictions of the old American West.

The museum also contains a collection of bolo ties. Vic Cedarstaff of Wickenburg came up with the idea of the bolo in 1949. In 1971, the Arizona Legislature declared the bola the official state neck wear.

Desert Caballeros Western Museum exhibits

A sampling of exhibits from Desert Caballeros Western Museum

There were a couple of historic houses listed in the walking tour guide we had trouble locating or identifying. The buildings are now stores or businesses. When the guide contained a sketch of the building, we were able to pinpoint the specific building. The ones without sketches were a little trickier. Plagues on the building would have been useful.

Wickenburg

The downtown area contains a number of shops and restaurants

Wickenburg hosts a number of team roping competitions, resulting in its latest nickname – The Team Roping Capital of the World. It is also America’s Dude Ranch Capital. The first guest ranch opened here in 1923. Several dude ranches operate today.

Wickenburg Jail Tree

The Wickenburg Jail Tree is a 200-year-old mesquite tree that once served as the town jail.
From 1863 to 1890 outlaws were chained to the tree.

Have you visited Wickenburg?

PIN ITExperience the old west ambiance of Wickenburg, Arizona on a self-guided walking tour. It's like stepping back in time and walking through a museum.

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This post is linked from Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Discovery Travel Photo Mondays

  32 Responses to “Old West Ambiance in Wickenburg”

  1. This was quite a tour of Wickenburg! Thank you! The talking statues might throw me a little…hahahaha! But I love the story about Elizabeth Hudson Smith! How very sad, after she had accomplished so much! And how funny that they chained prisoners to trees! Oh my!

    • Jacquie, the talking statues were an interesting feature of the town. The story of Elizabeth Hudson Smith is interesting and sad.

  2. Good for Elizabeth Hudson Smith! Great she was able to find success and prosperity – at least for a while. Is Wickenburg a popular daytrip for snowbirds who visit Phoenix and Scottsdale?

    • Janice & George, I think Wickenburg is a popular day trip, depending on what part of the Phoenix Valley one stays in it. It is north west of Phoenix. I’ve spent three winters in the area and visited every year for 8 years before that (ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks each visit) and this is the first time I made it to Wickenburg. But I’ve stayed in the southeast. There is so much to see and do in the greater Phoenix area (and other parts of Arizona not that far away) that it is hard to get to it all.

  3. Donna — Loved your tour of Wickenberg and seeing the “Old West.” Thanks for all the great photos. It is sad that racial bias found its way there and now permeates so much of modern-day society.

  4. Seems like this would be a great day trip. I am always intrigued by stories such as that of Elizabeth Hudson Smith. The statues are offbeat and would be fun for kids.

  5. Loved that story also of Mrs Smith despite all the prejudice and difficulty to be an entrepreneur, thanks for sharing this.

  6. This town looks like a movie set~
    What a feisty woman Mrs. Smith must have been!

    • Irene, the town does look like a movie set in some ways. When we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, several men came in dressed like they might have cowboys working on that set. I couldn’t tell if that is just who they were and they really dressed like that or if they were dressed up for some show or tourist activity.

  7. I love visiting old western towns and you are giving me a lot of great ideas for places to see when i go to Arizona. Elizabeth Hudson Smith is a woman I admire – thank you for sharing her story.

    • Susan, there are a lot of places to see and things to do in Arizona. I hope you enjoy your time there.

  8. How great that Wickenburg preserved its old downtown, history and artifacts. I love these kinds of tours, absorbing and learning about the history in the museum exhibits as well as seeing the houses and stores. And what a courageous, inspiring and downright feisty woman Elizabeth Hudson Smith must have been!

    • Anita, I love towns preserved like this as well. The story of Elizabeth Hudson Smith really fascinated me – glad you enjoyed it too.

  9. It’s great to learn about new places! Wickenburg looks great.

  10. I visited Wickenburg probably 25 years ago and I am due for a return trip.

  11. A visit to Wickenburg would be right up my alley 🙂 The pictures help conjure images from the Western novels, TV shows, and movies I watch. Though not one for most genre fiction, somehow Westerns have always had a pull on me, so I guess it makes sense that I enjoy the scenery of the genre as well.

    • Jeri, I haven’t been a huge fan of Westerns but there is definitely a pull about the old West.

  12. When I was young I had an Uncle Gale and Aunt Jessie who lived in Ohio. They would go to Wickenberg every year and visit us in California on the way home.I hadn’t heard that name in years!

    • Suzanne, I wonder if the talking statues were in the downtown when you aunt and uncle went to Wickenburg.

  13. Oh my, you find places here that I have never heard of! Wickenburg is so charming. Elizabeth Hudson Smith I would have liked to have known. And that Jail Tree…quite historic! Thanks for the comprehensive tour.

  14. I’ve never been to Wickenburg but I’d love to tour that refurbished Southern Pacific Dover caboose
    and also see that jail tree!

  15. I’d love to visit one of those old western towns. One day perhaps!

  16. Always love reading about the Old West. Mrs. Smith made the story even better!

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