ON & OFF THE BEATEN PATH :: Superstition Saloon—Tortilla Flat, Apache Trail

by David Daugherty on May 30, 2011

The next trip was to visit a place in Tortilla Flat called Superstition Saloon. I had been there a couple years earlier when the Hippie and I took my sons and daughter-in-law out boating on Canyon Lake. After tubing and swimming, the Hippie asked us if we wanted to grab some lunch at Dollar Bill’s. Now, I had lived in Arizona most of my life and I had never heard of Dollar Bill’s. We pulled the boat out of the water and drove a short distance up Route 88, coming upon this tiny town called Tortilla Flat. We were walking toward the Superstition Saloon when I asked Brian where Dollar Bill’s was. He pointed at the Superstition Saloon and said, “That’s it.” Of course I replied, “It says Superstition Saloon; where’s Dollar Bill’s?” We walked into the Superstition Saloon and the first thing I noticed was that the walls inside the saloon were literally papered with dollar bills and all the money is signed by the patrons who left or sent them. There’s currency hanging on the walls from all over the world.

Returning to the Superstition Saloon a little more than two years later, nothing much had changed. The dollar bills are still all over the walls and the beer is still cold. I had a Rattlesnake Beer and in conversation with the bartender, she urged me to continue driving east on Route 88 and take the Apache Trail. She suggested I would get some awesome pictures of the desert. When I got back to Ohio I phoned up Lois Sanders, Tortilla Flat historian, who has written a book and articles on both the town and the saloon. We had a very nice conversation about how the saloon came to be and how this town bounced back from both a major flood and fire.

Ms. Sanders told me the story of the dollar bills on the wall, starting years before when prospectors, ranchers and others who worked on the Salt River Dams would pin their card with a dollar bill to the wall behind the bar. That started the tradition that is very much alive today. In 1904, Tortilla Flat was nothing more than a stage stop from the valley to the under construction Roosevelt Dam, and served as a stop for freight haulers, which is when most historians believe it got its start.

There are a couple of theories of how Tortilla Flat got its name. One told by Mr. John Cline, a Tonto Basin pioneer in a conversation with Postmaster Russell Perkins, found him traveling with some people from Phoenix for supplies when a flash flood stranded them in that flat area of the desert. According to Mr. Cline, they ran out of food and were left with only flour. The men made tortillas with the flour for food, and thus, Mr. Cline named the flat Tortilla Flat.

Another version, according to Connie Phelps, co-owner of Tortilla Flat from 1948-1950, involves a conversation with the then-95-year-old Mr. Cline. That incarnation of the story had Mr. Cline and his cowboys leading the cattle into Phoenix to sell. They decided to celebrate and drank too much. When they got back to the flat, they realized that in their intoxication, they had not purchased any supplies and had only flour to use. This is what led Mr. Cline to name the flat Tortilla Flat. Either way, we’re pretty certain it involved John Cline and tortillas eaten plain.

There was a fire in 1987 that destroyed the saloon, of course taking all that cash wallpaper with it. It was rebuilt by 1988 and when word got out, folks from all over the world sent bills to post on the walls. Leaving something on the walls makes people feel like they are a part of the fabric of the saloon, and as you can see in the pics, have successfully filled these walls back up. The saloon has no idea how much money is up on these walls but does know that there is currency from 67 countries. None of the bills are removed. If you visit and would like to have a dollar bill and business card pinned to the wall, just let the waiter or waitress know. They will put it up for you. Because of space, they need to use a ladder now because the bills have covered almost every square inch of the place.

It’s called “The friendliest little town in Arizona” with a population of…6. This makes it Arizona’s smallest official “community,” which not only has a U.S. Post Office but is also considered a voter’s precinct — subject to the latest census, of course. There is much history about this tiny little town and I urge you, if you are interested, to pick up Lois Sanders’ book when you visit the gift shop at the saloon, and read more about the extensive history on the web. It is a great little stop on the way to Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake.

Next: Roosevelt Lake and the Apache Trail

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