Gleeson, Arizona in its heyday had a population of over a thousand souls. The population today…well, it depends on how wide a lariat you cast. In the “downtown” section of Gleeson, the population is exactly zero. If you go out to a radius of a quarter-mile, the population booms to one. A half-mile will bring you to maybe five. One mile, and you’re talking a dozen or two. It’s hard to count, because most of the people who choose to live out here don’t much care if they’re counted or not. In the 1800’s, the Gleeson area was home to the Chiricahua Apache tribe, although the Apache wandered throughout their territory and tended not to settle too long in any one camp. The occasional prospector or scout would wander through, but for most of its history, it was Apache territory, and not too friendly to the casual interloper. Navajo would come down from the north, and negotiated with the Apache for the right to mine turquoise from the area, for their famous jewelry.
From Turquois to Gleeson
In the 1880’s after Geronimo and the last of the Apache had been killed off or forced elsewhere, prospectors and miners moved in and took up the turquoise mines. Tiffany & Company of New York even operated a turquoise mine here for a few years. The original name of the town was Turquois (without the “e”). Around 1900, an Irishman from Tipperary named John Gleeson dug around and found large copper deposits south of Turquois and began operations to mine that metal, calling his claim the Copper Belle. In October of 1900, the town of Gleeson was officially born when the Postal Service opened a post office here. Although other minerals were occasionally found, it was copper which formed the backbone of the town.
Rise and Fall
From 1900 through the mid 1920’s, Gleeson thrived and swelled to over a thousand people. A huge school was built, and there was a hospital, a theater, and a dozen restaurants and bars. Gleeson had a large Mexican population, because in the Gleeson mines, they were allowed to work underground (for which the wages were higher), unlike Bisbee, where Mexicans could only work the lower paying jobs on the surface. Between the two World Wars, the price of copper fell, and with it the fortunes of Gleeson. By 1930, the hospital was in disrepair, and other businesses had dwindled to only a handful. Ranching had become the primary occupation in the vicinity, and in 1945, the school closed, its students merging into the Tombstone school district.
Stories and Story-tellers
A movie was filmed in Gleeson in 1938, an adaptation of the Zane Gray novel “The Mysterious Rider.” Several businesses remained in operation throughout Gleeson’s rise and decline. A Chinese gentleman named Yee Wee operated a restaurant on High Lonesome road, in the “downtown” section of Gleeson, and the Bono Store and Saloon was in operation from the town’s beginning until the mid 1980’s. Some claim that the Bono Saloon was the last place that Johnny Ringo was seen alive, but it’s not true. While Gleeson is indeed halfway between Tombstone and the place of Ringo’s demise, he was seen in another bar nearer the Chiricahua’s the day before his death.
Several shootouts and altercations took place in Gleeson over the years, including the last gunfight of Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler. Stories abound regarding backstabbing miners, bloodthirsty bandits, bootleggers, distraught lovers, fugitive train-robbers, conniving judges, corrupt deputies, and of course the ever-present con-men. From its beginning, Gleeson has existed on the edge of civilization, being a kind of hole-in-the-wall place where dreams of riches, in various forms, could be spoken over one last drink before heading back out somewhere else.
A Visit Today
A visit to Gleeson today will reveal the town cemetery, the school foundation, and the remnants of the hospital. You will also find a row of mailboxes, the barely-standing remains of the Bono Saloon, and a whole lot of adobe ruins. In the distance, you can see the winch and towers over the Pemberthy shaft on the Copper Belle mining claim. The town jail, built of reinforced concrete in 1910, has been restored by a group of local people, and serves as a kind of museum and gathering place for visitors, wanderers, and long-lost former residents. It is open the first Saturday of every month, and by arrangement on other days that might be convenient to visitors.