From floods to fires — the history of Tortilla Flat
Tortilla Flat, though an integral part of Arizona’s development, has a long history of human suffering – from floods to fires – leading it to being inhabited and abandoned by many. The small town’s beginnings date back to the Apache Tribe who first inhabited the area. It was then discovered by Jesuit missionaries exploring the Superstition Mountains – known for their hidden gold in the Lost Dutchman Mine. Tortilla Flat legend says that the same Jesuit priest who led the St. Xavier Mission was one of the richest missionaries in the New World and knew of the now legendary treasure stash even before miner Jacob Waltz, who is said to have found the mine.
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The better-known history of Tortilla Flat begins when settlers began to visit Tortilla Flat when cattleman would drive cattle from the Tonto Basin to the Phoenix stockyards. Around the same time, it became a Freight and supply depot for those building the Roosevelt Dam thanks to its convenient location, access to water and flat space. After the Roosevelt Dam was built – providing the water that allowed Phoenix to become the agricultural hub it is now – settlers continued to stay at Tortilla Flat for almost 10 years, transitioning it from a freight stop to a town after the dam was completed.
The stagecoach burned, but because of its beautiful scenery, Tortilla Flat became a tourist destination and revenue center. Unfortunately, many of the original buildings were washed away in the flood of 1942 but today’s country store, which was built during the 1930s, remained. The town then moved to the other side of the road and continued on, with the old Gold Dust Motel and the second iteration of the town restaurant. However, many people left Tortilla Flat at this time due to the difficulty of having to rebuild the town.
While many full-time residents left, the town had several owners during this time who maintained Tortilla Flat as a popular tourist destination, eventually converting it into a Western-themed destination in the 1970s. A short time later, in 1987, tragedy struck again when a fire burned down the restaurant and motel. The restaurant was rebuilt, but the motel never was. Instead, there is now the mercantile near where it once stood. While much of the original Tortilla Flat has had to be rebuilt due to natural disasters, parts of the original 19th century beginnings – like the original water tower and trough remain. These relics serve as a reminder of the water accessibility that first put the town on the map with Western settlers and made Tortilla Flat an integral part in making Phoenix the thriving metropolis it is today, thanks to the water provided by the Roosevelt Dam.
Today, the town is under new ownership led by Katie Ellering. Since her and her partners’ ownership of the town in September 2019, they have experienced much of the same chaos and calamity that has plagued Tortilla Flat since the start – two major wildfires, a flood, and a pandemic. However, the new owners are committed to helping Tortilla Flat withstand its next 100 years with careful restoration and infrastructure upgrades. Visitors can visit for camping, boating and hiking in the Tonto National Forest and stop by Tortilla Flat’s mercantile, Superstition Saloon & Restaurant, country store and museum – which highlights all the history of the town.