The Tonto Basin

When they see the word “Tonto”, people of a certain age can’t help but think of Jay Silverheels. A fine fellow to be sure, but he’s not the topic of this post.

A circuitous route through the mountains left us, two hours later, exactly east of Scottsdale at Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto Basin. The lake, roughly twenty miles long, was formed by the construction of Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River early in the 20th Century. Named for Teddy because he approved the project, the dam is the first in a series that provide water for the Phoenix area.

I’m a guy who grew up around the lakes of the Pacific Northwest. So when we planned this trip, I imagined forested paths along the lakeside, cozy campsites and frolicking woodland fauna. That’s not Arizona.

The dam was located at a place where natives, farmers and ranchers forded the river at a narrow gorge. When completed, the dam was the highest masonry arch dam in the world. “Masonry” means that it was basically built of large bricks. Vehicles crossed the Salt River on a road atop the dam. When the original masonry dam was increased in height and clad with concrete in the 1980s, a new bridge was built and the road across the dam decommissioned. You can see remains of the old road on either side of the gorge.

Dam building is dangerous work, and the brunt was borne by immigrants. Dozens lie buried in anonymous graves in the local cemetery.

A stonecutter, perhaps sensing his own fate, got a more lasting memorial.

The marina lies just east of the dam. I was surprised to learn that there are no boat rentals on the lake. Houseboat rentals are very popular on other lakes, think Mead or Tahoe. Not here. The few houseboats in the marina are used only by their owners. Seems like a missed opportunity with five million folks in the Phoenix area.

We drove another ten miles east along the lake, exploring along the way, to our motel. The place was basic but the staff well-intentioned. Sitting beside the man-made lake in the late afternoon was pleasant. Until the geese arrived.

In the next post, I’ll show you what we found on our second day in the basin.

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