Missing the Boat in Benson, Arizona

Posted on January 24, 2015

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We’ve been in Benson, AZ for nearly a month. It’s been the perfect base for several day trips to places we wanted to see, as well as being close enough to Tucson for the inevitable medical emergencies that seem to occur to people our age.

Benson is a small city with a population of a little over 5,000, but it can claim a very large place in the history of southern Arizona.

An awful lot happened here.images (1)

A spot just north of present-day Benson, on the San Pedro River, was once a Butterfield Stage stop.  A major land route for immigration to San Diego during the California Gold Rush passed through the area, and herds of cattle and sheep were driving along the same route to markets in California and Mexico.

The town of Benson was founded in 1880 as a railroad town. Ore and refined metal was hauled by wagon to Benson from Tombstone, Fairbank, Contention and Bisbee, and then loaded up with needed supplies from the town’s stores for the return trip.

Ike Clanton, 1881

Ike Clanton, 1881

All of the shoot-‘em up cowboy history we associate with the Southwest was also part of Benson’s past.

There is even a little Civil War history here, and naturally tons of American Indian history – both from the prehistoric and the Indian Wars era.

If I were a city planner for Benson, I would be giddy over the multitude of marketing possibilities for this place.

Instead, Benson presents a rather sad face.

One of three old Motor Courts dating from the 1930's. One has been re-developed into office space and apartments, the other two are boarded-up and weed-choked.

One of three old Motor Courts dating from the 1930’s. One has been re-developed into office space and apartments, the other two are boarded-up and weed-choked.

Boarded up buildings. Historic properties ignored. No cohesive “look” for their downtown.

Interestingly, there are at least 20 RV Parks or campgrounds here, drawing flocks of “snowbirds” every winter. Perhaps most are content to use Benson as a jumping off point or are just interested in Walmart and a few pretty decent restaurants – the city itself certainly doesn’t roll out the red carpet as some places do, though the campgrounds try hard to provide as much entertainment as they can.

FullSizeRender (1)

Established in 1927?? If THESE walls could talk!

We talked with a volunteer at the Benson Art and Historical Society Museum during a recent visit. He told us that for years the City sponsored “Butterfield Overland Stage Days” as a history-related community event, but now wants to the Historical Society to take it over.

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At least someone tried.

Needless to say, Benson’s Historical Society is just like most – full of senior citizens, who are willing but often not able. Benson does sponsor a rodeo in October, but rodeos are a dime a dozen out here.

On the plus side:

visitorctr1Benson built a sorta-replica of their old train depot, which is used as a visitor’s center and Chamber of Commerce headquarters. It’s nicely done, and includes a small area presenting history of the area.images (2)

Benson wall murals 11Also, artist Doug Quales has a studio in town, and painted some outstanding murals depicting the town’s history on walls near the visitor’s center/train station, as well as on several buildings around town. These certainly add some bright spots to a otherwise visually dull downtown.

Maybe it’s just us. Maybe we’ve been spoiled by Texas, Alabama and the rest of the Gulf Coast, but we still think Benson’s missing the boat.

Snowbirds spend money – we just have to travel somewhere else in the area to do it.

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Posted in: Travel - Arizona