The Dogies Learn a Little History at Elden Spring
September 22, 2023
By Duncan Orr
A large C-shaped boulder catches your attention along the Fatmans Loop Trail.
How exciting - the first Sedona Westerners hike of the 2023/24 season! The Dogies had the privilege of starting off the new season, ably coordinated by Trail Boss, Ray LaPorte. This opener was Fatmans Loop, with a spur hike to Elden Spring and the Elden cabin site and grave. We had a perfect day with temperatures in the 70s and a clear, blue sky.
Hikers met in both Sedona and the VOC to travel to the trailhead in Flagstaff at the base of Mount Elden. As the hike leader, I conducted a hike briefing and off we went hiking counterclockwise on the Fatmans Loop. This loop is a very popular Flagstaff trail consisting of a 2.5-mile loop, and it also serves as the start of the Elden Lookout trail with other trails intersecting with the loop as well. The trail is shared by hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. Fatmans Loop gets its name from a narrow passage formed by two large boulders. There are many interesting large rock formations along the trail – including a unique C-shaped boulder that we saw alongside the trail.
The hike took us through a forested area that is home to Ponderosa Pines, White Fur, Oaks, and the amazing Alligator Junipers which are hundreds of years old. We enjoyed seeing wildflowers, notably the Scarlet Gila, Sacred Datura, Cliff Rose, and Yuccas along with some Desert Paintbrush and a little Loco Weed – despite its crazy name, it is a potentially poisonous plant.
The trail gently climbed for about 1.5 miles, and we eventually came across the Pleistocene-age dacitic lava flow - part of the San Francisco volcanic field. We intersected the Elden Lookout trail which climbs steeply to a fire lookout tower on top of Mount Elden. Our goal was to stay on the Fatmans Loop trail to reach the Pipeline trail which heads over to Elden Spring and beyond.
The Pipeline trail is mostly flat and traverses at the same elevation across the base of Mount Elden for about 1.3 miles. We stopped at the cabin site and visited Elden Spring and the Elden gravesite.
John Elden, born in Maine, traveled West after he was discharged from the Union Army. He arrived at the spring in 1877 with his wife, Susan, and a small flock of sheep. They built the cabin near the spring on a 160-acre homestead and raised a family. Elden was one of the first sheepmen in the Flagstaff area and grew the flock to 2,000 along with some cattle. During this time his family grew as well.
The story gets a bit murky at this point. For many decades everyone, tourists and locals alike, was told that a mule skinner arrived one day wanting water for his forty mules. Mrs. Elden was alone with her three children, and she refused to allow access to the spring as she felt there wasn’t enough water for their family and sheep. The story passed around for years was that Bob Roberts, the mule skinner, fired a shot in the air as he left, accidentally killing Johnny Elden, Jr. The young boy’s gravesite was marked with piled stones and an iron cross. Roberts fled but was hunted down and killed.
The original story was largely embellished by the prolific 20th-century novelist Gladwell Richardson (aka Maurice Kildare, as well as 20-30 other pseudonyms). Dime novels of Western exploits were very popular at the time and the more sensational, the better. The only truth to the story was that a baby boy died. No one is certain who is buried in that grave: the boy, an adult, or both. Regardless, tourists, and perhaps some locals, continue to bring toys to the gravesite for young Johnny Elden.
The real story was unearthed by a local historian, John S. Westerlund, who wrote a comprehensive article for the Journal of Arizona History in 2017. Westerlund researched family history and newspaper articles and interviewed Beth Wilson, the great-great-granddaughter of John Elden, Sr.
Despite extensive research, the gist of the story, as narrated by John Westerlund, is that no one knows who or even if someone is buried there. It could be little Johnny Elden or perhaps another baby who died shortly after birth. There is even speculation that the mule skinner is buried there.
I encourage anyone interested in Westerlund’s research into the Elden family history in Flagstaff to read his article titled, Flagstaff Pioneer John: Murder and Mystery - Myth and History which is available online.
After a short rest break, we hiked back to Fatmans Loop and returned to the parking area having survived the Fatmans gap and learning some local history along the way.
To learn more about the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club, view this season’s hiking schedule, and to become a member or renew your membership, go to www.sedonawesterners.org. There are more than 200 hikes scheduled through May 9, 2024, and the membership fee is only $30 for the whole season.