Trail Dust Town - A Movie Set That Became a Theme Park
The Legend of the Wild West is Born
Thanks to late nineteenth century books, magazines and newspapers along with twentieth century movies and television, the image of the Wild West has become deeply imbeded in the minds of Americans.
The Wild West image is also often the first image that comes to the minds of people in other nations when thinking about America.
Like most myths, there is an element of truth to many of the legends and tales of the old west as things did tend to get wild on the frontier where law and civilization had not yet caught up with the westward advance.
However, in most places things settled down rather quickly as newcomers came with their wives and families.
Among the newcomers were reporters in search of stories and those who had survived the gunfights or had witnessed them from out of range came forward with plenty of stories which the reporters embellished and fed to their readers back East who were looking for excitement in their lives.
Given the legend of the Wild West and the millions of people who have read about it and seen it in the movies and on TV, it is only natural that entrepreneurs would want to capitalize on this and let tourists see and taste it for themselves.
What better way to do this than with a Wild West theme park.
Arizona has always provided a perfect backdrop for western movies.
We have wide open spaces, desert, mountains, cactus and near perfect weather that allows filmmakers and actors to get the job done quickly and move on to the next project.
Given the close relationship between the legend of the Wild West and the movie industry, it is not difficult to see the connection between Trail Dust Town, a Tucson, Arizona Wild West Theme Park, and the movie industry.
However, unlike the theme parks built and operated by Disney, Universal and other Hollywood studios in an effort to branch beyond movie making, Trail Dust Town simply began as an outdoor set for a 1950 western movie staring Glenn Ford.
While the city of Tucson has now grown to include this, once rural area within its boundaries, at the time the movie was to be made the area was considered to be way out in the country.
In addition to its distance from the city, newspaper accounts of that era describe the area as consisting of ranches and dirt roads with cowboys still relying on their horses for transportation.
In other words, from the eye of the camera, the area was a throwback to the era in which the movie took place.
For some reason, production was cancelled and the movie was never made. The decision to halt the project, however, came after the set, an old west town, had been built.
This left Tucson with another abandoned movie set and not even a movie to show for it. Like Old Tucson Studios, the movie set sat abandoned for a few years and somewhere along the line acquired the name Trail Dust Town.
Some time during the late 1950s or 1960s, while the area was still ranch country located quite a few miles to the east of Tucson and the approximately 50,000 people who lived there, an entrepreneur decided to open a restaurant, which he named Pinnacle Peak, in Trail Dust Town.
Trail Dust Town was, of course, a ghost town with zero inhabitants, however, the families who lived on the surrounding ranches and their ranch hands soon flocked to the restaurant.
With the nearest competition some fifteen miles to the east (traveling by horse on a dirt road), Pinnacle Peak did a great business and became a popular hangout.
According to the Trail Dust Town website, ( http://www.traildusttown.com/history.htm ) the Pinnacle Peak restaurant is not only one of the oldest restaurants in the state of Arizona but also the originator of its signature dish the Cowboy Steak™.
The steaks are cooked on a huge grill in a large alcove off the main dining area. A half dozen or more cooks tend to the steaks as they are cooked over the burning mesquite wood with diners watching them.
As Tucson grew so too did the popularity of the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant. In 1961 some local entrepreneurs formed a livestock company known as the Argo Land and Cattle Company, Inc.
Two years later the company purchased both the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant and Trail Dust Town and began supplying beef to the restaurant. As the city grew, the popularity of Trail Dust Town and the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant grew with it.
The big attraction of the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant is the atmosphere, both of the restaurant itself and the surrounding Trail Dust Town. The mesquite broiled steaks are very good, the price is reasonable and the meal hearty but not fancy.
Other than the fact that the steaks are probably more tender today, the meal, the dishes it is served upon and the atmosphere of the restaurant is probably not much different than the meals served in the dining room of a hotel in a town like Trail Dust Town in the 1880s.
In addition to a good meal, the real attraction is Trail Dust Town - the movie set/ghost town itself.
One can spend an entire evening or even an entire afternoon, strolling around the town and taking in the sights.
The remarkable thing is that visiting trail Dust Town is free - there is no admission charge and no requirement that visitors to Trail Dust Town even eat at Pinnacle Peak.
Even the parking, in their large lot, is free.
There is a two dollar per adult ($1 for a child) charge to ride around the park on the the CP Huntington, the park's narrow gauge train, and a two dollar admission fee per person to visit the Museum of the Horse Soldier.
Beyond that everything else is free unless you decide to dine at the Pinnacle Peak or one of the other restaurants in the town or if you make a purchase in one of the many stores in the town.
However, one can easily spend two to three hours wandering around looking at all the sights without spending a cent.
Let's Take a Tour
Located at 6541 N. Tanque Verde Rd in Tucson, Trail Dust Town can be easily spotted on the west side of the road by the covered wagon, with Trail Dust Town painted on its sides, that sits on a pedestal high about the road. You don't see the sign for the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant until you make the turn into the park. There is some parking along the driveway that takes you into the park but these spots are usually full, so I usually continue to the huge parking lot at the end of the drive.
Entering from the town from the parking lot you first encounter a small Indian camp next to a crumbling ghost town called Township of Alkali Flat. While the buildings in Alkali Flat are crumbling and decrepit they are not exactly deserted as the skeletal remains of its former inhabitants can bee seen both through the windows and sitting on the upper balcony of the saloon. What is left of the population, other than the skeletons in the saloon, can be found in the graveyard which, from the epitaphs on the headstones, appears to have been cloned from the much larger Boot Hill Cemetery in nearby Tombstone. Other than this, Alkali Flat is deserted.
While Alkali Flat is a ghost town the adjacent Indian village is occupied, although given the style of dwellings, it appears to be occupied by a couple of different tribes.
Just beyond Alkali Flat, one comes to the entrance of Trail Dust Town itself. On the right is the barber shop with a Closed sign on the door (of course it is closed given that it, like many of the buildings, is just a false front of a movie set) and signs advertising baths for ten cents and haircuts for twenty-five cents. To the left is the train station where you can buy tickets for a ride and board the train. There is also an ice cream parlor inside.
While many of the buildings are simply movie set false fronts, others have doors into which you can enter. The train station, which is modeled after a nineteenth century train depot in the town of Wallace on New York State's southern tier, is a small, but complete building. While people stand outside and purchase thicket from a window and then wait outside for the train, the interior contains an ice cream parlor. The Pinnacle Peak restaurant and Silver Dollar Saloon next to it are full size buildings serving food and drink as well as the Savoy Opera House which can be rented for weddings and other formal parties.
There are also a number of buildings with a western look both outside and inside and which house other restaurants, stores and businesses catering to the tourists. A couple, like the jail, are complete model buildings with both inside and outside strictly for show. In the case of the jail there are two cells, one with a prisoner in it, a chair and a desk for the sheriff. Across from the jail is a working blacksmith's shop in which one can both observe a real blacksmith at work as well as purchase things he has made as well as order custom work.
Throughout the park exterior and interior walls are decorated with nineteenth century posters, product ads, public announcements, wanted posters and pictures of famous cowboys, Indians and outlaws. There are also numerous antique wagons and products representative of that era on display. Unlike the buildings, these appear to date from the late nineteenth century.
Then there is the Dragoon Street Wild, Wild West Stunt Show which you can attend for free, although they do appreciate donations. They put on three shows nightly in front of the Hotel. These are not only great actors but professional stunt people as well and the audience gets to see stunts performed a few feet away from their seats - including watching a bad guy get shot and fall from the second story roof of the Hotel to the roof of the one story building next to it, then roll over the side of that roof and into the street, all without injury. Even though the shows are free, they are very professional and it is difficult to walk away in good conscience without putting a donation into the hat.
While Trail Dust Town has the look and feel of an Old West town of the 1880s era and has many antique wagons and other artifacts on display it is difficult to separate the genuinely old things from those that just look old.
The town itself has obviously been enlarged from the original movie set. It is a mixture of real buildings and movie set false fronts but which are original and which are additions remains a mystery. In fact one of the brochures adds to the mystery by starting out with the words Legend has it that Trail Dust Town was originally built as a set for a Glenn Ford movie. Then halfway down the page adds to the mystery by offering a free dinner at the Pinnacle Peak Restaurant to anyone who can prove that a Glenn Ford movie was actually filmed in Trail Dust Town. With Trail Dust Town, it is next to impossible to separate fact from fiction, so one should simply go and have a good time. And, given the admission price of zero, one can have a great time here regardless of the size of their entertainment budget - even with a zero budget for entertainment a family can enjoy a good two or three hours of fun here.
One final thing, even though I have never seen a man visit a theme park wearing a necktie, I should warn you that any man entering the Pinnacle Peak restaurant wearing a necktie will suffer having the waiter cut it off and hang in on the wall or ceiling beams with the hundreds of other cutoff ties from others who violated the restaurant's strict NO NECKTIE policy.