Fairbank, Arizona today reveals none of its history as a once vibrant community. To visit it is to see only an abandoned ghost town, a school house and a couple of buildings, no saloons, homes, hotels, or roads, and not even the railroad which sustained it. Only one path remains, a dirt trail to the cemetery atop a hill. Nature has reclaimed the abandoned land leaving no visible trace of what was once a bustling town, the central transportation point to and from Tombstone. What was there has largely crumbled or been burned to the ground.

Fairbank owes it’s history to its proximity to Tombstone. First called Junction City, the town started as a stagecoach stop along a railroad that stretched to Charleston (AZ). Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank helped to finance the construction of the railroad in 1881, and by May 1883 Fairbank had become an official town. Tombstone ten miles to the East was responsible for Fairbank’s initial growth. Though Tombstone was in the height of its heyday, it was not itself connected to the railway until 1903. This made Fairbank critical as the central transportation hub for Tombstone, ferrying passengers to and from, importing items needed to sustain a population, such as cattle, and exporting minerals and ore from the Tombstone mines.

According to “Legends of America,” Fairbank soon had three different railroad lines and depots and was the primary entry and exit point for Tombstone. The stage connected travelers the remaining ten miles and continued to do a brisk business as Tombstone thrived. Even more railroad traffic was generated as the railroad lines extended southwestward to Nogales, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

The post office was established early, in 1883, and the town quickly went from having one store, saloon, and several houses, to five saloons, four stores, three restaurants, a school, a jail, a mill, and a Wells Fargo office. In 1889, the Montezuma Hotel was built for travelers. Residents could buy lots for $50 to $150 each and most worked at the nearby Central Mining Company or for the railroad.

The town wasn’t destined for long-term prosperity. For one, its success was tightly tied to the health of the nearby mining industry. As it declined so did Fairbank. Fairbank was also part of an old Mexican land grant called the San Juan de las Boquillas y Nogales. Years after the town was settled, in 1901, the Boquillas Land and Cattle Company re-entered the area, exerted their rights to the land and evicted all homesteaders, allowing only a small number of town residents to stay.

Built next to the San Pedro River, Fairbank suffered considerable property damage when in September 1890, the river overflowed its banks. But despite the damage and near deaths, the town rebuilt and rebounded, continuing to flourish through the 1940s.

The Fairbank School was built in 1920 and held classes until 1944. Students attended until seventh grade and then finished school in Tombstone. Today the schoolhouse is one of the few remaining buildings, restored as a museum. The post office closed in the 1970’s. With little regard for preserving the town’s history, the Montezuma Hotel was demolished when Highway 82 was built. I read that portions of its foundation remain, but even those we couldn’t find. The cemetery half a mile walk from the town entrance is vaguely distinguishable as a cemetery, but is so neglected that many of the aisles are overgrown and we had to work our way through brush to visit some of the headstones. Perched on top of a hill that perhaps once overlooked a town, it now overlooks a vast expanse of remoteness. It seems like a tranquil resting place, as far as those things go. All alone there as we were that day, it almost seemed as if the whole town, the cemetery, and its history would soon be forgotten entirely.

Ironically, a plaque at the “town” entrance states that Fairbank is the most intact historical town site along the San Pedro River. Another plaque informed us of Fairbank’s rich immigrant history. Immigrants came from Europe and Mexico to work the mines and stamp mills. The Montezuma Hotel and saloon were run by the Larrieu family from France. The Chinese worked the railroads and as they put down roots, they ran restaurants, laundries, and “grew wonderful gardens.”

While we walked among the ruins of Fairbank, I tried to imagine it as a bustling place. Reclaimed by nature as it is now, it was hard to picture the human history, people going about their daily lives, eager new residents descending from a train anticipating their new beginning, lively saloons and a hotel full of guests. Like walking among Roman ruins, it’s the kind of thing that reminds you of our impermanence. I’m sure there were residents of Fairbank who never imagined it wouldn’t always exist. Which of our modern cities will one day be ghost towns, one day thickly re-forested, with no trace of the uniform cement and asphalt that characterizes them today? It was a question I couldn’t help pondering the entire day we spent in Tombstone and the nearby areas.

My pictures of this excursion here.
Legends of America