Cochise County is home to quite a few ghost towns who saw their boom time back in the late 1800s when Tombstone silver was plentiful. The transportation hub in the area was a small town called Fairbank, which is northeast of Casa Wallace. The railroads criss-crossed from Benson to Fairbank, to Bisbee and Nogales. The New Mexico & Arizona Railroad was the first to lay tracks in 1881. Two other railroads quickly followed suit. The trains were critical to serving the smelters and mines, as well as hauling people and consumer goods. Fairbank was considered a family town as compared to rough towns of Millville, Contention City, and Charleston. The Grand Central Mill was constructed about two miles outside of town and was a silver processing stamp mill. It was a 24/7 operation with huge pistons crushing ore. It was then processed with mercury in amalgamating pans to bind the silver. Employees, as you might guess did not enjoy a long lifespan working in such toxic conditions.
Fairbank is situated near the San Pedro River and was named for Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, a Chicago businessman who helped finance the first railroad in 1881. By 1889, there were three restaurants, a grocery store, meat market, five saloons, post office, depot, school, and homes for about 100 people. The town fought through a drought, floods, and a major earthquake to remain a hub until after World War I. By then the price of copper had dropped, Tombstone silver was in the past, and the railroads slowed their operations. The school was in disrepair and finally closed down in 1944. The railroads left some years later and the last residents departed in the mid-seventies.
Today, Fairbank is within the bailiwick of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is aided in its preservation efforts by the Friends of the San Pedro. The school building was restored in 2007 with original materials including walls made from gypsum blocks. Other buildings are in the works for restoration, but that won't be happening for a while. The Fairbank Cemetery is located about a half mile outside the town on a rocky hill. Primitive wooden crossed and piles of stone adorn the graves with a couple of iron fences around small family plots. About 150 people were buried there over the years.
There are some easy and beautiful trails around the area We've enjoyed a four-mile hike exploring the town and surrounding countryside. There are also a sprinkling of geocaches which we have yet to search for.
No self-respecting ghost town would be worth its salt without at least one memorable gunfight. Fairbank is no exception and it involved the expected elements, including money, a train, along with a band of outlaws. So here's the tale of the attempted train robbery of 1900.
Billy Stiles and Burt Alvord, both occasional lawmen and at other times outlaws, recruited a scraggly group to relieve Wells Fargo of an express box coming in on the train scheduled for February 15, 1900. Among the gang were Three-Fingered Jack Dunlap (which should give you some expectation of his expertise), Bravo Juan, Bob Brown, and the Owens brothers. Billy and Burt instructed the men to act drunk and rowdy as the train pulled in. This would place them close enough to the train without drawing suspicion.
On board the locomotive was a former Texas Ranger, Jeff Milton who was tasked with guarding the money. When the doors of the car opened, the outlaws started shooting at Milton with lever-action Winchesters. Milton took a bullet in his arm which shattered the bone and severed an artery. He immediately grabbed his shotgun as the gang rushed the train car. Milton managed to take out Three-Fingered Jack with a spray of buckshot to the chest. He peppered the backside of Bravo Juan with more buckshot, and then collapsed between the trunks stored on the train car. Before he passed out, the deputy managed to wind a tourniquet around his useless arm. The robbers thought the lawman was dead and rifled through his pockets to locate the key to the strongbox. When they couldn't find it, they fled on horseback.
The outlaws were later rounded up and enjoyed a long prison term. Milton was transported to San Francisco for medical treatment which no small feat in those days. The doctor tried to amputate the shattered arm, but Milton in Wild West fashion told him it wasn't happening (or the doctor would catch a bullet). The doctor obliged Mr. Milton's wishes and managed to repair the arm. He healed up well enough and served in law enforcement in later years as an Immigration Service border rider. He died at age 85 in Tucson in 1947. So there you have it, another wild and exciting tale of Cochise County law and disorder.