Nat McKelvey | Photographs by Roy Caples

Up on the Blue River, in east-central Arizona, cow-country folk account Herschel Downs a respected gent. Herschel’s spread, the UP Connected, kind of leads a back-bush cattle community, especially in trail-herding, a beef selling custom as old as John Chisum. 

“We trail-herd our critters forty miles to Alpine,” Downs explains in a soft drawl, “because there ain’t a semi-trailer cow truck made that kin get over the road that’ll take ’em to the ranches right down on the Blue.” Almost extinct now because roads and railroads reach nearly everywhere, trail-herding is tough, hell-for-leather cowpunching. It means moving cattle overland, driving them to market on foot, across country where two- and four-legged critters go with difficulty. To Downs’ knowledge, the herds that move each fall out of the Blue are the last of trail-driven cattle anywhere in Arizona. 

Requiring six days, the drive to Alpine of a Blue River herd is a neighborly affair, with families helping each other get beeves to market. Though the junket is wearing both to nerves and back-sides, the women-folk accompany their men, and even kids, as young as three, ride double with the old man sharing his saddle, his food, and his bedroll. 

To reach this country, where the Coronado Trail sashays leisurely at high altitude among stands of aspen, sycamore, spruce, fir, pine, elm and juniper, the tourist can follow either of two routes. Coming to Arizona on U.S. Highway 666, the Coronado Trail, the traveler cuts off at Beaverhead Lodge, takes the Red Hill road and drops with it right into Blue Canyon, smack dab in the middle of the trail-herding ranches. 

Photograph by Roy Caples
A cowboy takes a break for coffee, “black and strong.”

Driving northward in New Mexico, over U.S. 260, the visitor leaves the main route at a point a might less than sixteen miles south of Reserve. Following a dirt road, he reaches the Blue post office, farthest from any railroad of any post office in the United States. From Blue to Herschel Downs’ UP Connected is a dirt trail trek of about twelve miles, involving twenty-three fordings of the Blue River. At KP Canyon, on the edge of the division line of the Blue Wilderness range, where Apache and Crook National Forests merge, sprawls the Downs ranch, virtually the last outpost in virgin country. 

The Blue River is truly indigo more profound than its name, but pioneers tagged it, not so much for color, but because of its proximity to hazy peaks of the Blue Range. From its source twelve miles south of Alpine, via the San Francisco, the Gila, and the Colorado, the tranquil Blue finds its way to the sea. As it goes, it waters the land and provides a channel for melting winter snows.

Because, during a flood, the Blue changes its course more often than a two-legged filly changes her mind, the river inspires a local joke. 

“In this country,” Downs explains, his eyes twinkling, “you farm on one side of the river one year and on the other side the next.” 

As old hands go, Herschel Downs is a newcomer on the Blue. A native of Kansas, he came to the river after cowboying all over Arizona, including a stint as ramrod on a Bisbee ranch. On this job, Downs toiled from sunup until sundown for $45 a month and keep. He got to thinking that mebbe a spread of his own would, in many ways, be a right satisfying thing to have. So, as a cow-wise young fellow of thirty-four, he acquired the UP Connected. He and his wife, Barbara, and their foreman, Walter Richardson, run it in a manner calculated to keep beef stock moving to market at top prices. 

Each fall, Downs and his punchers bring cattle from grazing lands so rough and rock buttressed they have to chase ’em out of forest thickets by rolling boulders down from the cliffs. 

As the rocks bounce over rusty-red outcrops, cowhands above set up a lusty yelling. 

As bounding boulders crash, sleek Hereford beeves scramble from hiding and cowpokes bunch them, edging an ever-increasing herd toward holding pastures near the ranch. 

These pastures, fenced with barbed wire strung on mesquite posts, are so large that punchers spend two days making a final gather before driving the entire herd to a fifty acre holding area near the UP’s ranch house. Cornered, the herd is ready to push through a gate into Blue Canyon and then overland in a grueling drive to Alpine. 


Photograph by Roy Caples
Cowboys enjoy a meal after a long day’s work.

But before a single cow-critter can get foot on the long trail, Herschel and his friends have lots of work to do. On a recent drive, this included looking after a gent who was, in a manner of speaking, a guest. 

When Roy Caples, the cameraman whose pictures illustrate this piece, arrived at the UP on the night of October 10, 1949, he found Downs busy in the kitchen, whomping up an oven full of hot biscuits and a skillet of fried chicken. 

Now when it comes to cow-punchin’, Caples is a “greener.” 

“Howdy, Roy,” Downs said. “You’re just in time to light down and rest your saddle. The gang’s all here for grub.” 

During the interval before chuck, cowpokes kept arriving in trucks, bringing bedrolls and camp gear. They included R.M. Reynolds, whose place is the last on the Blue, just below Downs’ place. Others came from ranches up-river. 

At the table, besides Downs and his wife, Barbara, Cowboy Junior, and Caples, were Walter Richardson, the ramrod, and Si Richardson, his brother, who has lived on the Blue for twenty years. 

Near Si sat DeWitt Cosper, trail-herd cook, and a ranch owner himself. Between bites, he managed to admit that he had spent fifty-four years on the Blue, good and bad. At one time, he owned the entire Blue Range, but now he and his wife, Katherine, and their small daughter, Rose, just stick to working one spread. 

Cosper is the kind of gent of whom cowboys say, “He’ll do to take along.” At sixty, he is range-wise and useful. 

After dinner, the gang pitched into ranch chores like they were their own. When the last pig had been slopped and the last cow milked, the old hands gathered around the fireplace, swapping yarns of trail-herding in old days.

Next morning, the two-day gather into holding pastures began, with cowhands working and Herschel doctoring cattle that had their ears chewed by mountain lions, coyote or bear. 

Well, those cow-waddys finally got the dogies rounded up, branded, ear-marked, and doctored and shunted into the home corral, ready to make tracks down the big trail. By October 13, every family up and down the Blue knew that Herschel Downs’ outfit was coming out with a herd. 

As the gather of 103 head of prime Herefords snaked its way through Blue Canyon, other folks joined the community cattle drive. Among them was Johnny Brown, who, at seventy-two, still rides his gray pony. 


Photograph by Roy Caples
The rugged country along the Blue River marks the start of the drive. 

At the Marks ranch, first house south of the Blue post office, young Bill Marks joined the drive. Bill has not only the distinction of being a top-hand puncher, but his ranch boasts the only telephone, an old hand-ringer, among all ranches on the Blue. Consequently, the Marks ranch is headquarters for any incoming calls from civilization to ranchers of Blue Canyon. 

Families on the Blue are a closely knit, completely cooperative crowd. They live not only by their own wits and skill but also according to a code that allows strength lies truly in unity. 

Gus Wogoman finds great interest in “beef-masters,” a cross between Brahman, Hereford and Durham. The boss of the Running W is sure these hybrids are one day going to dominate the Arizona range. 

Bob Birdwell, Jack Mannes, Ralph Brooks and the Foggs just about fill out the roster of modern pioneers who make the river their Blue heaven. 

At Blue itself, J.E. Joy, postmaster for fifteen years, hands out mail between puffs on his Durham-charged corncob pipe. In his spare time, he operates a gas pump, saloon, and dance hall. Greatly enamored of the old-time Blue, Joy is gently pessimistic concerning changes inevitably wrought by time. If a visitor happens to remark, “This is mighty fine country, Mr. Joy,” the postmaster will nearly always answer: “Yes, sir, and we want to keep it that-a-way.”

On the day a drive begins, the crew piles out of bed at five-thirty, loading the chuckwagon before the first, faint fingers of dawn spread across the land. Everybody sits down to a heavy breakfast of mush, hot biscuits, fried ham, fried eggs and coffee which, according to “greener” Caples, “would hold up a knife.” 

After chuck, the cowboys mount their broncs and the cattle are prodded gently onto Blue Canyon trail, a one-way traffic beat. Some of the critters, nervous from close confinement in holding pastures, think the trail offers freedom. They “spook” easily, and many an agile whiteface makes a dash up the side-walls, only to be turned back by watchful cowpokes. 

The herd moves along the trail, through bottom land, box canyons, and cow-paths at the rate of about six miles a day. At the end of the first day, mebbe, the bunch will stop at Walter Richardson’s house, holding the herd in a small field. By noon of the second day, they may reach the Blue post office, where everyone stops for a lunch of hash, hot biscuits from coal-covered Dutch ovens, ham, pot-roast, bacon and eggs. 

The second night often finds the herd at the Birdwell ranch, camped under apple trees loaded with Golden Delicious. During the day, the caravan has passed the Blue River school, a one room structure in which a lone teacher instructs eight pupils in all grades. 

When Herschel Downs calls: “Time to roll in,” each cowman spreads a bedroll and turns to sleep. 

Camp comes alive at five each morning, and the crew wolfs a big breakfast. 

Photograph by Roy Caples
For cattle, the holding pen at Alpine is the end of the trail.

Driving seven hours a day, with only an hour for lunch and rest, jars plenty weight off pasture-fattened cattle. A 1,350 pound bull may shed as much as one hundred pounds before reaching Alpine, where buyers automatically subtract another three percent for drive losses. 

During the drive, the saddle horse string eats twice a day. Nearly always, horses and men are bedded by six-thirty, although now and then, the boys stay up around the campfire to toast marshmallows. 

By the third day, the trail-herd moves into red rock country more beautiful, in the eyes of cameraman Caples, than Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. Winding in and out, on and off the road, through cliff-lined canyons, down the bed of the Blue and along the Alpine Trail, the herd passes for a few hours into New Mexico. By the time it reaches the vicinity of Whispering Pine Lodge, a deserted retreat, the beef safari is once more in Arizona. 

The fourth lap of the drive finds the herd puffing up Turkey Creek Hill. Yearlings make it without too much discomfort, but old bulls stop to rest, their tongues hanging out a foot. 

Cowboys, swinging ropes, cajole and threaten the herd as it struggles slowly up a grade that demands six hours to yield less than four miles. 

During the drive, ranchers lose contact almost completely with civilization. Maybe a neighbor who stayed behind will ride out with mail from Blue. Everyone stops, wherever he is, opens letters and packages, savoring for a few moments contact with the outside. Then the drive grinds on. 

Six miles from Alpine, the crew halts near the Tenney ranch. The sky is lowering, and the tired cowboys, grizzled from shaveless days, bed down, hoping it won’t rain. But about one in the morning, the skies bust loose. 

All night long, as the relentless downpour continues, a cow-waddy stays up, tending fire, keeping its precious heat going until breakfast time. 

The trail-herd pulls out early on Monday morning, breaking camp hurriedly, each man, and especially the women and kids, anxious to get away from a continuing, slow drizzle. Bitter cold knifes over mountains and range. Caples, his hands stinging with cold and wet, can hardly trip the shutter on his camera. But now Alpine and the big pay-off are nearly in sight. The rigors of the drive are fast fading. 


Photograph by Roy Caples
Cowboys maneuver cattle between narrow canyon walls along the Blue River in October 1950.

At Alpine, the boys drive their beeves up side streets, back of the school house and out to corrals, three miles the other side of town. Around corrals, a reception committee of buyers, weighmaster, cattle inspector, truck drivers, and cowpokes keeps warm in front of blazing wood fires. The drive has made it on time — in spite of top-hand restraining efforts of rugged trail, rain, and an ornery motorist. 

Herschel watches his cattle weighed and tallied, his eyes lit by a kind of sadness. 

“It ain’t easy, mister,” he drawls, “to see critters you’ve worked with and doctored and tended for a whole year just slip out of your life.” 

But business is business, and Herschel accepts a check for nearly $12,000 from Mrs. Gene Lockhart, who has bought the cattle for shipment to Barstow, California. 

Though the drive is tough, the pay-off is taffy. Herschel’s cattle, yearling bulls, small cows and all average out about six hundred pounds. At twenty cents a pound, that’s close to $120 a head, compared to $22 Blue River ranchers used to get in 1917 after driving two weeks and a hundred-fifty miles to Magdalena, New Mexico. 

His own herd sold, Downs will help his neighbors bring theirs over the long, rough, tough trail to prosperity. 

The community cattle drives continue, altogether, about thirty days. When the last family has got its critters to market, Blue River folk can sit back proudly, knowing that old John Chisum would be right pleased with the way they meet a challenge and keep alive the tradition.