A forgotten cemetery on a sun-baked hill in the desert, rattlesnakes coiled on an old wooden porch, and tumbleweed drifting through dusty, abandoned streets all bring to mind the quintessential southwestern ghost town. Located off State Route 82 along the San Pedro River in Cochise County, Arizona, Fairbank is just such a ghost town.
An American Indian village known as Santa Cruz once occupied the site, but white settlers soon arrived to displace them. Fairbank grew up around the nearest rail stop to Tombstone and was first settled in 1881. It was originally known as Junction City and then Kendall, before residents finally decided on Fairbank in 1883. It was named after Nathaniel Kellogg Fairbank, founder of the Grand Central Mining Company.
On February 15, 1900, the Burt Alvord gang attempted to rob the express car on the Benson-Nogales train as it was stopped in Fairbank. Express Agent and former lawman Jeff Milton, who was the son of the Confederate Governor of Florida, John Milton, foiled the robbery when he threw the keys to the safe in a pile of packages.
During the shootout, he mortally wounded “Three Fingered Jack” Dunlop and wounded Bravo Juan Yoas. Milton himself was seriously wounded in the arm, but pretended to be dead when the outlaws finally boarded the train. The outlaws were unable to open the safe and fled with only a few dollars. “Three Fingered Jack” died in Tombstone.
At one time, Fairbank was a hub of activity along the San Pedro River. Children came from all around to attend its one room schoolhouse. It was never a large town, having only 100 residents at its peak. The town began to die in the early 20th Century, and by 1970 only a small gas station remained.
In 1986, the Bureau of Land Management purchased hundreds of acres of land around the town and created the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Today, the remains of Fairbank have benefited from tourist activity and a few of the original buildings have been preserved. The Bureau of Land Management maintains a small store and museum in the old schoolhouse.
The old Fairbank Cemetery is located about a half mile up a trail and is heavily vandalized. Only a few of the original graves remain, marked by piles of stones, wooden crosses, and iron fencing. Unfortunately, the cemetery has been subjected to grave robbery and vandalism over the years. Although ghost stories are hard to find, some visitors have reported “whispers, shadows, and ghost lights” in the old burial grounds.
Visiting Fairbank is a wonderful way to step into the past. Although all the people have moved on, the few remaining buildings stand as silent witnesses to an exciting time in American history.