by Drew Desmond, Secretary, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
It was a day 12 million years ago. Antelope, camels and prehistoric horses were peaceably grazing when lava and super heated ash started thundering toward the Earth’s surface. Suddenly, the ground shook violently and a volcanic eruption blew through a hill.
“Clouds of fiery ash buried (the animals) that roamed the flanks of the hill,” according to Beverly Morgan, geologist for the Prescott National Forest. “The center of Glassford Hill is a cinder cone intruded by three dikes of basalt that join in the center.”
Standing at an elevation of 6,177 feet, what we now know as Glassford Hill was born. However, over the years, this mountain in the middle of the valley has had several names.
The first known name was “Malpais (mell-pie-eez) Mountain,” which translates to “the badlands” in Spanish, and it was so marked on early maps. This early name is so old no account exists as to why the hill was ever considered to be “bad” lands in the first place.
When the Anglos came to the area, they noticed it was the one mountain in the area devoid of trees. As a result, it was referred to as “Mount Baldy,” “Bald Hill,” or most often, “Bald Mountain.” These names remained popular into the early 20th century. However, “Mount Glassford” was originally listed on topographical maps as early as 1880 and by the 1930s, “Glassford Hill” was widely accepted.
The hill is named for Col. William Glassford, who traveled this area in the 1880s and helped form a sophisticated system of heliograph stations to monitor the movements of Apache Indians, U.S. military and civilians. Seven men, including one cook, were stationed on Glassford Hill to man the communications post.
The heliograph was a short-lived invention that used mirrors to flash signals similar to Morse code. Messages were passed hundreds of miles via 27 stations on mountaintops throughout Arizona. Glassford used mathematics, among other things, to perfect the heliograph system.
The Indians referred to it as “sun talk.” It seemed to prove enough of a deterrent in our area that it was never used in battle here.
Heliograph usage was short-lived because the telegraph and telephone had already been invented. The system was only useful in locations where there were no communication wires in place — a situation that would soon be remedied.
Technically, the true Glassford Hill is not the one with the lava cone, but the peak that has the radio towers on its top. Ironically, these towers depend on the sun just as much as heliographs did because they are solar powered. One of these towers actually “reads” some of the modern water meters in town as they transmit the consumer’s usage to the tower.
A trail to the summit of Glassford Hill has recently been developed by the Town of Prescott Valley, allowing for a challenging hike and stunning views. The future of old “Bald Mountain” is brighter than ever. The days of it being considered “badlands” have long been forgotten.
Photo: An old, rusted heliograph still stands atop Glassford Hill (Courtesy WikiMedia Commons)