The time Arizona built an Old West movie set and Elvis came to town

Timothy Rawles
The Elvis Chapel at the Superstition Mountain MuseumSuperstition Mountain Museum

By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Apache Junction, AZ) It’s just an ordinary Hollywood movie trope. A cowboy riding his horse off into the sunset after a fierce standoff in the dusty streets of an old western town is a classic western B-movie metaphor.

While ambiguous endings are a part of movie magic, so are the sets and actors who do their best to suspend your disbelief. Meticulous attention to detail is what’s needed before the credits roll and snap you out of it. You might think of Hollywood as the only place where that kind of magic happens, but there’s a place right here in Arizona where, not only did it happen, but some of it still stands.

Welcome to the Superstition Mountain Museum located in Apache Junction about 42 miles east of Phoenix. This largely outdoor exhibit features things that define Arizona such as Native American artworks, artifacts, and memorabilia.

Nestled in the shade of its namesake, the museum property itself feels like an old west movie location. Cactus and other native shrubs bristle with wildlife beneath the desert sun and clear blue sky. If you wanted to capture all of this in a film about outlaws and lawmen, there would be no studio big enough to replicate it.
20 stamp mill at Superstition Mountain MuseumSuperstition Mountain Museum

That’s probably why Hollywood came calling back in 1959. Former Disneyland Imagineer Nat Winecoff headed to this out-of-the-way location and created a massive 1,800-acre replica of an old western town for use in television and movies. They dubbed it Apacheland Movie Ranch. It was used a great deal by some of Tinseltown’s most revered talent.

Actors such as Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, and Elvis Presley once filmed at Apacheland Movie Ranch during the big western movie boom that was popular well into the late ‘60s. Big silver screen classics such as “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” and “Arizona Raiders” filmed exteriors there. But the small screen was no exception.

High-ranking shows such as “The Big Valley,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Little House on the Prairie” also had a presence. That all came to a brief and scary end when a large fire swallowed up most of the structures in 1969. But in true Hollywood form, the show must go on, the whole thing was rebuilt, and filming restarted.

Sadly, on Valentine’s Day 2004 another blaze devasted the full-scale set and restoration was never attempted. A few buildings were salvaged: the chapel and the Apacheland Barn. Piece by piece, these props were moved to Superstition Mountain Museum where they still stand today as an intersection of Hollywood and Arizona moviemaking history.

Renamed the Elvis Chapel because it was featured in his film “Charro!,” the renovated church looks as fresh as the day it was built. Its large steeple took a plunge when it was an active set, but it has since been replaced and onlookers can walk in the King’s footsteps once more.
The Barn at Superstition Mountain MuseumSuperstition Mountain Museum

The barn is probably the most screen-used prop. It has been fully restored as well and is currently a general store and history center. These two architectural celebrities are only a part of the museum experience. This part of the country has its isolated history too.

There is a G-scale railroad diorama showcasing how important trains were to mining and commerce across the country. It’s an extraordinary exhibit for train enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
G scale railroad at the Superstition Mountain MuseumSuperstition Mountain Museum

An old western town wouldn’t be complete without a cemetery. The museum also contains “Boot Hill” a walkthrough exhibit in which they warn: “…the only thing real about this cemetery is the crawling desert dwellers (including rattlesnakes)…”

Stealing the spotlight from the distant Superstition Mountains is the huge 20 stamp mill. This enormous ore crusher looks like the welcome gates to Skull Island, the fictional home of King Kong. Donated from a mill in New Mexico, this massive beast is something to behold.

To describe every attraction at Superstition Mountain Museum would take up a few more pages. But it’s probably best to go see it for yourself.

Whether you are a Hollywood movie buff, an armchair historian, or an out-of-state visitor who knows nothing about Pinal County’s interesting past, the Superstition Mountain Museum is a great reminder of how exactly the west (and Hollywood) was won.

For more information check out the Superstition Mountain Museum website.

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Timothy Rawles has been a journalist for over 20 years. He has written for global publications in San Francisco, San Diego, and Phoenix. His favorite stories are features, interviews, entertainment news, and local stories.

San Tan Valley, AZ

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