Dead Horse Ranch: Gateway to the Verde

Dead Horse Ranch constitutes the first major purchase of a park property for Arizona State Parks.

Before its acquisition, most of the properties owned by Sate Parks were acquired through donations, land trades or leases. It was also the first land-based park in the system

In 1950, Calvin "Cap" Ireys brought his family out to Arizona to make a new home for themselves on a cattle ranch.

After looking over several prospective ranches, the Ireys family chose a 300-plus-acre site on the Verde River across from thee Town of Cottonwood.

It got its name, so the story goes, from the Ireys children.

When asked which ranch they had liked the best they said the one where they had discovered the dead horse. The animal had apparently been put down just prior to the family's first visit to the ranch.

Twenty years after purchasing the property, Cap Ireys had enough of ranching. He had found out the hard way that small ranching operations had a difficult time paying their own way.

Over the years he had become friends with several ranchers in the area, one of which was Duane Miller of Sedona, chairman of the Arizona State Parks Board.

Ireys asked Miller if the state would be interested in purchasing the ranch as a park.

In spite of objections from his children, Ireys offered 285-acres of the ranch, including 78 acres of historic water rights, to the state for $125,000. The price was far below market value.

With the approval of the board and the sponsorship of several state legislators, a bill was introduced in the State Legislature to purchase the ranch. It called for the using $89,000 from the state and for the remainder to come form a federal grant.

The bill, however, grew in popularity. By the time it got to the governor's desk it included authorization to purchase land along the Hassayampa River for a new park and $150,000 to construct a lake to be used as a park.

The park on the Hassayampa was never completed. The lake park appropriation was joined with a donation of 640 acres of federal land to construct what is now Roper Lake State Park.

Ireys signed the deed transferring ownership of Dead Horse Ranch to the state on July 16, 1973. It celebrated its grand opening on June 1, 1977.

He retained a one-acre parcel within the park boundaries that included a guesthouse, along with an 18-acre parcel and another smaller parcel.

The state eventually purchased those three pieces, one of which became the first parcel included in the Verde River Greenway.

From its inception, Dead Horse Ranch had an access problem.

The property had two access points. One was a low-water crossing off of Arizona 89A along Sixth Street in Cottonwood. The other was a circuitous route through Tuzigoot that had served the ranch during times of flooding.

Negotiations to provide a better access to the park resulted in the state taking several acres of land by condemnation.

It has also provided for another easement dispute with the neighboring Mabery family that in spite of a $2 million judgement against State Parks has not been resolved.

In 1993, the Arizona Department of Transportation built a $3 million bridge at its current location off 10th Street providing a permanent year around access for the park.

The easement disputes are no reflection on the park's popularity. In fact it is one of the most popular parks in the State Parks system and among the top revenue generators each year.

It is also the site of the annual Verde River Days celebration, an event that has grown in popularity since it first began in 1988 at the behest of former Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce Director Pete Sesow, Verde Independent publisher Dick Larson and others.

Coming Friday: Part 5 - Red Rock

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