Mysteries of the Deep: Montezuma Well, ‘There is nothing like it in the world’

Montezuma Well “had its beginning about 12 million years ago,” Jack E. Beckman wrote in his 1990 book History of Montezuma Well. The Well holds about 15 million gallons of water. VVN file photo

Montezuma Well “had its beginning about 12 million years ago,” Jack E. Beckman wrote in his 1990 book History of Montezuma Well. The Well holds about 15 million gallons of water. VVN file photo

Charles Fletcher Lummis once said that Montezuma Well was a “wonder which is not the greatest of its kind, but the only.”

It’s been more than 125 years since Lummis first visited what is now Montezuma Well National Monument.

“There is nothing like it in the world,” Lummis wrote in 1892 about the Well in his book Some Strange Corners of Our Country.

Considered a detached unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument, the Well is much older than the Castle.

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The Sinagua tribe is “credited with the introduction of stone houses, either in cliff openings or free standing pueblos,” Jack E. Beckman. History of Montezuma Well.

The Well was “several million years in the making,” Rod Timanus wrote in 2014 in his book Images of America: Montezuma Castle National Monument.

In fact, the Well “had its beginning about 12 million years ago,” Jack E. Beckman wrote in his 1990 book History of Montezuma Well.

Beckman, who was a park ranger or volunteer for 20 years, explained the Well’s origins in his book as “a lava flow from an early volcano, Squaw Peak, damned up an ancient river, creating a lake which over a period of several million years filled with limestone.

Located in Rimrock 11 miles north of Montezuma Castle, the Well holds about 15 million gallons of water. More than 1.5 million gallons of water flows into the Well each day, though it receives less than 13 inches of rainfall each year.

FAST FACTS

■ Holds about 15 million gallons of water.

■ More than 1.5 million gallons of water flows into the Well each day.

■ Receives less than 13 inches of rainfall each year

How can Montezuma Well contain so much water?

According to Beckman, the Well’s source of water is “warm springs in the bottom of the pool which maintain a constant temperature of 76 degrees.”

The springs, he also wrote, “keep the pool at a constant depth of 55 feet,” with a “150-foot cave at pond level [that] allows the water to drain out at 1,100 gallons per minute.”

Moderate temperatures make the Well home to seven endemic species: a diatom, the Montezuma Well springsnail, a water scorpion, the Hyalella Montezuma amphipod, and the Motobdella Montezuma leech.

In recent years, Montezuma Well has also been home to turtles – both native and foreign to the region.

Midway through the century’s first decade, Sonoran mud turtles, red-eared sliders, yellow-bellied sliders and western pond turtles have been spotted – then removed, as was a 40-pound Chelydra Serpentina, which was eventually taken to the Phoenix Zoo.

Man meets Well

A contract surgeon at Fort Verde, Capt. Warren Day wanted to know how deep the Well was. Though he arrived at the Fort in 1873, it was in 1880 when Day and his friends took as much rope as they could gather and attached a rock to one end – and dropped that end to the bottom of the Well.

About 65 feet later – with plenty of rope to spare, they hit bottom.

Beckman wrote in his book that Day, to keep his fellow soldiers “from laughing at him for hauling all that rope,” wet the entire rope and “returned to camp saying ‘it’s bottomless.’”

According to a story published Feb. 10, 2009, in the Verde Independent, a diver named H.J. Charbonneau reported in 1948 that “the bottom was at 55 feet and composed of fine silt. He also noted the pond was thick with leeches from about 30 feet on down.”

According to a report from the park’s then-custodian, Charbonneau also said that “he stepped on something soft, slimy and large, which caused him concern.”

Is it possible that what was believed to be the bottom of the Well wasn’t actually the bottom?

That’s what a diver named G.J. Murray thought.

In 1962, Murray reported in a story in Skin Diver magazine “of the eeriness of swimming ‘in a ‘bottomless pit’ with thousands free swimming leeches.”

Murray labeled it “a bottomless pit after observing that the bottom of the well appeared as ‘an irregular boiling surface, like that of thin mush cooking.’”

Other divers have since reported “the strange layer of sandy sediments, describing the ‘false bottom’ as ‘a white lava flow moving on top of a suspended bottom with a silica gel consistency,’ or ‘quick sand’ or even ‘boiling oatmeal.’”

Stone houses at Montezuma Well

Dwellings around the Well were constructed between 1125 and 1400 A.D., cliff dwellings within the 70-foot walls of the cavern, and five prehistoric structures on and around the rim.

The Sinagua tribe is “credited with the introduction of stone houses, either in cliff openings or free standing pueblos,” Beckman wrote.

The name Sinagua comes from two Spanish words: sin (without) and aqua (water). Many of the petroglyphs are believed to have been made by the Sinagua.

In journals from his 1583 visit to Montezuma Well, Spanish conquistador Antonio de Espejo said that the stone houses were not inhabited “but that there was occupation of brush huts, which could have been surviving Sinaguans who lived with present-day Yavapai,” Beckman wrote.

There is no evidence that the Aztec emperor Montezuma, nor other Aztecs, had any connection to the Well. But soldiers “assuming the lace had been occupied by Aztecs,” gave the site its name,” Beckman wrote.

Guided tours

In 1888, William Back acquired the Well when he traded two horses to then-owner Abraham Lincoln Smith.

“When Bill traded for the Well property, neighbors thought he got a bad deal because the land was wild, covered with cat’s claw and mesquite,” Beckman wrote.

By 1910, Back and his family would guide visitors on a tour of the Well, which included a boat ride out on the lake and a walk through the old ruins. All this for the then-princely sum of 50 cents.

The Back family also sold artifacts dug up in the ruins until William Back died in 1929, when son William Jr. and his wife moved onto the property and ran the family business, Timanus wrote.

In 1947, the National Park Service purchased the Well property for $25,000.

Montezuma Well today

There’s plenty to see at the Well. Walk around the dome that surrounds the Well, or take a staircase to the bottom, then back to the top. Or walk the half-mile loop trail from the parking lot to the rim, down to an irrigation ditch and back again, or take one of the two detours off the trail.

Near the end of the trail into the 386-foot diameter Well, water enters a swallet – a sinkhole – and flows through more than 150 feet of limestone before it resurfaces from the outlet into the ditch on the other side.

Montezuma Well also includes a picnic area as well as an ancient Hohokam pit house ruin. There is a contact station at the trailhead, but because there is no admission to enter the monument, the station doesn’t always have someone available to answer questions.

To reach Montezuma Well National Monument, take I-17 north of Camp Verde to the McGuireville exit, #293, to the intersection of Beaver Creek Road and Cornville Road.

Once you exit, go straight ahead onto Beaver Creek Road through the unincorporated communities of McGuireville and Rimrock for four miles and follow the signs to the entrance.

Gates are open daily, closed on Christmas. Summer hours are 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., September-May hours are 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

However, pamphlets and maps are readily available, and there are restrooms beside the parking lot and at the picnic area.

According to the National Park Service, Montezuma Well is “a place like no other,” an “oasis in a harsh desert.”

-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Montezuma Well as well as the park hours and number of endemic species. This version of the story has been updated with the correct information.

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