Willcox is a city in Cochise County, Arizona. The city is located in the Sulphur Springs Valley, a flat and sparsely populated drainage basin dotted with seasonal lakes. The city is surrounded by Arizona’s most prominent mountain ranges, including the Pinaleño Mountains and the Chiricahua Mountains.
6 of Arizona’s 10 largest mountains are located within a 70-mile radius including Mount Graham (31 miles north) which is Arizona’s most prominent mountain, Chiricahua Peak (42 miles southeast), Mount Lemmon (57 miles west), Miller Peak (65 miles southwest), Mica Mountain (41 miles east), and Mount Wrightson (70 miles southwest). Scores of birds including sandhill cranes winter in the area, with some migrating from as far away as Siberia. A very large dry lakebed, the Willcox Playa, is located 5 miles south of the city. It is the remnant of the Ice Age-era Lake Cochise.
History of Willcox, Arizona
Originally known as “Maley”, the town was founded in 1880 as a whistlestop on the Southern Pacific Railroad because of its position approximately halfway between El Paso, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona. It was renamed in honor of a visit by General Orlando B. Willcox in 1889. In the early 20th century, Willcox was a national leader in cattle production. Agriculture remains important to the local economy, but Interstate 10 has replaced the railroad as the major transportation link, and much of the economy is now tied to the highway, which runs immediately north of the town.
Willcox is the birthplace of Rex Allen, known as “The Arizona Cowboy”, who wrote and recorded many songs, starred in several Westerns during the early 1950s, and in the syndicated television series Frontier Doctor (1958–1959). Parts of the 1993 American neo-noir film Red Rock West starring Nicolas Cage, Lara Flynn Boyle, J. T. Walsh, and Dennis Hopper were filmed in Willcox. A short film documentary called “Lonesome Willcox” released in 2018 documented the town’s country music radio station KHIL.
At one time Willcox was the largest beef-producing town in America, giving it the nickname the Cattle Capital of the West.
The first thing that caught my eye was the abandoned Desert Rose Cafe. Desert Inn Motel burned down several years ago.
Across the street stood an abandoned mechanic shop/car wash…
with a misleading sign in the window.
I slipped in through a broken window and had a quick look.
The pigeons that had taken up residence inside were panicked by my presence, so I didn’t stick around too long. It looked like a human had recently spent time there too.
I drove another block or two before I realized Willcox is best explored on foot. Haskell Ave, the main road through town, is flanked by so many abandoned buildings, it looked like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
Dilapidated motels stood as bleak reminders of declining tourism.
Empty storefronts and shuttered restaurants indicate a struggling economy.
Much of the town’s economy seems to have been centered around the auto industry, as evidenced by the name of this pawn shop.
Vacant Chevy dealership.
And quite a few abandoned automotive-related businesses.
This service station attempted to find new life as a hobby shop, but was unsuccessful.
An abandoned liquor store and recreation center share the block with a series of other shuttered businesses.
Across the quiet street the remains of more closed shops languish with signs that have become weathered and illegible.
The face of Willcox is made even bleaker by an abundance of abandoned housing complexes.
The apartment complex for seniors was in awful shape, its lobby empty and most of the units trashed.
Several abandoned buildings remain, but the old-west style architecture lends authenticity to the area’s historic feel rather than making it seem run-down.
Plaques adorn many of the buildings, informing visitors of their historic significance. If you’re ever in the area, you might consider having a drink at Headquarters Saloon, where Wyatt Earp’s brother met his demise.
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