David Douglas Gowan, born into a fisherman's family in Kincardineshire, Scotland in 1843, would be the last man you would expect to find living in the wilderness of Arizona Territory. The adventurous wanderer ran the risk of co-existing with the treacherous Apache to mine silver in the Tonto region. He is credited by some as the discoverer of the Tonto Natural Bridge early in his Arizona residence which lasted for 49 years before his death in 1926.
Marjorie A. Templeton, Foundation member of Payson, Arizona became interested in his colorful exploits and provided the research for this article. She found separating fact from fiction about Gowan somewhat difficult, as did Jerrell G. Johnson who in 1970 traced his life in "The Arizona Scotsman" and Alan Thurber who wrote about him in "The Arizona Republic" February 21, 1988.
Early in his manhood David Douglas Gowan sailed out of Bervie Harbor destined for London and the excitement of the hub of the empire. On the waterfront of the Thames he became intoxicated with tales of exotic ports of call of the British Navy and signed on as a seaman aboard an English man-of-war. On the cruise past Spain into the South Atlantic, Gowan became bored with the tedium of the British navy at sea and jumped ship at a port in west Africa. Knowing the penalty for desertion, Gowan signed on with the first outbound ship to sail. This happened be a stench-ridden slave ship on its way to the Carolinas with its unfortunate human cargo. Upon arrival, in its first day in port, Gowen again jumped ship and began to sample life in America.
After a brief period of service on coastal vessels, the Civil War broke out, and David Douglas Gowan enlisted in the U.S. Navy, according to "The Arizona Scotsman." After the war, he returned to being a merchant mariner and signed on for a voyage around Cape Horn to California. Upon arrival, he again left the ship and employed himself up and down the California coast. In time he owned his own boat and returned to fishing, the profession of his fathers back in Scotland. It all ended quickly when his boat capsized in a Pacific storm, and he barely escaped with his life.
Having had his fill of the sea, he left it, never to return. Venturing inland he arrived in Arizona in 1874 at age 31. Observing its wide-open expanse with land for the taking and hearing reports of men becoming rich with its gold and silver and its cattle and sheep, Gowan determined to settle in the Territory. He returned to California, obtained a herd of sheep and with a companion drove them back to Arizona.
When he learned, the hard way, that sheep were not suited to that area, he turned to prospecting for silver. It was then that he ran into the Apaches. He related that it was in 1877, once while the Indians were pursuing him, intent on removing his scalp that he discovered the Tonto Natural Bridge. While fleeing from the Apaches down Pine Creek Canyon, he came upon a vast stone arch towering over a tunnel. He climbed up the vertical rocky wall of the canyon and hid on a ledge just below the crest of the arch. After three days, the Indians gave up the search, and Gowan began to survey his safe haven.
What he had stumbled onto was the world's largest natural travertine arch with five acres of fertile soil on its top. The bridge was 183 feet above the canyon floor; the tunnel underneath was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. Thus was the bridge discovered, according to the legend.
David Douglas Gowan recognized the value of the vicinity and homesteaded there. He built a shack on top of the arch and claimed the land below as well. Additionally he filed mining claims up and down the canyon and took enough silver from them to keep him in beans and bacon.
He also recognized the potential of the arch to be developed as an attraction. With this in mind, he contacted his nephew and namesake, David Gowan Goodfellow in England and interested him in removing his family to Arizona to undertake the development of the arch. Goodfellow arrived in 1893 with his wife and three children. They came by ship to New York and then by train to Flagstaff. Gowan met them at the depot with a wagon, and six days later had them on the site of their new home.
Little by little, they developed the site. They built a house, hauling the lumber in on pack mules. Six years were spent in building a road with picks and shovels. Later they began to add tourist cabins.
As the visitors began to come, David Douglas Gowan began to spend more and more time working his mining claim and prospecting in the wilderness. Finally, when civilization began to encroach upon his solitude, he withdrew completely. He gave the Tonto Natural Bridge to his nephew and moved up the canyon to the seclusion of a cabin.
Goodfellow began the construction of a four-story lodge with wide porches and a tremendous diningroom. They dug out a swimming pool with "four horses and a Fresno." With all the building activity, the Goodfellow family did not maintain close contact with their uncle. On a cold December night, a passerby looked in on Gowan's cabin and found no fire in the fireplace and no sign of the occupant. He alerted the family and neighbors. The next morning, they found the body of David Douglas Gowan on the trail, seated in the snow and leaning against a boulder. It was obvious that his heart had just given out, and that he died quietly January 1, 1926 in his 83rd year.
The Goodfellow family went on to complete their uncle's dream. The lodge was completed the following year, and the resort began to operate in earnest. It has enjoyed success intermittently from that time to the present. From the time David Douglas Gowan staked his claim there, the arch and the resort have been on private property. On summer weekends 1,200 to 1,500 people come down the steep road to view the arch, but few use the lodge. A quarter million dollars have been spent recently to rebuild the lodge and tourist accomodations. Now, Tonto Lodge is again open for business. As for Tonto Natural Bridge, it's been there all along.