On the Road in Arizona: Historical marker shows where Hollywood legend met his end

By Steve Jess/AZPM
Published: Monday, April 15, 2024 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, April 17, 2024 - 11:04am

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Stations across the state are profiling notable highway markers in On the Road in Arizona. The four-part series is a collaboration between public radio stations KJZZ, AZPM, KAWC and KNAU. 

tom mix atop his horse eclipse at the Washington monument
Library of Congress
Western star Tom Mix and his horse Eclipse entertain a crowd of boys before the Washington Monument as part of his trip to D.C., May 21, 1925.

Before there was Clint Eastwood, before Roy Rogers, even before John Wayne, there was Tom Mix. Mix was not only one of the first movie stars, he was the first big cowboy star.

Christine Reid, a retired historian with Pinal County, said Tom Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880, and became a real cowboy before he ever played one in movies.

"His father was a mule driver for a lumber company and so he was around horses and knew horses, was very good with them," Reid said. "And then as a young man, he went out to Oklahoma and got involved with some wrangling and being a kind of a real cowboy. Selig Pictures eventually hired him to work with the horses and then realized this is a good looking guy, we could put him on screen. And so that's how his career started in the teens. He had also been in the Prescott area, had a ranch up there for some time, even rode some rodeos up in the Prescott area as a cowboy, and then as a budding movie star."

Scottsdale car collector Bob M. White restored Tom Mix's banana-yellow 1937 Cord convertible, and wrote a book about the car and the man.

Pinal County historian Christine Reid
Steve Jess/AZPM News
Pinal County historian Christine Reid stands next to the Tom Mix monument on State Highway 79, 18 miles south of Florence

"In the silent era, he was the big movie star. He did 336 films. All but 10 were silent. And he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood at that time," White said.

But times change. Around 1930 talkies replaced silent films, and westerns fell out of favor. Mix's last movie role was a 1935 serial called "Miracle Rider." The entire 15-part serial — part western, part science fiction — can be viewed on YouTube.

By 1940, Tom Mix was performing with a circus and had licensed his name to a radio show, Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, though he never appeared on it. On Oct. 12, 1940 about 2 p.m., Mix was racing up the unpaved U.S. Highway 80 from Tucson to Florence in his supercharged Cord convertible when fate intervened.

Mix was unaware a highway crew was repairing a bridge over a wash.

"John Adams says, (he was one of the construction crew) he kept seeing this yellow car coming and coming and coming and he ran out to try to flag him down," White said.

Tom Mix liked to drive fast, and was hung over from a night of drinking with friends in Tucson. By the time he saw danger ahead, it was too late.

"Some say [he was speeding at] 80 miles an hour, some say 100. He could do 100 in that car, and he saw that he had to stop suddenly and he slammed on the brakes," Reid said.

portrait of tom mix from
Library of Congress
Tom Mix, full-length portrait, kneeling, facing left, holding two guns, hat on floor, in the 1918 silent film, "Mr. Logan, U.S.A."

"Adams said he actually he stood up on the brakes and had these three metal suitcases in the back and so he put on the brakes, [the car] turned over into the ditch and [a suitcase] flipped out and broke his neck," White said.

Tom Mix was dead at the scene. Hundreds attended his Hollywood funeral, followed by burial in Forest Lawn.

In 1947 the Pinal County Historical Society put up a stone monument at the accident site, topped by a steel sculpture, a profile of a horse with head bowed.

The plaque on the monument reads, "In memory of Tom Mix, whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose character and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the old West in the minds of living men."

You can visit the Tom Mix monument just off state highway 79, 18 miles south of Florence. It is located near the wash, now called Tom Mix Wash, where the accident occurred.

This would be the end of the story, except someone stole the horse sculpture off the top of the monument, so the Historical Society ordered a replacement. Then the original horse reappeared, so the society built a second monument, outside its museum in Florence.

The original sculpture of Tom Mix
Steve Jess/AZPM News
The original sculpture of Tom Mix's horse, Tony Junior, designed by Fernando Arriola and created in 1947 by prisoners at the Arizona State Prison in Florence, sits atop a stone monument outside the Pinal County Historcal Museum in Florence.

"So there is an identical monument that looks just like this in front of the museum with supposedly the original horse," Reid said.

No one knows who stole the horse, or who returned it. It's not even certain that the sculpture someone returned to the society is in fact the original. The date of the theft is also unclear, but the new monument outside the museum was dedicated in 1994.

And that's a fitting end to Tom Mix's story: the mystery of an unknown horse thief. It's the kind of mystery Tom Mix could have solved.

Hear the entire series

Arizona History Transportation