David Douglas Gowan Regarded As Discoverer of Tonto Bridge
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 Ari-
zona 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 discov-
erer of the Tonto Natural Bridge early in his Arizona res-
idence which lasted for 49 years before his death in 1926.
Marjorie A. Templeton, Foundation member of Payson, Ari-
zona became interested in his colorful exploits and pro-
vided the research for this article. She found separat-
ing 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.” Af-
ter 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 him-
self 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 es-
caped with his life.
Having had his fill of the sea, he left it, never to re-
turn. 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 de-
termined to settle in the Territory. He returned to Cal-
ifornia, 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 devel-
oped as an attraction. With this in mind, he contacted
his nephew and namesake, David Gowan Goodfellow in Eng-
land and interested him in removing his family to Arizona
to undertake the development of the arch. Goodfellow ar-
rived 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 civiliza-
tion began to encroach upon his solitude, he withdrew
completely. He gave the Tonto Natural Bridge to his ne-
phew 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 occu-
pant. 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
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 re-
build the lodge and tourist accomodations. Now, Tonto
Lodge is again open for business. As for Tonto Natural
Bridge, it’s been there all along.