January 31, 2024
Wrapping up some loose ends on the Tom Mix feature in the next issue of True West.
A 1940 road map of Highway 89 going from Oracle Junction to Florence, which at the time was still unpaved. Tom Mix Wash is the third wash south of the highway shield in red.
The Mystery of The Warning Signs
There is some controversy about what kind of signs, or barricades were up around the bridge under construction on the Florence Highway when Tom Mix came roaring up the road at 80 m.p.h.
Washed Up And Washed Out
The Western pulp writer, Walt Colburn, wrote up the death of Tom Mix for our sister publication, Frontier Times, and he described the Tom Mix death scene this way: "Tom Mix owned a flashy looking Cord that he drove with the top down. The rear seat held his luggage, including a locker trunk. A highway crew was working on the Florence highway and they had put up a barrier with a detour sign. Tom Mix, traveling eighty miles an hour, had smashed through the barrier, turning the Cord over in a dry wash. The heavy trunk had been dislodged with the sudden impact, striking Tom on the back of the head and breaking his neck. He was killed instantly."
Of course, Colburn was not there and got his information from a friend who also was not there. Although basically accurate, two things jump out at me. The first is, why would Tom Mix blindly drive through a "barrier with a detour sign" without slowing down? And, two, we now know the "heavy trunk" was actually a medium sized metal suitcase—made by Haliburton!—and it is in the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma.
Impaired? Or Drunk?
We know that Tom Mix visited with Walt Colburn and Pima County Sheriff Ed Echols at Colburn's Catalina Foothills ranchito on the outskirts of Tucson on the day before the accident. In the Frontier Times article, Coburn describes the King of the Cowboys sipping whiskey and trading stories with his two old friends. That night, Mix reportedly gambled and drank until 3 a.m. with Santa Rita Hotel musicians. He left Tucson around noon the next day, October 12, and drove north on Oracle Road and stopped at Oracle Junction (near the present day Lupe's Restaurant) and allegedly played poker and drank whiskey at a roadside establishment before driving off to his appointment with the washed out roadway south of Florence. Invariably, when a famous person dies, local legend grows up around the event with everyone remembering him stopping at their place of business and enhancing the encounter with tales of playing cards and drinking. I'm not saying it didn't happen but I am saying I take some of these "remembrances" with a grain of salt. That said, it is probably safe to say Mix had a few nips of whiskey before he took the highway to hell. How high was he? Maybe high enough to ignore the detour signs (let's be honest, it's hard to read distant road signs at 80 miles an hour, no matter how much you have had to drink.)
One of the local newspapers gave this account: "He was driving so fast that he didn't notice—or failed to heed—signs warning that one of the bridges was out on the road ahead." A small highway crew was working on the bridge at the time of the accident. John Adams of Oracle, claimed that after the car overturned, Adams saw a figure move from beneath the Cord and start to stand up. Mix supposedly took a step and fell dead.
Several minutes after the crash, Martin Younkers, of Beloit, Wisconsin and Anthony Monts of Rockfore, Illinois drove up to the crash site from the south and helped pull the actor's body from under his racing car. They had been passed by Mix on the dirt road, and they reported Mix used his siren to pass them at a high rate of speed. Yonkers and Monts also claimed a heavy suitcase had fallen against Mix's head, burying his face in the soft sand.
If there was a barrier it must have been hard to see from a distance. And, perhaps it created an optical illusion, with the rebuilt bridge abutments below the roadway and made it appear as if the road was unobstructed and therefore unable to be seen by Mix in the speeding roadster.
In the end, drunk or sober, signs or no signs, The King of the Cowboys was dead. He had cheated death numerous times in his long career and it's more than a little ironic that this anonymous wash, one of thousands that criss cross Arizona's roadways, had finally claimed "The Road Demon."
"We will never see Tom Mix again."
—A Canadian lament seven months before he died