Additional Resource

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in The Gila Valley

In 1879 a company of 28 Latter-day Saints left their camp near present day Show Low in the White Mountains, bound for what would become their new home in the valley of the Gila River.

After crossing the Gila Mountains, the company came in full view of the Gila Valley.  The river, winding its course through the valley, was fringed on both sides with cottonwoods and willows.  Groves of mesquite trees and stretches of open grass carpeted the valley floor.  Mount Graham, heavily forested and capped with snow, made a beautiful landscape.  All in the company felt that in this peaceful valley, there would be room for thousands to make their homes.  Their settlement became known as Smithville.  Today it is called Pima.

Before long, many other pioneers settled on The Gila.   Mormon immigrants joined the populations of the mining and ranching towns in the region, and new settlements sprang up along the Gila and its tributaries, from Virden and Duncan on the east, to Ft. Thomas on the west, spanning a distance of sixty miles.  Ebenezer Bryce, of Bryce Canyon fame, started a community known as Bryce across the river north of Pima.  Similar settlements were being established on the San Pedro River at St. David, Pomerene, and in other places. 

These pioneers cut canals through the desert soil with horse plows, wooden scrapers, and shovels to divert water from the Gila River for the production of crops and food.  In time, more than 40,000 acres of farmland were under irrigation.

For construction materials, pioneers cut lumber at sawmills on Mt. Graham, and using remarkable systems of flumes and cable-tramways, delivered lumber to the valley floor.

Church leaders encouraged Latter-day Saints to be good neighbors and to beautify their homes with trees and tastefully-planted gardens.

In February 1883, then Church leader John Taylor organized the St. Joseph Stake (similar to a diocese), stretching from Miami, Arizona, to El Paso, Texas.   The St. Joseph Stake Academy was established to provide the pioneer children with opportunities for education, culture and refinement.  This academy continues today as Eastern Arizona College, the oldest institution in the Arizona community college system.    

Perhaps the most notable graduate of the Academy was Spencer Wooley Kimball, who grew to manhood in Thatcher, became a prominent and respected businessman in Safford, and was called as the leader of the newly-formed Mt. Graham Stake in 1938.  Kimball later served in general Church leadership as a member of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the senior governing body of the Church), and finally as President of the Church from 1973 until his death in 1985. 

Temple worship is very important to Latter-day Saints.  Early officials from Church headquarters who visited the area prophesied that one day a temple would be built in the Gila Valley.  During the first 48 years a trip to the temple required traveling to St. George, Utah, by horse and wagon.  This was a month-long round trip of 800 miles over some of the roughest terrain in Arizona, commonly referred to as the “Honeymoon Trail.”   In October 1927, the Mesa Arizona Temple was completed, and travel time to attend the temple was reduced to only a few days.  At that time, most trips were made by automobile over dirt and cement roads.  When a new highway between Safford and Phoenix was completed in 1952, travel time was reduced to a single, long day.

The Gila Valley Temple will now bring temple worship close to home, serving 21,000 Latter-day Saints in the surrounding area of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.  The Gila Valley Arizona Temple is the 132nd temple of the Church worldwide and the third temple in Arizona, with others in Mesa and Snowflake.  Two more temples in Arizona have been announced for construction in Phoenix and Gilbert.

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