Buck

A recent column that I read briefly mentioned a sculpture rising on the front lawn of the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott. It has been standing on that same spot for over a century, and therein lies a tale.

On the morning of July 3, 1907, a parade – featuring cavalry, a marching band, a troop of Spanish-American War veterans, a few Civil War veterans, the territorial governor and a variety of other dignitaries – came to a halt in front of a large drapery hanging over a sculpture on the north lawn of the courthouse. A crowd estimated at more than 7,000 gathered to watch as they removed the cloth to reveal a magnificent bronze statue.

It was a larger-than-life depiction of a man astride a horse. Among those present, there was no doubt that the rider was William Owen O’Neill, more commonly known as Buckey O’Neill, a member of the infamous Rough Riders. His death on San Juan Hill in Cuba elevated him to immortality. 

The historical accounts of the day’s activities noted that as the speakers extolled the virtues of the hometown patriot, “tears filled the eyes of many of those who had known him in days gone by, and who had been proud to call him friend. A great pity welled up in the hearts of the rugged, honest, God-fearing Arizonans that he was not still with them in the flesh. And with bared heads, while the band played ‘America,’ those present did homage to the memory of the brave Buckey O’Neill.”

His final moments occurred on July 1, 1898. The Rough Riders were deployed to San Juan Heights and positioned at the base of Kettle Hill, where they faced a barrage of enemy fire. O’Neill strode up and down the line, calming those in his command, when a single bullet struck him in the mouth. He died instantly. 

Prescott mourned the loss, and the city fathers began formulating plans for a memorial. The city commissioned Solon Borglum, who started working on a sculpture in 1905. Borglum, the younger brother of Mount Rushmore’s sculptor Gutzon Borglum, poured himself into creating the statue. A newspaper reporter noted that “Borglum himself was part of the land that had…drawn the men of the Rough Riders together to give their lives if need be for the freedom of a land and people far from their Southwest...And out of those fused fires came the greatest equestrian statue in the United States...” 

Although the artist was dedicated, the completion of the project was filled with complications. The statue sits atop a 28-ton boulder, and getting that in place was a significant drawback. After the giant rock was blasted out of the neighboring mountains, somebody had to haul it into Prescott and set it on the right spot in front of the courthouse. 

In the words of the local newspaper, “Many weary days were spent by contractor H.C. Walter and his men in transporting the boulder to its present resting place. It was tedious work, owning to the cumbrousness of the granite rock, but no work was too tedious for those who knew to what purpose the stone was to be put. Finally, it was embedded on a cement foundation in the city plaza, and all was in readiness for the mounting of the statue, which had not yet arrived.” 

The statue had not yet arrived because there were troubles. Borglum created it in New York, and it was scheduled to be shipped by rail to Prescott. But there were problems along the route, and it took intervention by a railroad vice president to get it there on time. The newspaper described the episode in this manner: “...grave fears were entertained that it would not arrive in time for the unveiling ceremonies...then it was demonstrated that railroads are not always the ‘soulless corporations’ the muckrakers like to picture them, and that a thread of sentiment, even like that which runs through the beings of everyday mortals, is present also in the make-up of railroad systems.” 

Once made aware of the situation, Santa Fe Railroad vice president W.A. Drake appointed agent H.G. Wells to dispatch a rail to look for the sculpture and rush it to Prescott. Wells was “given the power to spare neither time nor expense in securing trace of the statue and getting it here on time.” He found it in an Albuquerque railroad yard, ordered it out on the first train leaving the city, then got on board to make sure all went well on the final leg of the journey. Unfortunately, all did not go well.

Shortly after crossing into Arizona Territory, the car carrying the statue broke down at Winslow. So the train was held up for several hours while all available mechanics were brought in to make the necessary repairs. When the train reached Ash Fork, several miles north of Prescott, a special engine waited to take the car and the statue to the final destination. They got there only days before the unveiling. 

The task of mounting the work on the granite pedestal took another two days, and the ceremony went on as scheduled. Buckey’s adopted son, Maurice, and Kate Hickey, daughter of one of his closest friends, were delegated to do the actual unveiling. 

And the newspaper’s account proclaimed, “With impressive ceremonies, the draperies were pulled aside from Borglum’s beautiful statue, revealing the gallant captain mounted on his charger. With distended nostrils, the horse stands slightly reared back on his haunches as though abruptly pulled up, while his rider, with face turned toward the left, sits in an attitude of expectancy, as though awaiting orders...” 

Technically, however, the sculpture is not a statue of Buckey O’Neill. Borglum designed and created it as a tribute to the Rough Riders. But O’Neill, being the hometown hero he was, the local citizens have come to associate it with him. So in Prescott, it’s the Buckey O’Neill Monument. The same today as it was on July 3, 1907.

— Sam Lowe is a former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.