Tom Mix was the first real cowboy hero of the big screen. He starred in literally hundreds of films between 1920 and 1935, and has been credited with redefining the Western movie genre with his hard-riding, action-packed performances. Riding to the rescue time and again in his signature 10-gallon hat, Mix paved the way for men like Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and John Wayne.
Yet, these days, Mix appears to be less famous for his career and more famous for his death. His monument along Highway 79 between Phoenix and Tucson has become a destination for roadside
tourists with a penchant for celebrity demise, even for those who don't know all that much about him. It's more the fashion in which his ticket was punched they're interested in.
It was Oct. 12, 1940, and Mix was headed to Phoenix on his way west from New Mexico. He had spent the night in Tucson, checking out of his hotel room fairly late in the day. According to reports, he had been up pretty late the previous night drinking in his room with a group of musicians. Leaving the hotel about noon, he tossed his luggage in the back of his Cord convertible and set out for Florence. On the way, Mix stopped at a bar in Oracle Junction for a quick chat with a friend, which turned into rounds of whiskey and a few hands of poker.
There's no definitive evidence to say that Mix was drunk, but as he roared up 79 in his yellow roadster, he completely missed the detour signs that warned of construction up ahead. A flash flood had washed out part of the road and a crew was working on repairing the damage. According to the men on the scene, Mix never even slowed down.
He hit his brakes at the last second, but it did little good. Traveling at 80 miles per hour, Mix's car flew through the barriers, dove into a wash and flipped. The convertible came to rest on its side. Some say Mix was killed in the impact, but at least one witness reported seeing him free himself and begin to stand. At that moment, according to the witness, the larger of his metal suitcases fell on him and broke his neck. Legend says the case was full of silver dollars.
Today, he'd probably just get one of those little crosses with some plastic flowers and a headshot stapled to it. But in 1947, fans dedicated a full-fledged monument in Mix's honor. Just north of the ditch that took his life, now known as Tom Mix Wash, the Pinal County Historical Society erected a 7-foot stone obelisk memorializing the one-time king of cowboys. Its apex features a profile of Mix's trusty steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, his saddle empty and his head bowed in grief.
The memorial does still have the headshot affixed to it, though, along with two copies of a newspaper article on Mix's life and death, which are affectionately maintained by some unknown caretaker. In contrast, Tony's metal silhouette, looking unmistakably like a target in some midway shooting gallery, has amassed a cluster of bullet holes.