Hundreds came Sunday to the still-smoldering Apacheland Movie Ranch to pay homage, offer sympathy and share memories of the famed film town struck by fire.
Jim and Betty Hagelstein, both 72, said they could see the smoke clearly from their nearby home at about 7 p.m. Saturday as it billowed from a restaurant and another building on the property at 4369 W. Kings Ranch Road in Gold Canyon.
"This is such a loss for the whole state," Jim Hagelstein said. "There’s so much history here. This is a treasure, so many great people have been here. . . . It just brought tears to our eyes."
Films shot at the ranch include "Charro" starring Elvis Presley, "The Gambler" with Kenny Rogers and "A Time for Dying," featuring Jack Palance.
Situated in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains, Apacheland opened in 1960, intended to be the "Western movie capital of the world." Fire destroyed most of the ranch in 1969, but it was soon rebuilt.
In Saturday’s fire, a chapel and other buildings near the restaurant were spared. Operators were at a loss to say whether the site would again be rebuilt.
The fire started while several people were in the restaurant for a Valentine’s Day supper.
Jim and Carolyn Gordon of Gold Canyon said they were eating when the lights flickered.
Management then told guests they had to leave immediately.
Nobody panicked, Carolyn Gordon said. They did not know what was happening until they were outside.
"When you turned around, the whole upstairs was engulfed in flames," she said.
"I was worried about the whole ceiling coming down on us," Jim Gordon added.
About 60 firefighters and 27 fire vehicles from the Apache Junction Fire District and Mesa and Gilbert fire departments responded.
The cause was not yet known Sunday, but it will likely be ruled accidental, said Apache Junction firefighter John Kevin.
"It was a good old Western town," Jim Gordon said. "This is a fake town, but it’s been here so long it’s real. It’s a real Western town."