Restored Fairbank Mercantile beckons visitors

Just over a year ago, the Fairbank Adobe Commercial Building—the largest and most visible structure at the Fairbank Historic Townsite — was clinging to life. Its foundations were failing, causing the 140-year-old adobe walls to crack and separate. Some sections had collapsed in recent years, their remnants held up by screw-jack braces and other temporary support. The site, located where Arizona Route 82 crosses the San Pedro River, is managed as part of the San Pedro River National Conservation Area. Earlier concerns for the safety of visitors around the deteriorating building — more commonly referred to as the Fairbank Mercantile— had prompted the agency to erect perimeter fencing; by last fall, the building’s condition required a full structural intervention.

the back of the Fairbank Mercantile building has wood bracing and barricades blocking it off
The rear of the Fairbank Mercantile in October 2019, ​​before a critical stabilization effort
preserved the building.
BLM Photo

The BLM contracted with Statistical Research Inc. of Tucson to provide historic preservation services at Fairbank. In addition to the stabilization and restoration of collapsed and deteriorating sections of the Mercantile, the project included architectural documentation of the affected parts of the structure and a smaller board-and-batten building abutting its north wall. Both buildings contribute to the historical significance of the Fairbank Townsite; the historic property has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Preliminary plans were reviewed by the Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer. As the Mercantile’s interior was so deteriorated and hazardous that making it safe would have severely compromised its historic integrity, it was decided that the building would be preserved as a “historic shell,” allowing for visitation and interpretation as well as maintaining the overall historic look and feel of the site.

a worker near the foundation of the Fairbank Mercantile. The building's walls have been removed and the frame is visible.
Stabilization work at Fairbank Mercantile. BLM Photo

The stabilization work was completed between October 2019 and April 2020 and included adding reinforced concrete underpinning below the original foundation, portions of which were then rebuilt; replumbing or removing the affected adobe walls; rebuilding collapsed walls with new, stabilized adobe bricks; reattaching the roof structure to the walls; repairing cracks; removing adjacent, encroaching vegetation; and recontouring the adjacent landscape to improve drainage. Upon project completion, the BLM was able to remove the long-term safety fencing so that the public may again approach the buildings and peer inside.

a historic photo of the entrance to the Fairbank Mercantile shows a door and sign
A historic photo of the Fairbank Mercantile from 1937.
Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,

The Mercantile was the commercial center of Fairbank, a former railroad hub for transporting ore from Tombstone mines to be processed in stamp mills along the San Pedro River. At one time, four different railroad lines connected Fairbank to the Southern Pacific main line in Benson, and as far away as Guaymas, Mexico.

The town was originally called Junction City, then Kendall; it was officially named Fairbank on May 16, 1883. The name refers to N.K. Fairbank of Chicago, who helped finance the first railroad. The current townsite includes a visitor parking lot, and self-guided interpretive trails and signage. In addition to the Mercantile Building, visitors can see several historic wood frame structures, including a residence, garage, chicken coop, and privy. The Fairbank Schoolhouse has been restored to include a classroom, as well as multiple exhibits on the history and prehistory of the area. The original wood frame Schoolhouse burned down in 1917; the existing structure was built of gypsum block in 1920. The BLM manages the site with valuable assistance from the Friends of the San Pedro River, which operates a gift shop in a portion of the Schoolhouse; it’s open Friday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The FSPR, founded in 1987, is a volunteer, non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of the river and natural and cultural resources of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) through advocacy, education, and interpretation. FSPR coordinates its activities with the BLM, the land manager of and the National Conservation Lands. Their board meets monthly in Hereford, Arizona; more information can be found at the Friends of the San Pedro website.

the Fairbank Mercantile building with stabilized walls
The rear of the Mercantile after stabilization. BLM Photo

Bureau of Land Management Arizona

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