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August 02, 2018


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Great post for a hot summer afternoon. I learned a lot.
Maybe someday somewhere the ghosts will revive.

The map shows the "Peavine" connecting Prescott to PHX through Wickenburg. I'm surprised you didn't mention the AZ - California Short Line RR (Now Genesee Wyoming) which once provided passenger services from Wickenburg to Parker and California connecting again with BNSF and making a much better western connection from PHX to Southern CA than the BNSF route through high terrain through Prescott to the main line in Williams.

Thanks for commenting, Mr. Cote. I didn't mention it because it remains a going concern. Wish we still has passenger service.

I enjoyed this brief history of railroads in Arizona.

I understand that the Peavine segment that ran through Prescott was permanently closed in the early 1980s after a flood washed out portions of the track. It was determined to not be worth the money to do the repair work.

The tracks were removed from the old railroad right-of-way many years ago, and it is now a popular walking and bicycling trail with beautiful views of the Granite Dells and Watson Lake.

Another flood a few weeks ago took out a large segment of the trail, including a 130-year-old railroad bridge:


If you want to delve deeply into Arizona railroad history, I recommend David F. Myrick’s three-volume Railroads of Arizona. Out of print, but held by most larger public libraries in AZ.

Jim Turner (jimturnerhistorian.org) retells this often-repeated anecdote from Arizona railroad history:

The railroad first came to Tucson on March 20, 1880, and Mayor R.N. “Bob” Leatherwood was so proud that he wanted the world to know. He sent telegrams to the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the President of the United States, and even the Pope. The records show that he said:

“The Mayor of Tucson begs the honor of reminding Your Holiness that this ancient and honorable pueblo was founded by the Spaniards under the sanction of the Church more than three centuries ago [actually only one century], and to inform Your Holiness that a railroad from San Francisco, California, now connects us with the Christian World.”

Legend has it that somewhere down the line a smart-aleck telegraph operator intercepted the message and sent back this phony reply:

“His Holiness, the Pope, acknowledges with appreciation receipt of your telegram informing him that the ancient city of Tucson at last has been connected by rail with the outside world and sends his benediction but, for his own satisfaction, would ask Where in hell is Tucson?”

I've spend the better part of my adult life documenting the rail history of the Cincinnati area (see my web link), and what's interesting in comparison to Arizona is that it was dominated by mainline (or wannabe mainline) steam railroads and electric interurbans. The short-haul lifeline type of steam railroads in Arizona as well as many western and southern states is a much rarer beast here.

I think the denser settlement of the northeast and midwest led to a preference for the electric interurbans to take on this "in between" service because of higher tributary populations and greater comfort and speed for passenger service. A well-established network of steam railroads also lessened the market for freight business, so luring passengers with lower fares and more frequent runs was the way to go.

In places like the south and west though, there were comparatively few electric railways, but not necessarily fewer railroads. Especially in regions with extractive industries (mining, oil, lumber, etc.) railroads were the only viable way to transport these resources where roads were poor to nonexistent over rough terrain, but there also wasn't the population density to justify hourly electrified passenger service.

I noticed a history of ephemeral shortline steam railroads in central North Carolina, where my parents live, linking many small towns through what remains a region dominated by the timber industry. Many of these routes lived a similar life as the electric interurbans, building in the late 19th century to about 1910 and collapsing by roughly 1930. There were similar roads in the oil producing regions of Oklahoma, and for various mining operations in Colorado (there they tended to be more narrow-gauge, but still non-electrified).

Of course, once paved highways started becoming a thing in the 1920s then all bets were off. It's sad that this part of our history is so thoroughly unknown today, due in no small part to just how fleeting it was, and how completely most of its remains have been wiped away. It's hard to even imagine what it would have been like living in these places at the time, and just how important even a once-a-day train could be.

Jeffrey, Very interesting site info that comes up by clicking on your name.

My wife was born in Jerome and raised in Prescott. One of her favorite memories, is of going to the station on Saturday night to watch the train arrive. They would then go for ice cream. Many people in Prescott would do this. I am sure that many small towns did something similar.

Great article. I just watched the 1972 movie Junior Bonner, starting Steve McQueen. There is a beautiful father and son scene at the old depot in Prescott. In fact, the entire movie is about change and the old West being turned into a suburb. Watching the movie made me sad for a time gone by...and I'm referring to 1972!

What really killed the train was the coming of powerful trucks that allowed the moving of heavy freight over long distances.

Rail did not compete well, because of the rise of semi trucks- that is quite simply what ate the lunch of the rail industry. Ironically, if the big rail companies had gone in the ltl and efficient movement of the last few miles, they would have cut the nascent trucking industry down to a few trucks.

Instead, rail stagnated, and did not build enough fast capacity for freight, and did not survive Eisenhower's decision to build the Interstate highway system.

That was the true marker of the end for railroads- high speed truck and car traffic- which ended railroads advantages with one big blow.

It also ended the advantage of a dense city core, after all, without needing to use rail, one was freed from the railroad depot.

Even today rail should be cheaper, but the lack of competition, and the need to build large infrastructure has hampered rail system use. See the https://business.financialpost.com/welcome-to-chokepoint-usa

The problems date from the 19th Century- the bridges under the Hudson are another donkey level point.

Why do so many trucks still pull containers from Long Beach?

Huge pension costs were incurred from the regulated heyday- and the number of employees started dropping with the end of steam. And with the end of passenger service. And with the entire system of railroads basically sent to the scrap heap en masse, welllll.

The above article describing how a container can take 33 hours to get through Chicago shows how the systems were never rationalized or upgraded.

In 33 hours, you can take a container from Long Beach to New Jersey by truck.

Why did rail die? Because it was obviously inefficient compared to big trucks, and cars.

The nostalgia is poignant, but futile.

America is not Europe, and never desired to maintain urban density necessary to make passenger rail and transit feasible.

As for why rail died in Arizona, look at how many of the small destination places are even in economic operation today? One should ask why so much cement is still trucked, given the advantage rail has over a truck in costs....

For places like Williams, diesel was literally the end of the line- the City of Williams had nearly 5000 people living in it at the end of the war, running the mills and the steam engines full blast- but with the end of steam, the roundhouse goes along with the big units used to climb the grade from Ash Fork, and the City never had anything to replace ATSF or the lumber mills. When they left, it only had the motel and Route66 trade.

Then came the I40 Bypass in the mid-80s and the town nearly died.

Ash Fork essentially did die as a result of the bypass.

As did Seligman.

Economic efficiency is brutal.

The Teamsters Union also had a great deal to do with the rise of trucking over rail. The best congressmen money can buy.

I really don't want to get off topic, which is these historic railroads, but...

Among the biggest things hurting railroads for much of the 20th century was government lavishly building highways and airports while taxing and regulating railroads at draconian levels. Also, there was no ethos to support passenger trains. All transportation is subsidized, none more than airlines, but passenger trains were expected to make money. Another blow was when D.C. ended railroad movement of mail, an important source of revenue.

With the 1980 Staggers Act, the remaining freight railroads made a remarkable comeback. I think the mergers went too far, but the turnaround was undeniable.

America once had the finest passenger-train system in the world. Now we're stuck with a 1975 transportation system, adding to climate change, while Europe and much of Asia have high-speed rail and other extensive electrified rail. We're so backward.

As for trucks, they are competitive under 300-500 miles. If railroads are on the ball, they have the long-distance advantage -- even as government continues to subsidize the trucking industry.

Troll, not to disagree overall but your comment that a truck can take a container from Long Beach to NJ in 33 hrs is way off. I regularly travel from W. Mass to PHX and to my wife's dismay, have actually made the trip nonstop - about the same mileage. My best time was 42 hours including food, gas & rest stops with 2 drivers. Truckers are regulated too and this would be totally illegal, even for a 2 driver team. A more realistic time for a typical trucker cross country would be well over 60 hours. In my opinion, rail has an advantage in long distance freight but as a cross country traveler (with animals) rail would be an oh so welcome option!

Thanks for this piece, Jon. In the 1950s and 1960s, our family took the train to visit relatives in the Midwest, directly from Prescott when there was connecting service and a drive to Flag when the connection was lost.

The railroads seem to be recovering some of the traffic lost to trucking. Take a look at the webcam at the Flagstaff rail depot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImOiKMrH7D4 It won't take long to see a lot of intermodal trains hauling FedEx and UPS trailers (and the odd Amazon trailer).

Okay, slight exaggeration, lol.

Fascinating article, Jon. Thanks for posting about a subject I've always enjoyed learning more about. Here's a detailed map of Arizona's railroads, past and present, by a guy I went to college with.

Here's a link that worked for me:


The David Myrick Arizona rail history series previously mentioned is up to six volumes over 35 years, with a seventh volume's manuscript in the hands of a potential publisher/editor.
Vol. 1 and 2 deal with Southern Pacific and the Phoenix area, Vol. 3 with the southern copper mining roads (Clifton/Morenci), Vol 4 the Santa Fe route across northern Arizona and connecting lines (out of print and selling for $300-400 online), Vol. 5 the Santa Fe line from Williams to Phoenix and connecting lines, and Vol. 6 the lines to and around Jerome. The last two are still considered available at retail price from selected sellers.

I worked with a local historical society on a documentary on Herome Junction. Chino Valley had Farms supplying the Santa Fe RR and Fred Harvey up to the late 1950's. Dairy farms were common. When the water table dropped to the point that large surface pumps could no longer be used to pump water, the dairy farms started to disappear. With the Pauldin cut off, produce could not be shipped due to railroad service being weekly. That did in the remainder of the farms and some industries. The Pauldin cutoff saved time and fuel, but also removed the need for helper engines, maintenance shops, and many employees. A major savings for the RR.

Good read,

Don't forget the Amtrak derail in Arlington in '95

And during the floods of early '80s when we lost all but 2 car and 1 rail bridge and Amtrak did commuter service tempe to Phoenix for many months.

Very well written. Too bad that a person cant take a passenger train from Phoenix to Williams, then on to the Grand Canyon

absolutely fascinating article and comments. Our freeways have become gridlock in many places because of the staggering number of big rigs on them. Long distance goods and cargo would be better off being sent by train, I'm thinking. I'm grateful I was around to see steam and topnotch passenger trains, and those great little "milk run" trains, but sad too. Railroads did not thrive on sentiment, but many of us sure do! Can't help but think that passenger service and branch lines would still be useful,even in this day and age. I'm from BC Canada...

I once rode The Last Train ride to Maverick!!!

Jon, a very informative blog. Arizona's train network was denser than I'd thought.

My wife and I stayed at La Posada recently. When my parents and I, age 6, came to Arizona in 1958 on the wonderful El Capitan, we passed through Winslow and transferred to an ancient train (it seemed to me) at Ash Fork for the all-night ride down to Phoenix. As I was falling asleep, I heard one of them say, looking out the window, "The stars are so bright it seems you could reach out and touch them."

The information on the Apache Railway said it run from Snowflake to McNary, when it actually interchange with the ATSF/BNSF in Holbrook AZ. And then operated over the Southwest Forest Industry line from McNary AZ. To Maverick AZ.

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