Landscape holds remnants of Flagstaff's railroad past

2010-07-15T05:15:00Z Landscape holds remnants of Flagstaff's railroad pastBETSEY BRUNER Community Editor Arizona Daily Sun
July 15, 2010 5:15 am  • 

Crumbling railroad ties.

Oddly aligned streets.

A historic log hauler.

Benches made from train wheels.

These are all remnants of Flagstaff's long history as a railroad town.

There are a number of railroad buffs in Flagstaff, and local historian Stephen Hirst is one of them.

Walking west Friday afternoon from the visitors center at the Flagstaff Amtrak station, formerly the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway depot, Hirst stopped and looked out across Route 66 at a small, modern city, with a bustling downtown area.

"Visualize 1880," Hirst said. "There would have been a few ramshackle buildings. There were probably not even a dozen families living here. It was cold compared to the rest of the country. There was not much here. You couldn't really farm here. It wasn't even a place the Native Americans lived. The Havasupai would come here to hunt in the winter."


The stroll was a run-through for the Flagstaff Origins Walk that Hirst would lead the next day as part of the Flagstaff Urban Trails System (FUTS) celebration.

Hirst, who wrote the book "I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People," said he endorses the perspective taken by NAU geography professor Thomas Paradis on Flagstaff as a railroad town.

"Flagstaff grew up with the railway," Hirst said. "You can always tell a railroad town because the streets are not aligned north and south, or east and west directions. They're aligned with the railway. They're either perpendicular or parallel with the railways."

The year 1880 saw a town on the edge of great growth. By 1881, engineers from the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad were staking out the line for rail tracks.

On Aug. 1, 1882, the first train whistled into Flagstaff.


One of the highlights of Hirst's walk was a visit to a spur of the Arizona Mineral Belt Railroad, now a pedestrian bridge west of Beaver Street, where walkers can look down on rail ties, some crumbling, some in good shape.

The spur is evidence of the project started by Col. James Eddy, a Chicago entrepreneur who proposed to build a railroad from Flagstaff to Globe to service the copper mines there.

The most ambitious leg of the project was an attempt to drive a tunnel through the Mogollon Rim.

"In 1883, Col. Eddy ginned up workers in Payson to start work on the tunnel," Hirst said. "Within a year, the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad, the main backer, withdrew support and the tunnel project ended.

"They only went in 100 feet," Hirst said.

Some train history websites call it the "Tunnel to Nowhere."

In 1887, after getting more backing, Eddy started building track out of Flagstaff, but was only able to complete 34 miles running south from town.

The Mineral Belt Railroad would find a new use when Flagstaff pioneer Denis Riordan bought it for $40,400 in 1888 at a sheriff's auction in Prescott.

He wanted to use the line to haul timber from the Mormon Lake and Lake Mary logging areas after he had had purchased the sawmill built by Edward Ayer, a businessman from Chicago who planned to make a fortune selling ties to the railway.

Denis sold both enterprises to his brothers Michael and Timothy, who decided to make their home in Flagstaff.


The Civil War had put a transcontinental rail system on hold, but a railway act passed by Congress in 1866 put plans back on track.

Even with a green light, rail projects were expensive.

Congress helped by granting every other section of federal land for 40 miles on either side of the route to sell for construction money.

"At that time, the country was land rich," Hirst said. "They had lots of land to give away."

After the war, the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers sent out four survey parties to scout the best routes for wagons and railroads into the West.

One such expedition led by Lt. George Wheeler was to map eastward from California to the 100th meridian. The Wheeler Survey lasted until 1879.

"In 1873, they came through here, and guess what they named when they came through -- Humphreys Peak," Hirst said.

They named the summit of San Francisco Mountain for the man who sent them out, Gen. Andrew Humphreys, chief of the Topographical Engineer Corps.

"Humphreys never saw this peak," Hirst said. "He was never even in Arizona."


Humphreys Peak might be considered a landscape artifact, a term used by Paradis.

"Artifacts help us understand the railroad in a railroad town," Paradis said. "A lot of people seem to find it fascinating when I start talking about the railroad -- why it's here and where it is going. The tracks though Flagstaff network into a larger geographic network in the region and the country."

Other artifacts are both downtown depots, including the 1926 train station, which now houses the Flagstaff Visitor Center, and the original passenger and freight depot too the east, first built in 1886 and now housing the BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) train office.

The antique Hansen log hauler west of the visitor center is also a remnant of rail history, allowing workers to raise up logs so that horses could more easily haul them out.

Train wheels were also used to form the base of the benches in Heritage Square.

"It's kind of fun to walk around Heritage Square and think what some local people thought about how to integrate railroad history into the local landscape," Paradis said.

Betsey Bruner can be reached at or 556-2255.

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