The town of Ash Fork has shrunk considerably since it was founded by the railroad in the 1880s but it’s not ready to fade into the history books yet.
The town of 650 is located about 50 miles west of Flagstaff off Interstate 40. It is home to a stretch of historic Route 66, a rail yard for the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroad and billed as the “Flagstone Capital of the World.”
It also has one of the youngest median ages – 19.1 – of any community in Arizona, and 73 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
Fayrene Hume, the director of the Ash Fork Historical Society, grew up in Ash Fork and has lived in the same house for 55 years.
“It was a great place to grow up,” she said. “There was always something to do.”
The town was just small enough that you knew everyone and knew what everyone did for a living, she said. It still is a close-knit community, although some new folks have moved in who don’t enjoy socializing as much as the old-time residents. They move out here to be left alone, Hume said.
Like most long-time residents, Hume and her husband, Lewis, who passed away in 2015, have had family members who have worked for the three major industries in town: the railroad, the stone yards and the tourism industry. Her husband’s family dates back to the 1882 start of the railroad in Ash Fork. Two of Hume’s sons returned to town with their families after college and brief stint in other parts of the country. One son works for the town water company. The other operates a gas station at one end of town. Both are happy to be home.
Hume’s sisters, who moved away several years ago, always ask why she stays.
“Because it’s home,” she said. “Why would I want to live anywhere else?”
ALL ON SEPTIC
Living in a small town in the middle of northern Arizona has some drawbacks. The old downtown has a water system, but it doesn’t fully extend to the outlying suburbs, like Kaibab West. It also doesn’t have a sewer system. All of the homes in town have septic systems, which makes it hard for redevelopment, Hume said. The state mandates that new septic system, including those replacing old systems, have enough room for a leach field. Many of the lots in town don’t have the space, she said.
Safety and health services are concern for some, but Hume doesn’t worry. There’s a sheriff’s substation in town that deputies work out of all day. It might take a little longer to get emergency service at night but that’s part of living in a rural area.
The town also has a small public library, courtesy of Yavapai County, where most of the town is located, and a nice community center by the Ash Fork Development Association, which does much of the fundraising for community projects in the unincorporated town. There is one school in town that hosts students from kindergarten to 12th grade and a volunteer fire department.
In its more than 100 years of life, the town has seen a lot of growth and a lot of struggle, Hume said. Its heyday was probably from the 1940s to the 1960s, when the railroad, Route 66 and the flagstone yards were all booming.
The first blow to Ash Fork’s economy came in 1950s when the railroad moved the main line 10 miles north of town in order to avoid the steep grade on the eastbound route to Williams. The railroad also uprooted a number of employees and families in Ash Fork and moved them to Phoenix and other areas, Hume said. The homes that the railroad built to house its workers still stand on many of the downtown streets and many are still occupied.
The second blow came in 1960, when the federal government built Interstate 40, which bypassed downtown Ash Fork, and tourism dropped.
A third blow came during the housing market crash in 2008 when the demand for flagstone for new houses dropped.
However, the state of Arizona may have done Ash Fork a favor when it closed a number of rest stops on state highways in 2009 due to the shrinking economy.
The closures had the effect of pushing visitors and travelers off of major routes like Interstate-40 and back into small roadside towns like Ash Fork and Williams, which were bypassed when Route 66 was replaced by I-40, Hume said. More and more people are stopping in at the museum looking for the history of Route 66 and the town and a section of old Route 66 that still connects Ash Fork to Williams.
CROSSROAD STOPPING POINT
Ash Fork has been a crossroads and a stopping point for travelers, whether by rail, stage coach or car, since it was founded in 1882 when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, now the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, put a siding in at a stage station near Ash Creek. The town was named after a fork in the creek where a grove of ash trees grew.
In 1895, the town became a junction allowing trains and passengers that were traveling east to west to stop, change trains and travel south to Prescott and Phoenix along a line that came to be known as the “Peavine” for its twists and turns.
The increase in train traffic, especially passenger service, caused Fred Harvey to build one of his famous Harvey Houses and Hotels in the town, Escalante. Harvey Houses were known for their good food and excellent service provided by young women, Harvey Girls. The young women, ages 18 to 30, were required to meet strict living and grooming standards. Their contract with the company lasted one year and they were given room and board as part of their pay. Their contracts would be renewed as long as they met the requirements and didn’t get married, Hume said. Her aunt was a Harvey girl who broke her contract by marrying and settling down in Ash Fork.
Escalante was built in 1907 after a fire in 1905 destroyed the old passenger train station. The construction of the grand station house, restaurant and hotel cost $150,000. Hume remembers playing on the porch of the station as a child.
“But I never went inside, we weren’t allowed to do that,” she said.
The station closed in 1948 and was later leased to a wholesale grocery outlet. In 1968, the beautiful station and hotel were demolished. A group of townspeople, including Hume, tried to save the station, but the small group couldn’t raise the funds fast enough to pay the back taxes on the property and the property owner had the building demolished.
The demolition of the historic structure was the catalyst that created the Ash Fork Historical Society, Hume said. A historical marker now sits at the location of the old station and hotel on Lewis Avenue.
BYPASSED BY INTERSTATE
The small, high desert town was able to continue to thrive and grow despite the bypass of the railroad because of Route 66, Hume said.
Route 66 came to town in 1926 and ran parallel to the railroad tracks in two one-way streets, Lewis Avenue running west and Park Avenue running east. Like most small towns along the iconic route, hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations and small shops popped up like mushrooms. Ash Fork was particularly lucky because it was at the junction of Route 66, heading east and west, and Arizona Highway 89, running north and south. It made the town a perfect stop for motorists and freight trucks, until I-40 bypassed the town in 1960.
Ash Fork continued to hold firm with its third major industry, the mining and export of flagstone. The railroad was one of the first to find a use for the nearby pockets of Coconino sandstone. The railroad used it to build bridges and decorative work around the entrances to tunnels.
Today the stone is shipped around the world and is used in patios, walkways, curbs, hearths, mantels, countertops and the facing on buildings. The different colors and textures of sandstone actually come from different quarries, Hume said. There are at least six active stone yards where the material is stored in Ash Fork and about 50 quarries in the surrounding hills. The Arizona Legislature declared Ash Fork the “Flagstone Capital of the World” in 2013.
Hume had family members who worked in the quarries. In order to avoid the heat of the day, quarry workers would start at 2 a.m. and work until about noon or 2 p.m., she said. They would chip the stone out by hand, the stone would be trucked into town where it would be sold pretty much in the same odd-sized shapes that it came out of the quarry, she said.
Later in the 1950s, the stone yards invested in machines that could cut the stone to nearly any size or shape that customer wanted. This made it easier to take custom orders and increased the demand and production, Hume said.
The housing market crash in 2008 had a deep effect on Ash Fork and the flagstone business. Orders were no longer rolling in, she said. The yards laid off a lot of workers. But as the housing market has recovered in the last few years, so has the demand for flagstone, and the quarries and stone yards are starting to hum again.
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928)556-2253.
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