Kingman: Heart of Route 66 Is Still Beating

The county seat of Mohave County is located in a pass between the rugged Cerbat Mountains on the north and the tall Hualapai Mountains on the south, affording passage from the Hualapai Valley on the east to the Sacramento Valley to the west. There the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad laid tracks in March 1883 heading for the Colorado River and built a siding where water could be brought from Beale Spring a few miles north. The town that developed at the siding was named after A & P locating engineer Lewis Kingman. It grew slowly but eventually outlasted four other earlier county seats to become the commercial and social center of northwestern Arizona. Its location made it “Arizona’s Gateway to Boulder Dam” in the 1930s and now the “Heart of Route 66” since the venerable highway became a historic byway.

In 1864 the first territorial legislature created four original counties named for four native tribes, Mohave, Yuma, Yavapai and Pima. Mohave City, the small civilian community at Fort Mohave established in 1859 to protect travelers on the Beale Road from Indian attacks, was made county seat. In 1867, soon after the western half of the county was given by Congress to Nevada, county government moved to nearby Hardyville, another Colorado River port. With Mohave and Hualapai warriors under military supervision, exploitation of gold and silver deposits began in the Cerbat range. The mining camp called Cerbat became county seat in 1873. Within four years Mineral Park had become the newest boomtown to win the title of county seat. But all these communities eventually became ghost towns, while Kingman’s water supply and position on the railroad guaranteed its survival as a supply point. Railroad boxcars brought needed goods faster and cheaper than Colorado River sternwheelers. Kingman was named county seat in 1887 before its population had even reached 300.

This view of Kingman looking southwest about 1916 shows the brand new county courthouse (1915) in center with the two-story county jail (1910) next door on the east. Above and to the right of the courthouse is the Desert Power and Water Company electric plant (1907) that served Kingman and nearby mines. It was replaced with power from Boulder Dam in 1938 and the building now serves as a visitor center. The two-story building with screened porch at left is Elks Lodge No 468 (1903-04) on the corner of 4th and Beale Streets. There was an opera house on the ground floor. The downtown business district is out of view at left.

The relatively quiet community served the needs of miners in the Cerbat range on the north and the Black Mountains to the west, cattle ranchers to the east and travelers along the transcontinental railroad. Kingman Mercantile Company, Central Commercial Company and Lovin & Withers mercantile did a profitable business. The recession of 1893 led to bankruptcy for the Atlantic & Pacific RR, which had to be reorganized as the Santa Fe Pacific in 1897. When prosperity returned, the Arizona and Utah Railroad was created in 1899 with about 24 miles of track heading north from McConnico, just west of Kingman on the Santa Fe, north to Mineral Park and Chloride. The Fred Harvey Company opened an “eating house” in 1902 downtown on 4th Street to serve meals to travelers on Santa Fe trains without dining cars. The next year, the Santa Fe Pacific was absorbed by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. Kingman’s Harvey House didn’t provide lodging but there were several fine hotels in town, including Hotel Beale (1901) and Hotel Brunswick (1909). As the population grew from 600 to more than 800, residents enjoyed telephone service (1894) and electricity (1909).

Harvey girls continued to serve hungry railroad passengers in Kingman until 1932. Fire destroyed the interior in 1952 and the structure was demolished soon after. This well-worn Fred Harvey issued postcard is from about 1908. The view is looking west with 4th Street crossing the tracks in the foreground. The passenger depot (1907) is located out of view at right.

Transportation eventually overtook mining and ranching to dominate the economy. By 1915 the National Old Trails Road was routed through Kingman where motorists could get service and repairs at the Old Trails Garage. In 1926, federal highway officials assigned numbers to replace the named highways and Kingman was then a stop on US 66. Despite deep economic depression in the 1930s, highway travel increased. Automobile travel was a lower cost alternative to the train and US 66 was a direct route from the Oklahoma dustbowl to California. New motor hotels, cafes and gasoline stations appeared at both entrances to Kingman. Paving the dirt highway continued through the 1930s, until autos could drive across northern Arizona on continuous concrete or asphalt by the end of the decade.

The depression years were nevertheless felt in Kingman. The Arizona & Utah railroad, taken over by the ATSF in 1905 and renamed Western Arizona Railway went out of business in 1933. Many gold mines in the Cerbat and Black Mountains had closed due to changes in the Gold Standard.

New Deal stimulus funding also helped build the modern airline industry during the great depression, principally through federal funding of airmail. In 1929, Charles Lindberg designed cross-country airline service flying passengers during the day on Ford Trimotors then putting them into sleeping berths on Pennsy and Santa Fe trains to continue their journey overnight. Port Kingman airport was dedicated that June. Transcontinental Air Transport planes left Clovis, New Mexico at 8:10 in the morning headed for Los Angeles by 5:52 p.m., with fifteen minute refueling stops in Albuquerque, Winslow and Kingman. Their competitor, however, had beaten them into the air. Western Air Express had built its own airport in Kingman and begun flights earlier in 1929. TAT soon merged with WAE to become TWA and continue flights without the trains in Douglas DC-3 airliners. Even before the DC-3, longer-range aircraft had eliminated the stop at Kingman, but not its importance to aviation.

This view of Front Street, looking west, is from about 1928, just after the National Old Trails Road became Route 66. Businesses in the block between 5th and 4th Streets were, the Commercial Hotel, Taylor-Owens Motors Ford dealership, Tarr McComb & Ware Com’l. Co. hardware and mining supply (with green sign above), Citizens Utilities, The Popular Store, Stratton’s Grocerteria, Lum Sing Yow’s White House Café (1899) and finally, Keister’s Kingman Drug Co. on the corner of 4th.

The intersection of Front and 4th Streets is depicted about 1930. To the west across 4th from Kingman Drug Co. is the former Lovin & Withers mercantile building with the round corner. Henry Lovin came to Kingman in 1893 and later served as Sheriff of Mohave County, County Supervisor, state senator and investor in the Gold Road mines. Lovin also owned an ice house, Coca-Cola bottling plant and several homes and cottages. The building was demolished in the 1950s.

This is the business block between 3rd and 4th Streets, looking east about 1940. Another corner drugstore at 3rd, Eaton’s Desert Drug Walgreen Agency, is followed by a cocktail lounge, Gaddis Café, and Old Trails Garage (1915) Chevrolet-Buick dealership, which also sold Signal or Conoco gas over the years. Kingman Drug later became the Walgreen Agency and the Gaddis became the Frontier Cafe. Next is the three-story Hotel Brunswick, built in 1909 and renovated to reopen in 1997. Lockwood’s Café is in the Brunswick but moved shortly after this photo was taken. The two-story Hotel Beale (1901) is at right with the large sign on the roof. Andy Devine grew up in the Beale Hotel after his father purchased it in 1906. Front Street was renamed Andy Devine Avenue in 1955. The postcard was published for Desert Drugs by the Albertype Co., Brooklyn N.Y.

As air, rail and highway travel contributed to Kingman’s growth, the federal government launched a depression stimulus project to build a massive flood control and power dam in Boulder Canyon on the Colorado River. Highway 93 was built from Kingman to the construction site creating a third entrance to town lined with motels, cafes and gas stations. The Gateway to Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1948) was becoming more than just a quick lunch stop. In 1939 Clark Gable and Carole Lombard chose a Kingman church for their wedding, to take advantage of Arizona’s more lenient marriage law. The same year, hometown boy Andy Devine was paid $10,000 to drive John Wayne’s stagecoach before the cameras in Monument Valley.

World War Two brought big planes back to Kingman. A military training base was quickly built on the alkali flats of Hualapai Valley about 5 miles east of Kingman. From 1942 to 1946 about 30,000 bomber gunners were trained at Kingman Army Air Field. And when the war was won, due to its location at a major rail line and highway, the base became Storage Depot 41 of the War Assets Corporation, the largest of five sites across the country. Hundreds of big bombers were flown to Kingman for disposal. A few planes were sold. But by the end of the program in 1948, 7,000 mostly B-17 Flying Fortresses had been scrapped and 70 million pounds of aluminum shipped out.

Some of the 5,400 B-17 Flying Fortresses awaiting salvage are seen in this view from 1947. Hundreds of B-24 and B-29 bombers and P-38 Lightning planes were also scrapped at Kingman. The storage area extended for six and a half miles along the Santa Fe railroad and Route 66 northeast of Kingman.

Transportation has brought awful tragedy to Kingman too. The railroad and highway saw their share of fatal accidents over the years. Air Force training during World War Two was dangerous and there were numerous deadly crashes. In 1944, a bus from the Army Air Field crossing the railroad tracks was hit by a train, killing 28 soldiers. In 1973 a Santa Fe propane car developed a leak and caught fire. Fire trucks responded but the railcar soon exploded in a huge fireball, killing 12, including most of the fire department.

Ever since automobiles took to the road Kingman has been a convenient stop for gasoline, repairs, food and lodging. Mrs. Willie McCasland established the City Café on east Route 66 in 1945, next to a 24-hour Texaco station operated by Arlise Finch. Curteich of Chicago printed this C. T. Art-Colortone view in 1951.

Nationwide chains began replacing locally owned motels in the 1950s when this postcard view of Kingman’s TraveLodge was issued. At the time it offered 32 rooms cooled by refrigeration, with phones, free TV and a heated swimming pool. By 2007 it had expanded to 65 rooms with free continental breakfast and high-speed internet. Norm Mead in Tempe published the card, printed by Dexter Press in West Nyack, N. Y.

A Plastichrome postcard by Petley Studios of Phoenix from around 1965 shows the setting, looking west, surrounded on three sides by foothills. You can see the railroad as it curves through town toward the south and McConnico in the Sacramento Valley. The four-lane highway parallel with the railroad is Route 66, or Andy Devine Avenue. At the lower right corner, Route 66 is turning north to pass by the former site of the airbase and storage depot. Highway 93 is heading through the Cerbat range toward Hoover Dam in upper center.

Kingman continued to grow as traffic increased on Route 66 and Highway 93 after the war. The county seat benefited from the construction of Davis Dam (1942-1953) and postwar development of retirement and recreational communities at Lake Havasu City, Golden Shores and Bullhead City. Duval Corporation opened a copper mine in 1959 northwest of Kingman. Though it discontinued operations in 1981, it reopened last year. The population of Kingman nearly doubled during the 1990s and is now almost 28,000.

See also:
Luis & Paula Vega, 4 Wheel Drive Roads of Mohave County, Arizona (2000) One of the best books on the area in recent years, it goes beyond a focus on geology and mining to explain a lot of geography and history.

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