Before railroads, slow 20-mule team freight wagons jarred cargo over rocky trails or got stuck in the mud. Remote villages or mining camps often had to transport building materials, supplies and even water on burros. Railroads offered convenience and thereby transformed Arizona Territory. When transportation of heavy products en mass was required, say, tons of copper ore, heavy machinery or building stones, railroads made the task easy and profitable. The speed of rail transportation provided pleasurable travel over great distance and made it possible to rush fruits and vegetables to market before spoilage or transport cattle without great loss of weight. The only difficulty was raising capital to build a rail line and then providing revenue without a concentration of population.
The first railroad to reach Arizona entered in May of 1877 at Yuma. Federal government red tape delayed use of the line at first, but a Southern Pacific Railroad engine finally snuck across the river under cover of darkness on the morning of September 30, 1877. Congress then tried to delay further construction by giving the Texas & Pacific Railroad an exclusive franchise to build across southern Arizona. The bill didn’t pass and the Southern Pacific reached a business agreement with the Texas & Pacific. A year after entering the territory, the Southern Pacific of Arizona Railroad was formed as a subsidiary of the SP and construction resumed in November 1878.
The Southern Pacific crossed the Colorado River and ran down the middle of Madison Avenue in Yuma. The Texas & Pacific Railroad had dibs on the best location for a bridge, between Fort Yuma and Prison Hills, but hadn’t begun to lay rails when the Southern Pacific reached Yuma in 1877. The SP’s first wooden bridge was damaged by flood in 1884 and destroyed by fire the following year. A replacement wooden bridge survived the flood of 1891 but was eventually replaced in stages from 1895-1899 by a stronger steel structure seen here about 1912. Foot traffic also used the bridge, while wagons and automobiles crossed the river on a ferry until 1915. That year a steel highway bridge was placed between the two hills and the single-span railroad bridge still in use joined it in 1923. The bridge pictured here was then dismantled for scrap.
After bridging the Colorado River at Yuma, the Southern Pacific Railroad had relatively easy going across southern Arizona. Staying south of the Gila River, Maricopa Wells offered an abundant water supply for thirsty steam locomotives headed for Tucson. By the time this photo was made, about 1910, passengers could switch trains at Maricopa station and head for Phoenix on the Phoenix & Eastern Railroad, crossing the Gila and then the Salt River at Tempe.
Improvements in track and signals allowed trains to run as fast as 70-90 miles an hour by 1940. This Southern Pacific fast freight is transporting livestock. Through various business maneuvers the SP came to own most of the track in southern Arizona by 1955. But the company fell on hard times and was purchased by the Rio Grande in 1988 and then taken over by the Union Pacific in 1996.
While the SP of Arizona spanned the southern territory by 1881, the Atlantic and Pacific crossed the northern plateau region by 1883. The Atlantic & Pacific was backed by a partnership between the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the St. Louis & San Francisco (Frisco). Only two rail enterprises would build most of the lines in the territory under various subsidiaries. Mining and lumber companies built most of the other railroads in Arizona.
The second transcontinental rail line to cross the territory entered northern Arizona from New Mexico in 1880. The first major obstacle was Canyon Diablo west of Winslow. Bridging the chasm held up progress for six months. This fragile structure nearly 600 feet long carried trains more than 200 feet above the normally dry stream until it was replaced by a stronger bridge in 1900 and finally the present structure in 1947. This view from about 1888 shows a typical Atlantic & Pacific Railroad passenger train of that time, short and slow. But traveling at 15-35 mph in the 1880s was much faster than by any other means.
The Atlantic & Pacific had to build across the mountainous terrain with difficulty, winding down Johnson Canyon between Williams and Ash Fork in order to come down off the Colorado Plateau. One tunnel, 328 feet in length was necessary, followed by two steel bridges. In this view from about 1909, the California Limited of A&P’s successor, the Santa Fe Railway, chugs slowly uphill, headed east toward Williams. Beginning in 1912 the line was double-tracked and the second track bypassed Johnson Canyon to the north. Thereafter, only westbound trains used the tunnel, coasting downhill toward Ash Fork. The bypass was double-tracked in 1960 and the line through the tunnel abandoned.
Today, most of the track in Arizona is still owned by only two huge companies. There are a handful of small general carrier lines still operating, and a number of short industrial and excursion lines. But rail service by these smaller companies is contracting. Several lines have recently halted operations. And between 1990 and 2008 many miles of track were taken up. Statistics conflict depending upon whether you count only “route miles” or add miles of double track, sidings and yard track, but Arizona now has about 1,900 route miles, of which 1,300 miles are owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific companies.
Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine built the Arizona & Southwestern railroad 36 miles to Fairbank (west of Tombstone) in 1888-1889 and connected with the SPRR at Benson five years later. After Phelps-Dodge acquired the mine, it recreated the railroad as the El Paso & Southwestern in 1901, building to Douglas that year and El Paso the next. This wooden depot was replaced in 1913 by a grand structure that still stands. The EP&SW was acquired by the SPRR in 1924. The name was dropped in 1955 and service ceased by the end of 1961. The tracks were taken up beginning in 1963 and the depot is now home to the Douglas police department.
<I>A Gila Valley, Globe & Northern mixed consist has stopped for its portrait December 1, 1898, the first train over the new line to Globe. There is a combination express and passenger car on the end. Like most Arizona short lines years ago, the railroad from Bowie to Globe and Miami offered passenger, express and general freight service in addition to its primary function transporting ore and copper. The GV,G&N eventually became part of the Southern Pacific Golden Empire, then was sold in 1988 to once again carry the Arizona Eastern name. It is currently a general carrier owned by Iowa Pacific Holdings. (colorized Arizona State University Library photo) </I>
On the Morenci Southern Railroad tracks had to quickly drop in elevation south of Morenci and it was necessary to make five big loops and pass through three tunnels. The train pictured around 1902 is heading south and will soon be on the track seen down in the gulch to pass under the trestle it is on at present. From 1900 to 1922 the narrow-gauge line ran 18 miles from Morenci to Guthrie where it connected with the Arizona and New Mexico Railroad.
The Magma Arizona railroad, built in 1915, connected the Arizona Eastern Railroad at a point NW of Florence with the Magma Copper mine at Superior. It was the last industrial shortline in the US to use steam power. Locomotive No. 5, seen here in the 1960s, had been acquired new and made scheduled runs until 1967. It was last used in 1971 during the filming of the movie How The West Was Won. The Magma Arizona line has been mothballed since 1995.
Three Flagstaff sawmills once operated logging railroads. In addition, sawmills at Williams, Standard (west of Show Low) and McNary operated their own railroads. All these lines are now gone, replaced by log trucks, except the Apache Railroad (see below). This photograph shows a Southwest Forest Industries train shortly after World War Two when steam locomotives and a steam powered loader were still in use.
Apache Railway locomotives 100 and 200 haul a load of logs to the Southwest Forest sawmill at McNary about 1960. The Fairbanks-Morse H10-44 yard switchers were built in 1947. Though the sawmill closed more than 30 years ago, the Apache Railway is still busy connecting a paper mill west of Snowflake with the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe main line at Holbrook.
ADOT, 1978 Arizona State Rail Plan
ADOT, State of Arizona 2007 Railroad Inventory and Assessment
David F. Myrick, Railroads of Arizona series, five volumes 1975-2001.
John W. Sayre, Ghost Railroads and Ghost Towns of Central Arizona (1985)
Russell Wahman, The Historical Geography of the Santa Fe Railroad In Northern Arizona (1971)
Russell Wahman, Narrow Gauge To Jerome(1983)
History never lies! Great article! Thank God they've built the railway. It has helped a lot to human progress not only in Arizona, but in the whole world.
I agree. Will the small roads in Arizona continue?