Winslow: The Meteor City
Is Still In Motion
In 1876, the LDS church called missionary families to colonize the relatively unpopulated Little Colorado River valley in northeastern Arizona. They were to establish towns along a transportation corridor down the eastern part of the territory all the way into Mexico, along what would come to be called the Honeymoon Trail because so many of the colonists married just before setting out on their journey. Making the perilous crossing of the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, wagon trains forded the Little Colorado at Sunset Crossing, before the stream plunged into a deep gorge on its way to the Grand Canyon.
Two of the first four groups settled at the crossing, where they made Smith’s Camp and Ballinger’s Camp, named after their leaders. The others made Lake’s Camp and Allen’s Camp farther upstream. They were directed by church leaders to build forts for protection and they were skilled at placing brush dams across the river and running ditches to irrigate fields. The importance of cooperation to efficient agriculture and a desire to maintain discipline in the wilds of eastern Arizona must have convinced many of these settlers to follow the communal lifestyle known as the United Order. Life in the forts would require shared work. They enjoyed private sleeping quarters but ate meals in a common dining room. United Order communities adopted a communist economy, without ownership of animals, tools, furnishings or housing. The community at Lakes’ Camp was named Obed, while those in Smith’s Camp called their place Sunset City (USPO “Sunset”). Two years later, Ballinger’s Camp was named Brigham City and Allen’s Camp became St. Joseph (later Joseph City).
But the harsh environment, which included strong winds, alternating drought and flood, and alkali soil, led to the failure of three of the four communities within five years. Brigham City was abandoned in 1881, while Sunset survived until early 1887. The United Order failed too. It was dependent upon free public land, it tolerated no dissent and some families desired the full benefit of their individual initiative. When Atlantic and Pacific Railroad construction crews reached Sunset Crossing toward the end of 1881, they could stay in the abandoned Brigham City fort until a town was built closer to the tracks. The railroad named the new town Winslow, after a former president of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, which had partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to bankroll the A & P.
Note how Brigham City was located on the west side of the river in Section 18 (on the east side of the present day golf course). Sunset City was located on the east bank. When section lines were resurveyed, Sunset was found to be in the northwest corner of Section 16. In the 1880s, the A & P rail yard was on the east side of Winslow, putting downtown at the left edge of this map. Clear Creek provided an abundant supply of water, leading the railroad to locate refueling facilities, machine shops, a roundhouse and a housing for workers. Additionally, Winslow was a convenient maintenance point because it was the lowest elevation between the Continental Divide at Gonzales, New Mexico and Arizona Divide at Riordan, Arizona. (Map by David F. Myrick from his book, The Santa Fe Route, (1998), page 19.)
Boys pose for the photographer on a string of coal cars parked on the turning wye that used to run along Campbell Avenue in this photo looking east around 1892. In those days locomotives burned coal mined near Gallup but Winslow would remain a refueling point even after the switch to oil. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (1892), on the NE corner of Winslow Avenue and Front Street has the dark roof (Second St. today, not the Front Street south of tracks). There are two other churches on either side of the Catholic church. Front Street, also called Railroad Avenue and finally Second Street, runs by the churches, past the commercial district, leading to the railroad roundhouse and shops visible at upper right (last white building at right). Today’s First Street is also at right, but only extends two blocks. In the 1890s there were no commercial buildings on the south side of Railroad Avenue, only a wide vacant space extending to the tracks. You can see that at extreme right. The tops of a few stores are visible in front of the plume of smoke coming from the roundhouse. The tracks are out of view to the right. On the south side of the tracks, the A & P provided 13 railroad employee cottages by 1887 (not visible here). The number expanded to 63 by 1891. The cookie-cutter roofs at upper left resemble employee housing and may be some of the newer cottages on the north side. (National Archives and Records Administration photo.)
Railroad Avenue (now Second St.) looking east about 1906, shows two blocks of a basically four block business district. Some of the buildings (from left) are: Winslow Opera House (red brick)—later site of B. P. O. Elks bldg.; Hotel Navajo (whitewashed); news stand, confectionary & post office (dark parapet); men’s clothing store, then a plumbing supply (greenish); drugstore (yellow); Babbit Brothers Mercantile with Masonic Hall above (red); Star Grocery with Knights of Pithias above (white); and then Williamson Avenue. The Arizona Central Hotel (1885), first business in Winslow, is the two-story white building near the end of the next block. Then comes the railroad shop attached to the roundhouse (red) blocking the street at far right. The LaPrade family owned the Opera House with Holbrook druggist Frank Wattron (1861-1905) as partner. There was also a jeweler and tailor shop at the front of the building.
The eastside roundhouse and machine shops completely burned in 1895 but were rebuilt. The A & P Railroad went bankrupt and was reborn in 1897 as the Santa Fe Pacific Railway under Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe control. The ATSF purchased Santa Fe Pacific railroad property in 1902, adding it to the Santa Fe System. Then in 1913, the Santa Fe Railway began a major expansion on the west side of Winslow that included a new roundhouse, machine shop and power plant as shown here. The east side facilities were then demolished. This roundhouse lasted until recently. The correspondent who mailed the postcard in 1918 wrote on the front, “The train shoke [shook] so much I can’t write very good.”
Santa Fe Train No. 7, shown here about 1910, was a westbound fast mail and express from Chicago to Los Angeles (No. 8 was the eastbound fast mail). Double-headed to maintain speed on the steep grades in New Mexico and Arizona, it pulls a long string of express cars, followed by passenger coaches. This view looks east from a point near the railroad hospital (constructed 1902). The combination depot, Harvey House hotel and restaurant building is at right. The employee reading room (see below) is out of view behind the trees at right, within the fence. Fred Harvey (1835-1901) contracted with the A & P and the Santa Fe Railway to provide “eating houses” along the line, later attached to hotels. The first was at Topeka, Kansas, staffed by iconic “Harvey girls.” There were Harvey House hotel/restaurants in Arizona at Winslow, Williams, Grand Canyon, Ash Fork, and Seligman, with an eating house at Kingman and a café on Route 66 overlooking the Painted Desert.
The Glessner family of Minnesota preserved some postcards from an ancestor’s March 1929 trip on the Santa Fe through Winslow and have made them available on the internet. Grandpa Harry wrote on this Fred Harvey published Phostint card, “This is the ‘old noise’ hotel. They are going to build the biggest & best of all on the other side of the track.” A Fred Harvey eating house opened temporarily in boxcars in Holbrook then relocated to Winslow in 1887. It was replaced in 1897 with a larger hotel and restaurant. That building was gutted by fire in 1914 but rebuilt and enlarged as shown here. Construction began in 1929 on La Posada depot, restaurant and hotel on the north side of the tracks. But even after La Posada opened, this building survived for many years. It’s gone now, but Winslow has a Harvey girls group that interprets the atmosphere of that era for visitors.
Patterned after Women’s Christian Temperance Union reading rooms, the Santa Fe System established similar rooms for employees in 1889 as a recreational alternative to billiard rooms and roulette tables in saloons. The reading rooms were closed during the recession that began in 1893, which soon led to both the A & P and ATSF railroads filing for bankruptcy protection. Widely praised for their positive effects on morality, reading rooms reopened as the railroads emerged from receivership in 1896. There were 23 reading rooms by 1901. In 1913 there were 13 rooms and five combined reading rooms and clubhouses costing $50,000 a year to maintain. This building was constructed in 1903 at a cost of $20,000. I don’t know how long it stayed open, but the one in Belen, New Mexico closed in 1980. The building with the orange roof visible through the trees is the railroad hospital.
When La Posada Hotel opened 15 May 1930 the economy had just crashed and it was the last of the Harvey House hotels built in the grand style. The attached passenger depot is just out of view at right. Fred Harvey architect and interior designer Mary Colter (1869-1958) chose a Spanish-Mediterranean design, which had replaced the mission style in popularity. She created a mythical history for the building as a Spanish hacienda, furnishing the 70 rooms and five suites with antique and replica furniture. Throughout the hotel, dining room, lunchroom and train station, every detail from reverent statues of patron saints to whimsical jackrabbit ashtrays stimulated the emotional experience of guests. But after rail passenger traffic began to falter, La Posada closed in 1957 and the furnishings were auctioned off in 1959. An east wing was remodeled to serve as Santa Fe Railway offices for the Albuquerque-Winslow Division. When the railroad announced in 1994 that it would leave, Allen Affeldt and Tina Mion purchased the building and began a restoration 1997-1999. The railroad decided to stay and the hotel and restaurant reopened. The original exterior had been painted light pink, but it is now beige, closer to the color on this Fred Harvey postcard issued in 1937.
The Santa Fe Railway began running diesel electric freight locomotives in 1941 and picked Winslow as a diesel service point. At the time “Winslow was a cowtown of 3500, shopping center for Navajos and Hopis and jumping-off place for tourists who had read the ads about the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest (p.44, Roderick M. Grant, “The Navajos Call It ‘Lightning Wagon,’” Popular Mechanics, Sept. 1945.) Then, servicing nearly 80 of the General Motors built units, which made the trip from LA to Chicago at 60 mph in 41-and-a-half hours, doubled the population, making Winslow “Diesel Capital of the World” according to the railroad. Wartime traffic had a train arriving or leaving every 12 minutes. But after World War II a dispute with city government over expansion of Santa Fe shops persuaded the railroad to move its diesel service to Barstow.
Cross-country automobile and air transportation offered competition for trains beginning in the 1920s, and Winslow was in a good position to capitalize on both new forms of traffic. Local druggist and lawyer, Grover Cleveland Bazell (1889-1938), established a Buick dealership in 1921 and then Bazell Camp Ground for tourists at 800 West Second Street. Extensively remodeled in 1950, it became Bazell Modern Court. It closed many years ago and is now a private residence. Besides Bazell’s, earliest auto courts in town included Drumm’s Auto Court, Union Auto Court and West End Tourist Camp.
Route 66 was not a fun highway in years past. In the hot August of 1926, a traveler wrote home to Oklahoma on a postcard showing Winslow’s Second Street, “Here we are down the street a block in a garage getting a piston rod fixed. It burned out ours. We have had five punctures [in tires]. I bought a frosted Coca-Cola yesterday in this drug store, and they soaked me two bits for it. Across the street a soda only cost $ .15.” Coca-Cola in a 6-ounce bottle usually sold for 5-cents at the time. The garage was likely Bazell Motor Company, where the Dodge dealership used to be in the 1960s. Even after paving 1932-1937, in most places US Highway 66 was a narrow two-lane, dangerous highway. Some in Missouri called it “Bloody 66.” At one time, one in seven highway accidents in Arizona occurred on Route 66.
Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona was popular even back when Burton Frasher of Pomona made this photo about 1941. That’s Frasher’s car at the curb. The city street is carrying thru traffic on Route 66. Winslow Drug Company, the Walgreen Agency at 100 W. Second Street, had recently moved closer to the corner. To the west are the J. C. Penney and Babbitt’s Hardware stores. St. Joseph Catholic Church, rebuilt in stone with a tall steeple, is visible two blocks away. On the south side of the street you can see the neon sign for Bruchman’s Indian Curios. R. M. Bruchman (1880-1986) established an Indian crafts business in 1909 and opened his store at 113 W. Second in 1921. It closed in 1996. The Walgreen drugstore on the NW corner of Second and Kinsley was demolished and is now the site of Standing on the Corner Park. The J. C. Penney building burned in 2004, but the east wall with its mural was saved.
Moving almost a block east on Second Street, Frasher took this photo about the same time as above. This is the same block of buildings shown on the circa 1906 postcard above, only looking in the opposite direction. Down at the intersection with Kinsley is Central Drug Company, the Rexall store across the street from the Walgreens Agency, in the building built in 1912 for the Elks club on the site of the Opera House. Moving east is the Palace Hotel (formerly Navajo Hotel), then Quality Bakery (former newsstand), Grand Café, Chief Theater, White Café (in the former Babbitt Bro. bldg.), Skylark Cocktails, National Café and Sprouse-Reitz 5-10-15-cent Store (in 1916 Old Trails Garage bldg.). Many of these buildings have survived. The Chief Theater was torn down.
While America improved cross-country highways it also began building a transcontinental airline industry. Hardly rested from his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh flew into Winslow the following year to select a site and design an airport for his new airline, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT, became TWA, “The Lindbergh Line”). Passengers traveling from New York to LA over two days would fly in the clouds all day but sleep on a speeding train at night. TAT constructed Winslow Barrigan Airport and beginning 7 July 1929, Ford Tri-Motors from Clovis, New Mexico stopped there for 15-minutes on the way to Los Angeles. The first airmail flight out of Winslow soon followed, on October 25, 1930. Twin-engine DC-3s, as pictured here, were used by 1936. And by 1948, when this photo was made, Winslow was still a busy maintenance site for TWA, one of its interstate hubs. But TWA was already adding bigger planes with much longer range. The airline gave the airport to the City in 1941, making it Winslow Municipal Airport. Today, its name reflects its history: Winslow-Lindbergh Regional Airport (INW). Frontier Airlines replaced TWA at Winslow in 1950. SkyWest Airlines began service at Winslow in 1978. Though all airline service ceased in the 1980s, the hangar is still used for private planes. In addition, the forest service has a strategic slurry bomber base at INW. Winslow’s largest ethnic minority has long been a number of Hispanic families, followed in number by American Indians. Historic Hispanic neighborhoods were South Side, and Coopertown, located south of the tracks and just north of the airport.
At an elevation slightly over 4,800 feet (USGS 1986), Winslow is at the lowest elevation on the Colorado Plateau in Arizona. Consequently, it has long been subject to flooding from the nearby river. The greatest flood came September 17-18, 1923, when the maximum river flow ever recorded at Holbrook was nearly three times that of other floods. The river overtopped its banks again in 1927 and on August 3, 1959 caused $25,000 in damages at Winslow. The flood of August 1964 put water in many streets and even flooded the airport according to a government map. A levee protecting Bushman Acres on the northeast side broke in December 1978 and several neighborhoods were inundated. That flood hampered construction of the new I-40 bridge across the river.
Motel Town House, at 1914 W. Third Street, remained close enough to the west freeway exit to survive after I-40 bypassed Winslow to the north. And it’s still in business as a TraveLodge. But many other Mid-Century Modern design motels are a thing of the past. Post-Modern design motels are now clustered around North Park Exit. This postcard by Petley Studios of Phoenix shows the 56-room hostelry about 1960. Vacationers found Winslow, “The Meteor City,” a comfortable stay while visiting the impact crater 25 miles west or the Hopi pueblos 70 miles north. Recently, city leaders switched the catch phrase from “Meteor City” to “A city in motion,” referring to the transportation economy. The idea is to “move forward,” while still “cherishing the past.”
As in Ash Fork and Williams, Route 66 was split through downtown Winslow, with eastbound traffic on Second Street (right of center) and westbound on Third. It’s easy to trace the highway in this Agfachrome aerial photo looking east, made by Bob Petley in the 1960s. The roundhouse is out of view under the tail of Petley’s airplane. The tall, white water tank (at right) is in the middle of the turning wye where it leaves the rail yard. La Posada is located in the trees near the other water tank. Navajo Ice & Cold Storage Company plant is visible at lower right. The icing platform with icing machine lines a side track. Under a 1904 contract with the railroad, A. P. Maginnis (1848-1911) of Los Angeles built an ice plant to supply rail refrigerator cars and electricity to the town. Rail cars switched to mechanical refrigeration by the 1960s and the ice plant is no longer there. The Little Colorado River runs across the top of the postcard. Bushman Acres is at top left.
Winslow enjoyed the largest population in northern Arizona from 1900 until 1950. It was the most populous community in Navajo County until passed by Show Low in the last five years. But Winslow’s transportation based economy could no longer offer widespread prosperity by 1970, leaving a large population of low-income families with difficulty finding affordable housing. A BVD T-shirt factory at Hopi Industrial Park only lasted from 1969 to 1975. Workers there had a choice of daily driving 140 miles to and from the Hopi pueblos or paying for housing in Winslow. Interstate-40 bypassed the downtown in 1979 and shortly afterward the railroad began cutting back operations. There were more than 950 railroad employees in town in 1970 but only about 500 in 2004. Winslow got the state legislature to open a medium security prison in 1986 that would eventually employ 500 workers by 2004. In 1958, there had been two sawmills in Winslow cutting logs from the nearby mountains, the Nagel mill in operation since November 1942 and Gallagher mill operating since 1950. Duke City Lumber Co. acquired the Gallagher mill in 1958. Precision Pine purchased from Duke City in 1991 but closed the sawmill eight years later.
Winslow has faced few options. Despite access to transportation, attracting factories hasn’t panned out. From its founding, Winslow benefited from large nearby cattle ranches, recently supporting as many as 100 jobs. Shopping still brings American Indian families for the day. But like many rural Arizona towns, government is the biggest employer, largely at schools and the prison. With a need to once again promote tourism, on historic Route 66 this time, the La Posada Foundation dedicated Standing on the Corner Park 11 September 1999. The park is a tribute to the 1972 song “Take It Easy,” sung by the Eagles. They even keep a flatbed Ford parked at the curb. Just as Mormon farmers found, prosperity won’t come easy in today’s economy either, but maybe preserving history can keep Winslow in motion rather than left standing on a corner.
Arizona Dept. of Commerce, Economy of Winslow, (2008)
William Patrick Armstrong, Fred Harvey, (2000)
Center for Desert Archaeology, Archaeology Southwest, Spring 2005, several articles on Mormon settlements at Winslow.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Flood Insurance Study of Navajo County, (2003)
Virginia L. Grattan, Mary Colter, (1992)
Janice Griffith, “La Posada Catered to Route 66 & Santa Fe Crowd,” Route 66 Magazine, Winter 1993-1994
Ann Patterson & Mark Vinson, Landmark Buildings, (2004)
Charles S. Peterson, Take Up Your Mission, (1973)
Joe Sonderman, Route 66 in Arizona, (2010)
Michael Karl Witzel & Gyrel Young-Witzel, Legendary Route 66: A Journey Through Time Along America’s Mother Road, (2007)