Arizona Highways Were Built by the Numbers

 Arizona highways

A modern roads movement took hold of the US in the 1890s as a stimulus to expand corporate sales far beyond local markets and provide farm produce to growing cities.  Roads that were built or begun with private funding often were finished or maintained by the government.  The best roads during this era were in cities, paved and maintained with municipal funds.  County government built and maintained wagon roads connecting communities, sometimes with state subsidies.  Then state highway departments were created.  Starting with corporate sponsorship matched by local funding, the good roads movement would eventually evolve into a system of federal highways. 


Throughout history the federal government has generally funded rather than constructed roads.  But it was the US Army that built the first long distance highways in Arizona Territory beginning in the 1870s.  Cooke’s Wagon Road was built for the California expedition of 1846 and located an easier route for the Gila Trail.  The Beale Wagon Road (1856-1857) was mentioned in the histories of Flagstaff and Kingman on this blog.  The Reno Road was used by the military from 1868 until 1870 between Camp McDowell and Camp Reno.  General George Stoneman lent his name to the Stoneman Grade that afforded passage over the Mogollon Rim.  And General George Crook had his troops build the Crook Trail from Camp Verde to Fort Apache in 1872.


Army wife Martha Summerhayes described an 1874 journey in the most comfortable vehicle in the military livery, a wagon type widely used for cross-country travel by both military and private parties.  “It did not surprise us to learn that ours was the first wagon-train to pass over Crook’s Trail.  For miles and miles the so-called road was nothing but a clearing, and we were pitched and jerked from side to side of the ambulance, as we struck large rocks or tree stumps; in some steep places, logs were chained to the rear of the ambulance, to keep it from pitching forward onto the backs of the mules.  At such places, I got out and picked my way down the rocky declivity.” (Vanished Arizona, pp.66-69 of the 1979 edition)  Traveling Arizona roads would long remain an adventure.

 burro trainMining camps went where the ore was but still required transport of supplies to remote canyons.  The ubiquitous burro hauled almost anything needed, then returned with sacks of ore for concentration and smelting.  The animals needed no road and required no expensive upkeep.  This artificially colored postcard published by the Benham Company of Los Angeles about 1910 depicts a group of donkeys, facetiously called “An Arizona Freight Train.” The card was mailed from Kingman with a personal note on the back, continued onto the front.  Until March 1, 1907, the Post Office required any message on a postcard be written on the front in order to qualify for the one-penny rate and these early cards sometimes provided space for text next to the picture.  But correspondents often wrote on the picture.  Here the postcard artist gave a rust color to the corrugated metal sheets, like those commonly seen on old buildings.  I bet they were actually shiny silver-colored, new sheets.  Hopefully, the carpenter was happy with the condition of the 1 X 12 boards after having been dragged in the dirt.  Larger mines required wagon trains, two or three heavy freight wagons linked together and pulled by teams of 20 or more mules.

Apache TrailThe federal government had to build an improved highway from both Mesa and Globe to the Roosevelt dam site in 1904 (see the Roosevelt history on this blog).  It was called the Apache Trail, a brand name to attract tourists.  For almost 20 years it was the only way to drive between Phoenix and Globe and it became part of the cross-country route named Lee Highway.  This looks like the ascent out of Fish Creek Canyon, heading west toward Mesa (now Apache Junction).  Since the Roosevelt cement mill supplied the work at Granite Reef Dam in 1908, this may be a load of cement.  Here a dozen mules pull a single wagon, dragging a safety device between the rear wheels that would dig in and prevent roll back if needed.  The road was very narrow before much effort and expense was expended in widening and realigning. 


The first territorial legislature authorized and taxed a number of private toll road companies.  Then in 1866, following common practice in many states, the legislature shifted the responsibility for road construction to county government.  But counties did not build efficient long distance routes and the needs of the automobile demanded expensive designs beyond the means of county coffers.  The first automobile owned in Arizona reportedly arrived in 1900 but the following year there were 20.  By 1913 Phoenix was home to 17 automobile dealers and 646 cars were registered in Maricopa County alone.  The motor car quickly came to dominate Arizona. 


The Office of Territorial Engineer, responsible for a highway department, was created in 1909.  By 1912, 1,500 miles of state highway had been designated.  Repair of the washed out Gila River Bridge at Florence was the first project funded by the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916.  The first state highway maintenance engineer went to work in 1920.  By then, the Arizona Highway Department employed more workers than all other state agencies combined.  Still, there were complaints of lost jobs due to extensive use of prison labor on new construction.  In a state known for big railroad and mining operations, the highway department had become the leading employer of engineers, maintained the largest fleet of trucks and purchased the most explosives.  Arizona instituted its first state gas tax to pay for roads in 1921, followed by the first state drivers licenses in 1925 and the first state issued roadmap in 1926.  The following year, the Office of State Engineer was replaced by the Arizona State Highway Department.

 Senator HighwayBased on photos held by Sharlot Hall Museum this postcard appears to show a 1912 Yavapai Board of Supervisors tour of the Senator Highway.  The publicity probably stimulated the first state legislature to appropriate funds for improvement of the route from Prescott to Crown King.  The Senator Highway was Arizona’s first toll road, constructed 1866-1867 as part of the Prescott-Lynx Creek Toll Road.  It was named for the Senator Mine, in turn likely named for two Arizona politicians and mine investors who hoped to become US senators.  It was extended over the years until it eventually reached Crown King by the end of the 1880s.  Originally constructed with private funding, the road became a state highway in 1912 and was reconstructed over the following two years.  At the time it was meant to connect with Phoenix, and it did on some maps but through very difficult terrain, usually via Bumble Bee.  Prescott boosters turned to an alternative route in 1923, the White Spar Highway, built with US Forest Service funding.  To the west of the Senator Highway, the route from Prescott to the White Spar Mine continued via Yarnell Hill to Wickenburg and finally Phoenix, soon earning the designation US 89.  Paved to Groom Creek in 1941, the Senator Highway survived as part of another federal highway system, as Prescott National Forest Road 52.


Between 1909 and 1920, state highways were developed along three east-west routes and one running north and south.  Those four highways across Arizona would become federal routes 66, 70, 80 and 89.  (Refer to the highway map of Arizona on the maps page of this blog).  Much later, the Interstate system would replace US 66 with I-40, US 70 with I-10, US 80 with I-8 and I-17 would become the principle north-south route.  Two additional north-south routes would be developed, US 95 running up and down the border with California and Nevada and US 666 (now 191) not far from New Mexico.  US 60 came later, crossing the middle of Arizona from Ehrenberg to Wickenburg to Phoenix to Globe to Show Low and Springerville, combined with other highways for much of the way.

 Phoenix-Tempe HighwayDuring 1914-1915 the Phoenix-Tempe Highway was improved to meet the demands of automobile traffic.  Wagons and automobiles had to cross the Salt River on Hayden’s ferry until a bridge on Central Avenue was built in 1911.  The route along Van Buren Street again became popular after the bridge at Ash Avenue in Tempe opened in 1913.  The road was paved with concrete in 1920 and eventually carried US 60, 70, 80 and 89 to Phoenix.  A Ford Model T touring car is shown zipping across the Maricopa Canal on the way to Phoenix in this Arizona highway department photo from 1914.  The canal used to cross Van Buren at the angle pictured, where 32nd Street now crosses.  But 32nd Street wasn’t there yet in 1914.  Instead there was a road that followed the west bank of the canal, seen in the foreground in this view looking east.  Over the years, the canal was realigned and finally eliminated.  Today this spot is an urban intersection.  One hundred and forty-five years ago it was the location of the first Phoenix settlement.  Swilling’s “castle” was about a half-mile east and the Maricopa Canal was one of the earliest in the valley, finished in 1870.


Locating water sources for the US Geological Survey along remote roads across southwestern Arizona 1917-1921, Kirk Bryan described the conditions that characterized Arizona highways at that time.  “Except in the vicinity of towns little has been done to improve the roads of southern Arizona.  They are usually only natural highways where first one and then another traveler has made his way across the country with good or ill fortune.”  But on the wide plains, “stretches can be found where an automobile can make 40 miles an hour without trouble.” (p. 258, The Papago Country, USGS Water-Supply Paper 499, 1925)

 Navajo BridgeThe canyons of the Colorado River isolated from the rest of the state Littlefield, Arizona and the Arizona Strip with its access to the Kaibab National Forest and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  From 1872 until 1928 the only crossing of the Colorado from the Strip was on a dangerous ferryboat at Lee’s Ferry.  Travel to this part of Arizona was so hindered that state officials took days to make the trip from Flagstaff to Fredonia in 1914.  The three men and a driver found the 10-foot wide “dugway” down to the ferry nearly washed out and had to blast a boulder in the way with explosives.  Their Ford Model T finally broke down along the Vermillion Cliffs and they walked 31 miles over two days to reach Jacob Lake, where they took horses on to Fredonia.  Using federal funds appropriated for the Navajo people, work on the steel arch bridge shown on this postcard began in June 1927.  But before it could be completed the ferryboat capsized in high water June 7, 1928, drowning the three men on board, one of whom was the ferry operator.  The auto and boat were lost too, and motorists had to wait until Grand Canyon Bridge opened for traffic January 12, 1929.  The state legislature renamed it “Navajo Bridge” and it was dedicated that June.  It’s still there.  Spanning Marble Canyon on US 89 from Nogales to Prescott to Fredonia, at 467 feet above the surface of the Colorado River the arched deck-truss was one of the highest highway bridges in the world.  A twin bridge with a wider roadway was built in 1995 next to the older span, which was then assigned to pedestrian use as a historical artifact.

 Gillespie Dam BridgeThe Old Spanish Trail had to cross the Gila River in order to get to Arizona’s capital and largest city.  At first the route crossed at Antelope Hill east of Wellton on a long concrete bridge, then continued on to Phoenix by way of Texas Hill, Agua Caliente and Arlington.  But the bridge washed out in 1916, only a year after it was built, and drivers started favoring a route through Gila Bend.  After Gillespie Dam was built in 1921, motorists found they could cross the Gila on the dam’s concrete overflow apron as long as the water level permitted.  In 1926, the state highway department erected this steel through-truss bridge.  It carried all Highway 80 traffic until a 1956 realignment bypassed Arlington.  The dam now has a big hole in it from the January 1993 flood, but the bridge is still maintained by Maricopa County.  Harry Herz of Phoenix published this “CT [Curt Teich] American Art Colored” postcard, postmarked in 1929.

 Claypool TunnelBuilding through the rugged canyons between Superior and Miami provided an alternate to taking the Apache Trail from Phoenix to Globe, but it would cost a million dollars.  Like the Apache Trail, the route followed an old Indian footpath.  Queen Creek Canyon required a 200-foot tunnel, called Claypool Tunnel, named for the junction with the Apache Trail between Globe and Miami.  Construction began in 1919 and was completed by 1921.  In 1926 the Route became part of US 180 at a time when US 70 ran from Holbrook to Springerville.  In the early 1930s it was Routes US 180 and US 60 combined.  By 1939 US 70 had relocated and the Superior-Miami highway became US 60 and 70 combined.  For another million dollars the one lane tunnel was replaced in 1952 by Queen Creek Tunnel, a lighted, two-lane passage higher on the same rock formation.  This illustration was cropped from an un-attributed “real photo postcard” mailed from Globe in 1945.

 Hwy60 near WickenburgWhen the American Association of State Highway Officials proposed numbered highways in an October 1925 report, US 60 was conceived as a Chicago to Los Angeles crescent-shaped route.  But several eastern states pointed out that the new numbering plan gave two-digit numbers ending in zero only to cross-country highways.  After considerable juggling of numbers the Chicago-LA route became US 66 and US 60 went from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri with its western extension remaining to be built.  In 1931, AASHO approved the completion of US 60 to LA and moved US 70 to the south.  This brought federal funding to improve the section of US 60/70/89 shown here, running east of the Hassayampa River south of Wickenburg.  L. L. Cook Company of Milwaukee issued the “real-photo postcard” about 1940.

 Salt River CanyonLeaving Globe, Highway 60 had to blaze a new route to Show Low as an alternative to the old road from Rice to Fort Apache and McNary (SR 73).  Completely new construction also left Show Low to connect with the former National Old Trails Road (Highway 70, later 260, then 180 & 666, now 180 & 191) at Springerville and then continue into New Mexico.  For a time in the late 1930s SR 73 was also designated Temporary US 60.  The major obstacle between Globe and Show Low was the Salt River, tumbling over rapids in a steep canyon on the way to Roosevelt Lake.  The result is shown in this postcard view looking south at US 60 switchbacks descending to William A. Sullivan Bridge (1934) across the Salt (lower right).  Upon leaving the river, the road loops around a gas station with some tourist cabins out back, named over the years I. R. “Rex” Graham’s Jimana Inn or simply Canyon Inn.  There are more switchbacks climbing out of the canyon and a route across smaller canyons through the forest to Show Low.  Construction was accomplished from 1931 to 1936.


Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, development of long distance trucking, passenger bus service and automobile tourism continued in the 1930s.  Those industries greatly benefited from federal highway improvements designed to stimulate employment.  All primary state highways were oiled or paved by 1937 and Route 66 from Topock to Gallup became the first completely hard surfaced highway across Arizona in 1938, paved with either asphalt or concrete.  Tucson’s Miracle Mile on the way to Florence became the state’s first divided highway in 1941.

 US 70 west of SalomeWorld War Two production demands reduced tourist traffic on Arizona highways but greatly increased use by trucks, as shown in this view west of Salome on US 70 in 1943.  At the time there were 2,303 miles of federal highways in Arizona, 1,376 miles of state routes, 15,285 miles of county roads, 3,632 miles in national forests, parks and monuments, 5,926 miles on Indian reservations and 1,033 miles in cities.  In those days, Highway 70 crossed Arizona combined with Highway 60 from Ehrenburg to Quartzsite to Salome and Wickenburg.  There the two routes joined US 89 from Prescott to continue to Phoenix, entering the capital on Grand Avenue.  On Van Buren Street 60, 70 and 89 joined with Highway 80 on the way to Tempe and east.  At Florence Junction, Highways 80 and 89 went south to Tucson via Florence and Oracle Junction while 60 and 70 headed for Superior, Miami and Globe.  At Globe, just as they do today, US 60 went north to Show Low and 70 went east to Safford.  Following World War Two, US 70 could boast 2,926 miles, all paved, from North Carolina to California, or the “Smokies to the Rockies.”  It was also branded “The Hospitality Route,” lined with motels and passing through every capital city of the states along the way.  This photo by Guy Jackson appeared in the July 1943 issue of Arizona Highways magazine (p. 7).


It’s nearly impossible to cross Arizona without climbing over rugged mountain ranges, presenting formidable challenges for highway engineers and motorists.  While there have always been many miles of wide and flat highways in the state, much of its history is a story of difficult passage over mountain trails.  Nell Murbarger (Ghosts of the Adobe Walls, 1964, p. 245-247) braved the corkscrew switchbacks of the Coronado Trail in 1951 with her mother.  “I am told that this is now a splendid road, largely paved, beautifully engineered, and adequately wide.  It was not always so,” observed the younger Murbarger.  After descending the rim for more than 50 miles they came upon a maintenance crew “tearing loose a lot of boulders and heavy roots which still covered the roadbed, along with hub-deep dust.  Grinding along in low gear, lurching, roaring, and floundering, our gallant old Mercury made her way over this rock-and-dust chaos until reaching a stove-sized boulder that even she could not surmount.  As the road was altogether too narrow for us to pass around the boulder on either side, we had no choice but to wait patiently, half an hour or so, until a bulldozer came along and pushed the rock off the edge of the grade.  For almost a full minute we could hear it crashing down the canyonside through the trees and underbrush, bumpity, bumpity, bounce.”

 Coronado TrailThe 124 miles of Coronado Trail between Springerville and Clifton were constructed 1916-1926 and dedicated June 19, 1926.  Difficult as it was, it offered an alternative to an earlier wagon road along the Blue River which was longer and slower.  The new route was the first example of US Forest Service highway construction in Arizona.  By 1939, the Coronado Trail had become part of US 666, so designated because it was originally the sixth branch off US 66.  The final six miles of asphalt paving were completed in the summer of 1962.  After “ghost highway” and “devils highway” legends led to theft of road signs and unsavory publicity, Arizona was granted a request to renumber the route US 191 in June 1992.  L. L. Cook Company of Milwaukee issued this postcard showing a snowy canyon, mailed from Morenci in 1943.  (I have added color to the black and white “real photo postcards” on this blog.) 

 Oak Creek CanyonRanches and farms around Sedona supplied Flagstaff and other towns on the Santa Fe Railway with food, transported by a long round-about journey over the rim on the stage road via Woods Spring and Munds Park, similar to the route taken by I-17 today.  Early in the Twentieth Century two shorter routes were built from Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff using a combination of private and county funding.  Construction in 1901-1902 converted the Munds Trail, blazed about 1896 and climbing the rim out of Bear Wallow Canyon, into a usable wagon road called at first The Verde Cut-Off and later Schnebly Hill Road.  At the same time, work had begun on a road out of upper Oak Creek Canyon.  It was finished from Flagstaff to the confluence of Oak Creek and West Fork by 1906 and then extended down the canyon over the years until a final bridge completed in July 1914 allowed travel from Flagstaff to the Verde Valley.  Rebuilt after a 1918 flood and widened in 1922, the highway was improved 1929-1932 and moved from county to state responsibility as SR 79.  Descending from the canyon rim at upper left, the highway rounds the knoll in the center of this view, going through slushy snow to a hairpin curve out of view at lower left, then returning to another tight curve at upper center, coming down into Sterling Canyon for another curve at lower right and then crossing Pump House Wash on a curved bridge (1931) at upper right.  This alignment, though difficult in winter is still in use, designated US 89A from Prescott to Jerome and Sedona and on to Flagstaff.  Mike Roberts of Berkeley, California issued the Natural Color postcard in the 1950s showings a two and a half mile portion of US 89A dropping nearly 1,000 feet into the canyon.

 Telegraph PassHighway 80, leaving Yuma for Phoenix, went around the Gila Mountains on the north through Dome until the Telegraph Pass cutoff was constructed through the mountains in 1928.  The road was paved in 1931, realigned in 1948 and then replaced by Interstate 8 through the same pass.  Burton Frasher (1888-1955) of Pomona pictured Summit Service Station in Telegraph Pass at least three times in the 1930s and 40s, here about 1941.  There are no services in the pass today.  When US 80 was replaced by I-8 the old alignments through Telegraph Pass were sliced up until little remains.

 Benson overpassThis double underpass structure at the east entrance of Benson, built in 1941-1942, allowed SR 86 from Texas Canyon (replaced by I-10) to pass under the Southern Pacific Railroad and US 80 from Tombstone.  Highway 86 then merged with Highway 80 to follow 4th Street, the main commercial street, through town.  Running 85 miles from Benson to the New Mexico border, SR 86 offered a shortcut to El Paso, but bypassed Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas.  Improving “The Sunset Trail,” as the route was dubbed, drew travelers through northern Cochise County towns and construction of this underpass helped revitalize the transportation economy of Benson.  This view from about 1958 looks west as a billboard urges travelers to turn south after the underpass and visit Tombstone.  The welcome sign lists local service clubs:  Rotary, Lions, American Legion and Alianza Hispano Americana.  The Alianza was a mutual aid society founded in Tucson in 1894 that grew into the biggest and best-known Mexican-American organization in the southwest, offering death benefits to members of 88 chapters by 1919.  By the mid-1960s, however, its financial model had become unsustainable and it disbanded. 


Interstate highways across Arizona were largely constructed between 1963 and 1979.  State highway mileage grew from 3,945 miles in 1951 to 6,800 miles in 2005.  Motorists who now speed along multi-million dollar miles of broad pavement surely give little thought to the difficulties overcome in years past.  Good economic times brought improvements, which were then followed by potholes during hard times.  But all the time, rapid population growth placed great demands on Arizona highways.

Route 66 busHere, a Greyhound bus is pictured heading west between Flagstaff and Williams around 1942 with the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks in the background.  The Model 743 Super-Coach, manufactured exclusively for Greyhound by Yellow Coach of Chicago 1937-1939, pioneered a new design for large busses that moved baggage from the roof to below the floor and placed a diesel engine in the rear with an angled drive shaft to the rear differential.  The design persists today.  (Compare the old-style Greyhound bus at Crozier 7-V Ranch, pictured in the Valentine post on this blog.)  This section, from east of Flagstaff to west of Seligman, was paved with concrete, giving vehicles a durable surface and motorists the monotonous slap-slap of expansion joints.  Known as a hardship highway during the Great Depression, Route 66 was re-branded with a song after World War Two, becoming the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road.”  “We Got Our Kicks on Route 66,” said the postcard sent home as family vacations took to the highway. 

Route 66 Welcome to ArizonaSeventy-four miles east of Holbrook and 165 miles east of Flagstaff, Route 66 enters Arizona in the shadow of the Painted Cliffs, where a welcome billboard gives a hint of the scenery ahead.  By the 1940s this section of Route 66 was carrying the largest volume of traffic on any Arizona road outside the state’s two urban areas.  By the early 1950s, as pictured on this Petley photo-chrome postcard, the asphalt was showing wear and tear.  Lupton post office is about a mile ahead, but before that, save 5-cents on gas at the Whiting Brothers station.  Also, behind the welcome sign was a café and curio shop called State Line Station.  Once it was replaced with Interstate-40 US 66 was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985.  The portion pictured here was chopped up by freeway construction but a frontage road on the north side of the Interstate approximates the old alignment.  (For more on Route 66 go to and


Ariz.Dept.Transportation (ADOT), Travel Arizona: The Back Roads, (1989)

Ariz.Dept.Transportation (ADOT), Travel Arizona: The Scenic Byways, (1997)Arizona

Good Roads Association Illustrated Road Maps and Tour Book, (1913) reprinted 1987.

Eldon Bowman, A Guide to the General Crook Trail, (1978)

Melissa Keane & J. Simon Bruder, Good Roads Everywhere: A History of Road Building in Arizona, (2004) ADOT report.

A. M. McOmie, et al., The Arizona Strip, [1915] Ariz. State publication

Evelyn Brack Measeles, Lee’s Ferry, (1981)

Joseph Miller, “Trucking in Arizona Today,” Arizona Highways, July 1943, pp. 6-13, 40-43.

Richard L. Powers, History of Arizona’s Transportation System, PowerPoint presentation at Arizona Pavements/Materials Conference, ASU, Nov. 15, 2011.

W. L. Rusho & C. Gregory Crampton, Desert River Crossing, (1975) Lee’s ferry

Sedona Westerners, Those Early Days. . .Oldtimers’ Memories, (1968)

Betty Slocum, “The Coronado Trail,” Arizona Highways (ADOT magazine), August 1963, pp. 6-12, 28, 29, 32-35.

Robert Spude, “Could McCormick be the ‘Senator’ of the Senator Highway,” Sharlot Hall Museum website, Days Past articles.

Richard F. Weingroff, “U.S. 666: ‘Beast of a Highway’?” (revised 06/18/2003)  US DOT, Fed.Hwy.Admin.

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1 Response to Arizona Highways Were Built by the Numbers

  1. michele says:

    Hello — I’d like to use the image of one of the postcards. It’s for promotional purposes for a non-profit group. It’s the one of the Gillespie Dam Bridge. Do you own the copyright? If so, can we work something out? If not, can you tell me where you got the postcard? (Was it in a book or magazine? Which one?) I’d very much appreciate a response.
    Thank you,

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