CLARKDALE – Since Nov. 6, 1869 -- when a golden spike ceremoniously joined the Atlantic and Pacific coasts via the Transcontinental Railroad – trains and the rails they ride still abide in the American psyche. Trains are the stuff of daydreams and stories.
Every link in a train – from the magnificent engines in all of their historical and evolutionary forms, to boxcars, to diners, to Pullmans and on down the line to the caboose – fascinate us as the works of industrial art they truly are. We are impressed by their heft, by their utility.
Just as fascinating are the people who have lived on and along the tracks through more than a hundred years of American history: gandy dancers, engineers, conductors, hobos and most of all, passengers. For it has always been the people, more than the machines, that turn trains into all manner of stories, movies, songs and novels.
The Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale will celebrate 100 years of railroading on Feb. 11 and 12.
The railroad will share the Centennial spotlight Feb. 12 with both the Town of Clarkdale and the State of Arizona.
The Verde Canyon Railroad features a 20-mile, three-and-a-half-hour vintage train ride that takes passengers through remarkable wilderness and 100 years of history. Since the Verde Valley Railroad became the Verde Canyon Railroad in 1990, it has carried more than one million passengers.
Without question, railroads were largely responsible for the economic development of the Verde Valley. Eventually becoming known as the “Billion Dollar Camp,” the copper mines in Jerome seemed likely to fail for lack of a railroad to haul in machines, people and goods and haul out the valuable ore.
Roger Naylor, in From Wooden Wheels to Iron Horse, written for the Verde Canyon Railroad, explains that in 1880, James A. Douglas Sr. arrived in Jerome to evaluate the investment potential of Jerome’s mines for Eastern financiers. Although he liked the looks of the ore, the rough terrain discouraged him. Not only were there no railroads close to Jerome but also there weren’t even any wagon roads. Travel in and out was by horseback or on foot. His advice to the folks back east was not to invest.
Naylor writes that by 1882, two rugged wagon roads connected Jerome to the outside world, and in 1883 when the United Verde Copper Company built its first smelter, all materials were hauled in by wagon from Prescott or Ash Fork. Some 60 miles to the northwest, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had arrived in Ash Fork.
In 1895 the United Verde & Pacific Railway completed a 26-mile, narrow gauge railroad from Ash Fork to Jerome.
According to a historical compilation provided by Teresa Propeck, marketing director for the Verde Canyon Railroad, the new smelter in Clarkdale required another railroad at the same time that Arizona’s first company town was being founded.
William Clark paid for the railway construction, and the 40-mile track from Clarkdale to the interchange yard of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe at Cedar Glade (now Drake) was completed in a single year.
Jerome was linked via the Verde Tunnel and Smelter Railroad (VT&S). Prescott was also connected via the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix Railway, known as the Peavine because of its sharp curves that resembled a pea vine.
Now, 100 years later, the VT&S Railroad is gone, and the Peavine ran until 1983 when floods took out trestles north of Prescott. The Verde Valley Railway lives on as the Verde Canyon Railroad. That line’s freight operation, the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad, still carries products to and from Clarkdale’s Salt River Materials Group.
In 2005, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano declared the Verde Canyon Railroad as an Arizona Treasure. The excursion railway combines both the romance and history of travel by train.
Two vintage FP7 engines built by General Motors in 1953 for the Alaska Railroad power the restored passenger cars, which come from both active and retired passenger lines throughout the United States. Engines 1510 and 1512 are only two of 10 remaining in service in North America.
The train features two coach-class cars with panoramic windows. The eight first-class cars offer living-room-style seating also with panoramic windows. All cars provide access to open-air viewing cars with high-backed wooden benches. The train even has available a red caboose that has been converted into a luxurious parlor car, limited to no more than six adults in one party.
The Verde Canyon Railroad operates year-round, and each season offers its own personality and landscape. But throughout the year, the train ride always includes spectacular geology and amazing vistas of inner canyons, Sinagua Indian ruins dating to 600 A.D. and historic railroad construction including S.O.B. Canyon trestle, Perkinsville Bridge and 680-foot-long manmade tunnel.
For the Centennial celebration on Feb 11 & 12, the Verde Canyon Railroad station will be open to the public from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Breakfast and lunch selections will be available. A complimentary tour at the depot will offer a close-up look at the vintage engines and mid-20th Century passenger cars, as well as the John Bell Museum.
Free exhibits will be provided by Verde Valley vendors including agricultural and historical displays, area attraction presentations, wildlife and conservation, Native American Culture and artisans and entertainers.
The Centennial Train will depart at 2 p.m. Reservations are required for the train ride.