From Wooden Wheels to Iron Horses

Written by Roger Naylor, commissioned by Verde Canyon Railroad

Even though Jerome, Arizona would become known as the “Billion Dollar Camp,” reflecting its prodigious copper output, lack of a railroad almost doomed mining operations from the outset.

When word went out of a rich copper discovery in the wild country of Arizona, prominent Eastern financiers dispatched mining expert Dr. James A. Douglas, Sr.. He was to evaluate the quality and marketability of the ore being dug in the mountainside camp. Douglas arrived in 1880; just four years after the first claims had been filed. He liked the color very much but not the forbidding terrain, the distance to market and the difficulty in delivering the ore.

At the time there was no railroad anywhere close at hand. Even wagon roads did not exist. People got to the camp by walking, or if they were affluent enough, on horseback. Douglas’s advice to the money men back east: Don’t invest.

It wasn’t until 1882 that two torturous wagon roads were built, connecting Jerome with the world at large. Both routes traversed rugged terrain and were frequently made impassable by snows of winter and summer rains. When United Verde Copper Company built their first smelter in 1883, all materials including the smelting furnace were hauled in by wagon from Prescott, the territorial capital, or Ash Fork. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad had arrived in Ash Fork, some 60 miles northwest of Jerome, the previous year.

They were arduous journeys often requiring 20 mule teams to haul freight wagons creaking under their mighty loads. The grade was as steep as 30 percent in places and each wagon was equipped with heavy duty brakes operated by block and tackle. Dragged by chains behind the rear wheels were large square timbers to prevent the wagon from rolling backwards.

As Jerome continued to grow, wagon routes were established throughout the Verde Valley so farmers could transport locally-grown produce, honey, wine and other goods to the booming mine town. To preserve a portion of this heritage, the main artery used by settlers along Oak Creek during the frontier era has been restored by the forest service, state park workers and a host of volunteers. The Lime Kiln Historic Wagon Road was officially dedicated in 2006, a 15 mile multi-use trail that stretches from Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood to Red Rock State Park in Sedona.

The wooden wheels of wagons could not keep pace with the needs of Jerome. So in 1887, the Prescott and Arizona Central Railroad, from Seligman to Prescott, was completed. Once this branch was operational, plans for a railroad directly into Jerome began despite the obstacles presented by the angular countryside.

In 1895 a twisted, corkscrewing narrow gauge at last chugged into Jerome. The United Verde & Pacific Railway was 26 miles long with 186 curves (most over the last half of the line) and was known as the “crookedest line in the world.” Narrow gauge, with the rails spaced three feet apart, was used as a cost saving method and to more easily navigate the hardscrabble mountainous terrain.

With the coming of the iron horse, Jerome flourished. Men and equipment poured into town and shipments of ore rolled out. Of course, even with the completion of the railroad, the wagon did not slip into obscurity. The train depot sat one mile northwest of town, and hundreds of feet higher on the mountain slope. After disembarking from the train passengers were loaded into horse-drawn wagons where they plunged down a sheer and sudden slope into the center of town, the ride inducing screams and white knuckles from women and men alike.

Through 1930, which marked the decline of Verde district mining, Yavapai County (mostly Jerome) was the 6th leading copper producing region in the country (1930 Copper Chapter, Minerals Yearbook).   Though public records as to the end-use customer are not available, it is likely that the US government was a customer, as the mines were active during both WWI and WWII.  The majority of copper produced during this era was cast into wirebar, the precursor to electric wire.

From 1900 to 1929 (prior to the depression) US consumption of refined copper rose from about 170,000 metric tons per year to 1.1 million metric tons per year, corresponding to the growth in the generation and distribution of electricity.  So in essence, it is likely that Jerome copper helped electrify the country.

In 1911, a 38 mile standard gauge line replaced the narrow gauge. The Verde Valley Railroad functioned long after the horses and wagons were gone, even long after the mines ceased operations. Through boom and bust times, the railroad did what other modes of transportation could not: it endured. Eventually it became the Verde Canyon Railroad, one of the most popular tourist destinations of the Southwest.

Today, the same isolation and rugged landscape that proved so challenging to early pioneers is what makes Verde Canyon Railroad such an unforgettable experience to tens of thousands of visitors each year. The train rumbles into country as wild and untamed as when men and mules struggled to lay track. Passengers marvel at the pristine scenery and remote location as they travel through a narrow river-carved, high-walled canyon stretching through the foothills of brutishly beautiful mountains.

More than a century after it began, the journey from wooden wheels to iron horses continues aboard Verde Canyon Railroad.

Many thanks to Daniel Edelstein of the U.S. Geological Survey and Colleen Holt of the Jerome Historical Society for their contributions to this article.

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