April 2, 2017

Highway 79: the Prescott to Jerome "Shortline"



When it first opened August 1st, 1920, it was declared "Yavapai's Greatest Attraction." (*1)

"Members of the National Geographic Society...proclaimed (Highway 79) as 'the most beautiful drive in America.'" (*2)

To cynics (and the carsick) the curvy, mountain road might seem to have been designed by a carnival-ride engineer, a drunk, or both. In fact, Highway 79 would be considered an engineering marvel even by today's standards. It cut the travel time and distance between the two cities nearly in half.

While some history is buried under the sands of time, Highway 79 was eventually buried under a ribbon of asphalt and given a new number: 89A. Still, the twists and turns of this roadway only mirror the odyssey taken to construct it.

Those familiar with the roads of the old route to Jerome would quickly understand why the new route was called the "Shortline." To get to the "Billion Dollar Copper Camp" the old way, travelers first went to Dewey, then Cherry; down the mountain into the Verde Valley; through Cottonwood, then Clarkdale; and back up the mountain into Jerome!

While a shorter passage was lobbied, the potential road was briefly called "The Prescott-Jerome Air Line Road" due to the high elevations that would need to be overcome. (*3)

Tom Campbell
Second Governor of Arizona
The Politics:
Both towns (then the two largest in Yavapai county,) clamored for a quicker and easier route through Mingus mountain. When the Prescott Good-Roads Boosters visited Jerome, they expected to face some opposition to the new highway. Instead, they were delighted to find "a great deal of sentiment in favor of the new road." (*4)

"The building of the Jerome-Prescott short line was one of (Governor) Tom Campbell's pre-election promises. As a Yavapai county man, he thoroughly understood the need for the project. Immediately after his election (was settled by the courts,) his highway department got busy." (*1)

It only seemed fair. "Because 90% of the taxpayers of Yavapai county and as great a part of its voting population joined in demanding the Jerome-Prescott road...(it) was given to Yavapai county. It was essential in joining up a section that pays 80% of Yavapai county taxes with the State Highway System." (*5)

However, during the court battles surrounding the results of the election for Governor, it was wondered if the state would help finance its construction. "If the cooperation of the state cannot be won and a state appropriation is not forthcoming, the road will be built notwithstanding. The county alone will shoulder the burden...by a bond issue," Yavapai Magazine declared. (*3)

The summit toward Lonesome Valley.
The "Yeager Canyon" portion of the road.
The Construction:
Construction occurred in four separate phases: the most rugged stretch from Jerome to Yeager Canyon; the Yeager Canyon stretch itself; the flatter portion through Lonesome Valley; and a stretch through the Granite Dells that today is a part of Route 89 that runs from Watson Lake to the 89A junction.

The originally planned "Air Line" route was soon scrapped. "Much of this had been located on the northern slopes of the hills. Such an exposure increased the probability of snow troubles materially." The maintenance costs of dealing with the lingering and deeper snows were considered too expensive a running cost to proceed with that route.  (*1)

"Road making in 1919 and 1920 was beset with many difficulties. The State Highway Department, which was organized to handle only about $1 million of work a year, found it necessary to provide men, equipment and expert engineering direction for $4 million of work. To add to the troubles of the department, all work on which federal aid was received was subject to the regulations of the US Bureau of Public Roads." (*5)

The first section constructed was the Lonesome Valley stretch. Although it was a middle portion of the Shortline, it was by far the easiest and cheapest to construct.

The second section constructed was Yeager Canyon. Although it was also a middle section of the road, it was also the second easiest to complete. Some shortening of the road was accomplished on this stretch and tell-tale signs of the older road can still be found.

Another reason for these two middle sections to be addressed first was the US Forest Service's early willingness to help pay for their construction. The USFS was interested in enabling automobile traffic to reach the Mingus Mountain recreation area at the summit. There was a time when this summit crossroad was a dead-end "T" intersection at Forest Road 104. Beyond this point, toward Jerome, there was nothing but wilderness and horse trails.

Early traffic laws showed how the transition from animals to automobiles was problematic and at times humorous.

The third leg addressed was from Jerome to the Mingus mountain summit. "It was in passing through Deception Gulch and on into Mormon Gulch that some of the most difficult and interesting engineering difficulties of the project were encountered." (*1)

"There was constant trouble in getting satisfactory help." High rates were paid for labor, but the work was difficult and few men applied. Eventually the positions were filled by some whites skilled in heavy rock removal with Apaches and Mexicans filling the rest of the openings. These three groups were kept segregated.

The first 4 miles out of Jerome were especially rugged and curvy and copious amounts of TNT were necessary to clear and carve the road into the mountain. (*1)

In fact, the cost of these four miles was about the same as the entire 15 mile Lonesome Valley stretch. (*5)

As blasting was done and rock cleared away, a surprise was found just north of the Mescal Pass: "It is at this point that the workmen opened up a great 300-foot cave, ceiled with stalactites and tiled with stalagmites." (*1)

Unfortunately, there is no hope of parking a car near this cave opening and the narrow shoulder makes it dangerous for pedestrians. That being said, if you are unfamiliar with the location of this cave, just ask any current or former Jerome teenager. They could probably take you right to it.

Those Curious Electrical Towers: 
On this section of the road the traveller may notice some peculiar looking electrical towers along the way. These towers are the oldest in Yavapai county and maybe the oldest in the state or the region.  
They were built well before there was high-tension tower technology (as we know it today) and finding a durable, suitable solution posed a problem. The answer was found in the metal tower portion. These were shipped from a Netherlands company that originally manufactured them to be the foundations of windmills! Wooden crosspieces were added on site to support the wires. Imagine the effort it took to install these before there was a road! 
Although their exact place in electricity distribution history is unclear, one thing certainly does add to their uniqueness--after over 100 years of service, they're still bringing the juice to Jerome!

The last leg constructed was from Watson Lake through the Granite Dells. There was a trail through here already, but with nearly no turnouts and being only one lane wide at best, it was completely unsuitable as a thoroughfare for cars or freight wagons.

Before this part of the road was constructed, the only dependable way to Chino Valley and points north was via Willow Creek road.

Rare photo of what would become AZ Rt. 89 through
the Granite Dells (before the dynamite.)

In the summer of 1921, "a determined attack (was) directed against the heavy rock interferences of the Granite Dells by the State Highway Department. Tons of TNT have been used in widening the way through this stretch of the Jerome-Prescott Highway. In order to expedite the work, gangs of men worked from both ends at once and, as the road was brought to the required proportions, mule teams and Fresno scrapers were kept busy hauling the debris..." (*6)

The rock produced by dynamiting the Granite Dells was used for leveling the stretch of roadway going through Lonesome Valley. "A big steam shovel will be used in getting out the gravel (from the Dells) and the Caterpillar tractors (with trailers) secured from the army...will hasten the finishing of putting a firm gravel cap on the Lonesome Valley stretch." (*6)

Much of the cost of this section was provided by the federal government who not only provided the use of heavy equipment, but they also sent tons of TNT to Yavapai county for nothing more than the cost of shipping it.

The federal help came with a string attached, however. Before Arizona took over maintenance, State Route 89 was known as US Highway 280.

When this final leg of the Shortline was completed, not everyone was happy about it. On three occasions in the first 10 days it was open, someone rolled large boulders off the cliffs onto the roadway blocking it.

"John Bianconi, owner of the ranch below the dells and builder of the road told (the) county attorney...that he had directed the boulder rolling because part of the road was built on his land and because of the use of the road by the Arizona Bus Company and other travelers had resulted in his culverts being broken down and his fences and gates being cut." (*7)

The county supervisor declared "that as fast as rocks are rolled onto the roadway he will put TNT to them and ruin them." (*7)

Evidently, Uncle Sam sent a surplus of dynamite.


The birth of Watson Lake brought a region-wide celebration. It was originally intended to irrigate grain crops!

The Results:
"And now Yavapai county is bragging and with good reason, about having the most beautiful scenic highway in the state. Every auto visitor to Prescott will make the trip that requires only an hour and forty-five minutes, with at least a hundred and forty-five thrills as a result." (*1)

Immediately an automobile race was suggested during the Northern Arizona Fair. "The wild depths beyond the curves in the first 5 miles out of Prescott offer sporting chances enough to make the most daring speed maniac take pause. While the grades are marvelously moderate and the roadbed has been widened generously at the curves, yet the awful fate that would follow too wide a skid or a burst tire at the wrong moment is likely to make anyone grow cautious." (*8)

"A substantial purse could be given for the event. By starting cars at certain intervals any chance of an accident would be lessened to a marked degree." (*8)


The Shortline Described:
Indeed, the county was beaming about its new tourist attraction.

Here's a description of the drive from the time when the road first opened: (*1)

"Just out of Prescott the road passes Lake Watson, a beautiful water gem, framed in granite walls. Then it plunges into the Granite Dells, a remarkably picturesque park of granite spires. Colorado's Garden of the Gods somewhat approaches this unique bit of wild landscape artistry. (Italics mine)
"There follows a stretch of 13 miles through Lonesome Valley. The gradual approach of the foothills, soon starts the road up Mingus mountain. With long, graceful curves, the road sweeps up the northern side of the canyon on a grade that holds consistently to six percent. 
"Stretches of young trees that cover both sides of the canyon with a growth to take the place of the forest giants destroyed and marketed in Prescott and Jerome" in the 1880's and 90's. 
"A six-mile climb brings the driver to Mingus Pass at the lead of Yeager Canyon. This is the summit of the road (at) 7023 feet." 
From here "one gets the first glimpse of the Verde Valley nearly 4000 feet below. The pointed walls of the Verde Canyon tower high above the valley in a panorama of kaleidoscopic changeableness. 
"The highway sweeps down into the heavily wooded depths of Mescal Gulch and then up again to Mescal Pass.  
"From Mescal Pass to Jerome is four miles of marvelously smooth and marvelously crocked roadway. Through the two miles of Mormon Gulch and the final two miles of Deception Gulch, the engineers had to fight for every inch of the way."
The "Shortline" Adored:
A man who had mapped the roads of most of the southwest and parts of the southeast declared: "Few people have traveled over more roads, good and bad, than I have. In all my experience I have never seen a road that for scenery had anything over the new highway between Jerome and Prescott. Furthermore it is a magnificent piece of construction." (*8)

Even the locals wanted to experience it. The Arizona Bus Company, operating a line between Prescott and Jerome reported "that passenger traffic was growing between the two cities (and) the buses (were) carrying full loads." (*9)

Even to this day Route 89A is a worthy attraction. It is one of only three designated historic roads in the State of Arizona.

(Check for length restrictions before taking your RV or trailer over Mingus mountain.)

Historic Tourist Tip:
Here reproduced, is a description of the trip on "Highway 79" (now 89A) from Jerome to Flagstaff as told in a promotional brochure that was distributed by the Jerome Chamber of Commerce in 1937: (*2)

Now comes...Jerome, most unique city in America, where the lights of the city on the mountainside form a huge triangle as if a gigantic Christmas tree, strong with multicolored lights, had but recently been felled. 
Leaving Jerome, the autoist quickly drops into Clarkdale, 2000 feet lower in elevation, and said to be the cleanest city in America.  
Cottonwood is 3 miles east of Clarkdale. On the banks of the Verde River, from which the district derives its name, it serves as a shopping and commercial Center for farming and stock raising interests which surround it.
From Cottonwood to Sedona eyes of all motorists are focused on the Mogollon Rim, which borders the Valley on the north, and the towering, brilliantly hued walls of Oak Creek Canyon, which will rise in the foreground. 
Here, in the late afternoon, occurs an ever varying sunset, the charm and beauty of which is yet to be caught by the brush of an artist, although many have undertaken to do so. Coloring is too elusive, too magnificent and awe-inspiring for mortal mind and hand to capture. 
Sedona, with its red rock setting, is really the foot of Oak Creek Canyon, and the beginning of the drive never to be forgotton as one's car winds along the banks of Oak Creek, high above the swiftly rushing stream below. 
No description of the indescribable beauty of Oak Creek Canyon will be attempted. You'll enjoy every yard of the drive on to Flagstaff. Just one thing, though. Stop at the top of the canyon drive. Get out of your car and to look back over the highway. For sheer inspiration, glory, Beauty, and peacefulness you'll find no equal. (Today, there is a Native American market at this lookout.)

It should be mentioned that there are numerous outdoor activities available at the top of Mingus mountain as well. It is generally 7-10 degrees cooler there making it particularly desirable in the hot summer months.





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SOURCES:
(*1) "Yavapai's Greatest Attraction" Yavapai Magazine, August, 1920; Pg. 3
(*2) "Highway 79" Distributed by the Jerome Chamber of Commerce, 1937. Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File-Roads and Roadways, Highway 79.
(*3) "Jerome-Prescott Road"; Yavapai Magazine, January, 1918; pg. 18 col. 3.
(*5) "Build State Roads" Yavapai Magazine, August 1921, Pg. 10.
(*6) "Jerome-Prescott Highway" Yavapai Magazine, September, 1921, Pg. 6 Col. 2-4.
(*8) "Finest in the West" Yavapai Magazine, April 1921 Pg. 11, Col. 2.