Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Floatin' Old US 89

 Believe it or not, when US 89 was "born" in 1926, not all of the highway was a road.  Nope. A small portion of the highway was water.  The only way to cross The Colorado River was at Lee's Ferry on a boat.  Above is the only known photo (so far) that shows a early US 89-era vehicle crossing the river at what's known as the "upper" ferry.  The vehicle is a 1927 Studebaker Dictator.  The cabin and log crib in the background clearly identify the "upper" ferry. This photo was probably taken in Jun 1927 during high river flows when the "lower" ferry beach was under water.  That year, The Colorado River peaked at 127,000 cubic feet per second on July 1st. (All sources listed at end of blog post.)
 The so-called road to the "upper" ferry was known for decades as "Lee's Backbone" and even in horse and wagon days was called by drivers "the worst road they ever traveled."  In the late 1890's, another river crossing was developed to avoid the Lee's Backbone route. Traces of this so-called road (shown above)  are easily visible to modern day Lee's Ferry visitors.
 The "lower" river crossing was relatively more accessible and somewhat safer than the "upper".  It was the preferred route of old US 89 unless high spring runoff put the south beach (shown above ferry in photo) under water.  Note that both ferry crossing used a cable system.  By angling the ferry boat into the river current, the water's force carried the boat back and forth across the river.
 If the ferry ride wasn't enough tribulation, getting to and from the ferry boat was yet another trial for early US 89 motorists.  Routes to and from the river bank were barely suitable for horse drawn wagons, let along primitive early vehicles.
Lee's Ferry began in the 1870's and continued in operation until June 1928 when what's now known as Navajo Bridge construction was in full swing.  The ferry boat flipped and sunk, killing three people and forever ending perhaps the most historic aspects of Northern Arizona travel. Navao Bridge opened to vehicle traffic in January 1929 and ws dedicated in June that year.

Sources: The top photo source is:
Note that the source data file says the photo is from 1923.  That's incorrect.  The car onboard the ferry was positively identified on 06MARCH18 by experts from the Antique Automobile Club of America as a 1927 Studebaker Dictator. Photographer is unknown.

The dugway picture was taken by famed photographer Emery Kolb in the 1920's, probably about 1923.  Source:

The quote about the "worst road" comes from Page 54 of W.L. Rusho's "Lee's Ferry Desert River Crossing" (ISBN 0-9656645-1-1)

Photo of "lower" river crossing was taken by A. R. Hromatka in 1925.  Source:

Photo showing boat in back of truck is associated with a 1923 US Geological Survey trip on The Colorado River. Photo take by Lewis Ransome Freeman.  Source:

The final photo is also clearly from 1923.  Photographer is listed as P.T. Reilly but undoubtedly it was I.G. Cockroft, a USGS employee working then at Lee's Ferry. Reilly was a dedicated collector of "all things Colorado River."

Above is a photo of I.G. Cockroft show just how high the water came across the lower dugway in the high river flow of 1921.  Source Page 80 of:

(Editor's Note: Future post(s) are anticipated documenting and describing both actual so-called roads to the "upper" and "lower" ferry crossing sites.)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Colorful rocks named for a song

Most US 89 travelers well know Big Rock Candy Mountain between Marysvale and I-70 in the Sevier River Canyon.  Most travelers also know the name came from a song title.  Well, here's the full story of how that happened in the late 1920's...and a lot of other information, too.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Crossing The Colorado

Nowhere else along US 89 posed as formidable a challenge as crossing The Colorado River at Marble Canyon.  We put together an article for our History Pages which gives some background, provides additional resources & showcases old photos.  See:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Kinsleys - US 89's biggest roadside attraction

The Kinsley Ranch Resort south of Tucson at Arivaca Junction was definitely the biggest single US 89 roadside attraction from Mexico to Canada.     We put together a brief overview of Kinsleys Ranch Resort, as well as various resources for more in depth reading.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

White Spar Puzzles

The White Spar in 1924.
The White Spar highway is justifiably famous as one of old US 89's most iconic stretches.  No other portion of US 89 twists, turns and snakes around the crenelated landscape as dramatically as The White Spar. (US 89A over Mingus Mtn. is a close second but it's the White Spar For The Win.)

Over the past almost 100 years many myths have evolved about how the White Spar came to exist; who paid for its construction and even how far it goes.  We think it's time once and for all to dive deep into those myths and shine the light of facts and truth on what we're calling the "White Spar Puzzles."
Source: Page 89, "Postcard History Series - Yavapai County"
 Copyright  2016 by Rick Sprain ISBN 978-1-4671-2450-8

Let's take each of the puzzle pieces one at a time.  First, who wanted the White Spar? A common theme is expressed as a photo caption from Rick Sprain's fine book "Postcard History Series Yavapai County"  Sprain states, "After concluding that the Senator Highway was not the best route to Phoenix, a group from Prescott lobbied to have a road constructed from Prescott to the White Spar mine..."

Well, who were the members of this group?  Were they elected officials or business leaders or both? Was the newspaper involved?  Did ordinary citizens speak to the issue? Surely, there would be some clue in the archived newspapers of that era.
Source: Page 48's-transportation-history-in-its-entirety-.pdf

Second, who paid for the White Spar's construction?  James Cowlin from the US 89 Appreciation Society claims it was the first federally funded highway in Arizona.  Another writer claims the Forest Service paid for it.  An official ADOT highway history alludes to a $1.5-million Yavapai County bond issue.  It's highly unlikely that it was the first fed-funded Arizona highway.  It's also highly unlikely that the USFS paid for it.  Surely there is some factual historical information about the purported county bond issue.  A $1.5-million bond would have been a Big Deal in the early 1920's.

Third and lastly, how far did the White Spar go?   The record seems to indicate the original White Spar extended only to the White Spar mine just north of Wilhoit (34.4178032 -112.5446163).  Other sources indicate it was called the White Spar to the top of Yarnell Hill.  And even others claim it was White Spar all the way to Wickenburg.  Did the postcard publishers of that era conveniently extend the White Spar's name farther than the construction crews?  Did drivers of the day grow fond of bringing the name White Spar along for the ride?  We obviously know where the White Spar began on the south side of Prescott.  However, confusion reigns when determining where the White Spar officially ended, if indeed it ever even had an "official" terminus.

There's no doubt that the White Spar was constructed in 1923.  That much is certain.  We have bombproof evidence that the White Spar was still in the design phase in late 1922.  And there's also photographic evidence of a vehicle traveling the White Spar in 1924.  So, we can lay to rest the time frame of construction.
Unfortunately, the December 1922 issue of Arizona Highways shown above is the only edition from that era that  has been scanned and placed online. We suspect that prior and subsequent issues of our State's flagship magazine would shed some factual light on the White Spar Puzzles.

We hope, trust and believe that the history buffs and scholars of the wonderful "Celebrating Historic Prescott" Facebook Group will work together to solve once and for all the White Spar Puzzles.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Arches Across US 89

Three grand arches arc across US 89. A fourth was long ago torn down.
The oldest existing arch is in Brigham City, Utah.  It was built in 1928. Here is an excellent short description of the creation of the arch:

As the story goes, after attending a 1930's Peach Days celebration in Brigham City, where part of the festivities was lighting the welcome arch, Ogden Mayor Harmon Peery decided it was time for Ogden to get one of its own.

The arch was conceived by Mayor Peery in the middle of the Depression, when Ogden was reported to be the fastest growing city in America. Peery wanted the sign to say "Ogden, America's Fastest Growing City" in large letters outlined in bright neon.

The sign was dedicated Nov. 21, 1936. The south side read, "It Pays to Live in Ogden, America's Fastest Growing City." On the other side were the words, "We Welcome You to Ogden, Pioneer Days Week, July 24." Mayor Peery was also the mastermind behind Ogden's annual Pioneer Days Week.

The words on the south side of the sign were changed In 1939 to "Utah's Fastest Growing City."

In 1952, it was changed to "Ogden, Home of Weber College." Seven years later, the school became a four-year state college and the sign was changed again to read, "Home of Weber State College."

The sign was moved in 1992 to a location 30 feet north. And the wording on one side was also changed to "Home of Weber State University."
The final existing arch over US 89 (at least that we know of) is in Afton, a community in Wyoming's Star Valley.  It was constructed with 3,000 elk antlers in the late 1950's.  (Elk shed their antlers each year and these antlers were picked up in the Elk Refuge next to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.)  Here is a good short story about the Afton Antler Arch.
Our vote for The Best Arch on old US 89 is one that no longer exists.  It once graced the south entrance to Prescott, Arizona, back in the earliest years of US 89...which is that dirt roadway shown going under the arch and across Granite Creek beyond.
Unfortunately, we do not have a high resolution photo of The Prescott Arch so this enlarged screen clip will have to do.  One of the key design elements of this eye-pleasing arch are the twin tapered square support columns.  The proportion and tapering of the columns gives them a "Doric column flair" especially since they are both topped with an architectural cap of modest design.  Adding to the arch's ambiance is the fact that both columns were constructed with hand laid masonry rock.  Even though this is pure speculation, we'd bet the rocks in both columns were handsome specimens especially chosen from some of the many nearby colorful geologic strata and mine tailing piles. Whoever designed the arc of the arch itself did a masterful job proportioning it to the columns.  Set together with the classic bridge railings beyond, The Prescott Arch was a highly personable gateway greeting to US 89 travelers leaving The White Spar highway to enter the inviting community ahead.

(Editor's Note:  We have an inquiry pending as to the construction and demolition dates of this arch.)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Spotlight on Miracle Mile

Tucson's Miracle Mile on old US 89 was listed in the National Register of Historic Places honoring mid-century modern highway architecture.  The listing became official December 11.

According to Demion Clinco, Executive Director of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, and lead author of the nomination, “The designation of Tucson’s northern historic highway corridor represent years of community advocacy and a long term commitment and investment form the City of Tucson to support the revitalization of of the Oracle Area.” He continued, “This part of our city reflects early and mid-century automotive culture and is marked by an outstanding collection of now historic motels, service stations and colorful neon signs.”

Here's the best article about the National register  listing:

Tucson News Now did an article, too: