By Robert Samuelsen
Time and travel have a unique relationship. Before the airplane, trains were the main mode of long-distance transportation – roomy, luxurious, and fast compared to a Conestoga wagon! It was the way to travel – and still is if you have the time. As crazy as it seems today, prior to the rail, each town had its own time zone. The town’s timekeeper would set his clock based on the sun’s zenith each day and that “noon” was the standard from which local time was set. From this, all daily business commenced. With the advent of the iron horse, schedules between towns became important resulting in the 24-world time zone convention we have today. In 1878, Canadian Sir Stanford Fleming proposed dividing the longitude by 24 hours creating a new time zone every 15 degrees. This method of timekeeping was adopted by railroads in 1883 and quickly became the standard for all.
Arizona has a long history with rail. In fact, the Gadsden Purchase (including Vail and Tucson) was executed specifically to accommodate an all-weather, low grade transportation line of rail connecting the southern states with the Pacific Ocean. The Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific) was born. Another relic of the past, the Arizona short line railroad from Clarkdale to Drake continues to thrive as a freightliner and a passenger line. Sharing the track, the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad transports coal and cement and the Verde Canyon Railroad carries tourists. Originally built by industrialist William A. Clark to support his smelter (to process ore from his mines in nearby Jerome), today it’s best known for the four-hour scenic tour of Sycamore Canyon along the upper reaches of the Verde River.
The spring fed Verde River begins at the base of the Mogollon Rim southwest of Flagstaff. It cuts through the rocky flanks and volcanic flows of the San Francisco mountains just west of Sedona. The river gorge is classic riparian habitat filled with sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods. With water brings life – even 80% of all desert life thrive in riparian ecosystems.
From the generous seat on my railcar, I relaxed as the attendants catered to my every need. They were well informed on the history and scenery of Sycamore Canyon and relished their advantage over their passengers. With a casual lunch and a scrumptious plate of cheeses and crackers, I was able to watch as the historic train lumbered up the track following the course of the Verde River. It crossed several splendid trestles before entering a long tunnel on one particular tight bend of the streambed. Eventually, the train pulled into a siding at Perkinsville to reverse engines and return to Clarksdale. (There is no reason to know the ghost town of Perkinsville unless you’re a “How’s the West was Won” movie buff!)
On the return voyage, I opted to ride on the flatbed sightseeing car so I could take in the beautiful autumn colors of the deciduous trees in the river concourse below. I could see the long-abandoned telegraph wire, various mine holes from ambitious prospectors, and a few bald eagles soaring above the treetops. The weather was cool and clear, a perfect day to spend lingering on a relaxing four-hour journey in the stasis of time.
Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!