Frontier Era Time Capsule
By Jim Hinckley
By late summer
1881, the westbound track-laying crews of the Atlantic & Pacific
Railroad had reached a point near present day Williams, Arizona. The
railroads course across northern
Arizona to this point was an almost
endless string of engineering marvels, the most notable of which was the
spanning of the 250-foot deep chasm at Canyon Diablo.
Now survey crews faced a new challenge, the western escarpment of the
Colorado Plateau scarred with steep and narrow canyons. To avoid
construction of a costly loop that would sweep miles to the south,
engineers selected Johnson Canyon even though this would result in a
roadbed with a drop of 112 feet per mile, an incline that exceeded grade
The Johnson Canyon Railroad Tunnel is an engineering marvel and
wilderness time capsule, photo by Jim Hinkley.
This, however, was but one of the obstacles engineers and construction
crews faced in the confines of the canyon. Just west of the summit a
sheer rock shoulder formed a cliff at a point where the canyon made a
required tunnel, the only one on the main line west of Albuquerque, was
a relatively short one of 328 feet, engineers predicted this would
constitute a very short delay. Then daily progress dropped to mere
inches as the tunnel crews struck a core of basalt.
Meanwhile, as the tunnel construction progressed albeit slowly, other
crews addressed the remaining obstacles, the bridging of two gorges one
of which would be immediately to the west of the tunnel face. These
projects required something more than a simple rail gang and the
railroad began luring powder men, miners, and bridge builders,
professionals, from the four corners of the earth by offering unheard of
wages - $2.40 per day for laborers, $2.80 per day for drillers.
Soon a small railroad camp complete with stores, saloons, and brothels
was booming among the pines 200-feet above the tunnel site. Injuries and
work related deaths were common but, surprisingly, shootings and similar
violence were rare enough that when they did occur, it was a news worthy
An article in the Arizona Weekly Miner published in February of 1882
records one such incident in which an altercation between James Casey
and William Ryan ended when Casey shot Ryan in the head. Armed and
enraged citizens forced Casey to barricade himself in a saloon. The
newspaper account chronicles the end of the affair with a succinct
statement, “Luckily a ball from one of the guns ended his (Casey)
villainous career, and he was sent to meet his Maker with the blood of
Ryan fresh on his hands.”
Death on a large scale struck in August as a premature explosion of
blasting powder being tamped into drill holes set off a nearby
stockpile. Several men simply vanished and the official death toll was
The slow pace
of tunnel construction brought the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad to the
brink of bankruptcy forcing the sale of stock to the rival Atchison,
Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. This only postponed the inevitable and soon
the A & P was little more than an historic footnote.
The west portal of the Johnson Canyon Railroad tunnel built in 1883.
As it turned out, completion of the tunnel in late 1882 led to new
engineering challenges as rock falls plagued the site. To address the
problem an intricate lattice of heavy timbers held the ceiling in place
but a fire in 1898, and the subsequent rock fall led to the closure of
the line for eleven days and resulted in the deaths of two men.
Repairs to the
tunnel included the addition of a riveted iron ceiling, and the lowering of
the floor. Between this date and abandonment of this line in 1959, the only
modifications of note were exterior ones in the form of a gun emplacement
built over the tunnel during World War II as this railroad bottleneck was
deemed a vital resource.
The tragedies associated with the tunnels construction are only a small part
of the canyons bloody history. A series of derailments, some of which
resulted in trains plummeting one hundred feet to the canyon floor below,
ensured Johnson Canyon a national reputation as one of the most dangerous
railroad lines in America.
obscurity is somewhat puzzling in light of its importance to western
development. The ease of access to the site compounds this mystery.
An adventure to the tunnel begins at exit 151, Welch Road, on I-40 west of
Williams, Arizona. Continue north on Forest Road 6, crossing two early
alignments of Route 66, and drive several miles to the site of Welch Station
dominated by a large concrete slab.
Now, simply follow
the old rail bed approximately 2.5 miles east into the canyon. This is a
relatively easy hike, as the rail bed is wide and level, and the grade
minimal. This is a very remote area so be prepared and during the months of
summer, watch for snakes as they are quite plentiful. Notify someone of your
destination as well as when you plan to return, carry plenty of water, and
be sure to savor the solitude as you climb higher into the scenic canyon.
Jim Hinckley, November 2012
Johnson Canyon Rail Bed, photo by Jim Hinckley 2012
About the Author:
Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an
official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed
in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts
Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.
His latest "The Route 66 Encyclopedia" is available with autograph via
Route 66 Chronicles, Jim's blog.
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