One day in 1963, while driving to Flagstaff over the as yet unpaved Lake Mary Road, my family and I encountered a steam locomotive pulling cars loaded with logs and moving though the forest. In fact, we waited while it crossed the road in front of us! It looked wildly out of place, like a prehistoric monster. Years later, after the tracks had been removed, I would learn the strange story of the Mineral Belt Railroad and a dream to link Canada with Mexico right through Payson and the Tonto Basin.
It had begun in 1881 with the dream of an Illinois entrepreneur who came West, named Colonel James W. Eddy. He had raised capital with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, which was coming across the country through Flagstaff. Other investors from the East Coast and the Midwest were also involved. The plan was for the new road to come south from Flagstaff across the Mogollon Rim, down the East Verde River canyon with the help of a 3,100-foot tunnel at the top, and into Payson.
From there, it would go through the Tonto Basin and on to Globe by way of Wheatfields and Pinal Creek. In September of 1883, a crew had begun work on the hardest engineering aspect of the road, the tunnel through the Rim.
The location of the tunnel was so remote that bringing materials to the site was almost impossible. It was decided to lay the track from Flagstaff first, so supplies could be brought by rail to the edge of the Rim. A survey for the line out of Flagstaff had begun in mid-May 1883, and in December the order went out to immediately build 50 miles of the line. However, construction was intermittent because of a constant battle for funds. By the time the tunnel had been drilled about 110 feet, crews were pulled off to help with building the roadbed from Flagstaff. The tunnel work fell idle. In 1884, a panic hit Wall Street, and the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad ended all "fringe financial matters." This meant Eddy had to look elsewhere for money. In 1886, he got a Chicago millionaire to invest $107,000 in cash for $345,000 in railroad bonds. He persisted with the Atlantic and Pacific railroad, and was able to secure an agreement by which they would buy $200,000 worth of Mineral Belt stock, that amount to be doubled later.
In exchange, they were promised a controlling interest in the Mineral Belt Railroad upon its completion. The Atlantic and Pacific would release their investment money incrementally as track was laid down.
Eddy's finances were becoming impossibly complicated, and his outstanding obligations overwhelming. He had even sold rights to develop the properties along the line. About this time, both interested parties had entered the picture. The Ayer Lumber Company was Flagstaff's largest employer, their 200 worker families living near the mill in Mill Town, later called Milton. The Riordan family secured a contract from the Mineral Belt Railroad for the ties and timbers, in turn contracting with Ayer Lumber. In January 1887, they began laying the rails south from Flagstaff. It was a mild winter and the ground was not frozen. 200 men were working on the job.
On Feb. 12, nineteen carloads of rails arrived from the East and by March six miles of grade and track had been completed. It was then the first Mineral Belt train went over the rails carrying construction material. In April, the Atlantic and Pacific paid cash on their promise, and 11 more miles of track went down.
On July 30, the company boasted, "We will soon have 36 miles of track laid and 19 additional miles of grading completed." By September, 40 miles of track were in operation and loggers, passengers and ranchers were using the line. A passenger and freight station was established ten miles south of Mormon Lake, and enthusiasm ran high that the line would soon reach all the way to Tonto Basin. In Flagstaff, a saloon was named The Mineral Belt, and wild rumors circulated about other railroads connecting. Just think! Canada and Mexico, New York and Los Angeles would all come together at Flagstaff.
It all came to a sudden halt October 15, 1887. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad lost interest in the project and refused to pay their promised amount for the track already laid down. This caused other investors to back down also, and Col. Eddy was unable to meet the payroll. He sued the A&P Railroad, and leased the track to the Arizona Wood Company for hauling cord wood to Los Angeles. Workers placed liens on the property for past due wages, and in 1888 competitors took possession of the railroad. In December, Riordan and his partners in Flagstaff bought the railroad at a tax auction for $40,440, incorporating the line as the Central Arizona Railway Company. The dream continued with the new owners, and in the summer of 1889 surveyors had reached Payson from the end of the track up on the Rim.
In the process, they found a new route over the Rim that avoided the old tunnel. Col. Eddy tried to regain control of his original company through the courts, but failed, and the Mineral Belt Railroad was no more.
Riordan hoped to extend the railroad from Salt Lake City to Guaymas, Mexico, but was never able to get the financial backing to get it rolling. In 1893, another panic on Wall Street ended all hopes and plans for such an extravagant line.
Payson and the Tonto Basin would never become rail centers, but there was some life left in the rails on the Rim.
[To be continued. Next Week: The Rest of the Story.]