It was a wild and wonderful dream. A rail line called the Mineral Belt would come from Flagstaff, over the Mogollon Rim, down the East Verde River, through Payson, the Tonto Basin and on to Globe.
Everyone along the route was going to be rich because the markets of the entire nation would become open to Rim Country products.
For 12 years, from 1881 to 1893, enthusiasm rose and fell, investments were made and lost, and the stuff of dreams was spun into webs that ultimately collapsed. After that, Payson, Pleasant Valley and the Tonto Basin quit looking toward Flagstaff for economic salvation and turned their attention to Globe.
In 1889, that change of purview helped politicians carve out of Yavapai County what would become Northern Gila County.
However, remnants of the old Mineral Belt Railroad remained.
The Tunnel into the Rim, with several ruins of stone houses for its workers, continues to be something of a tourist attraction.
On the Rim south of Flagstaff, the harvest of old growth pine trees called for a series of logging roads throughout the forest. Twelve miles of the old Mineral Belt, later dubbed the Central Arizona Railroad, remained in operation out of Flagstaff. The rest of the old line was abandoned, and in 1894 rails for the southern 25 miles were removed and sold. After the turn of the century, the remaining rails were taken up and sold.
Also after the turn of the century, a network of new logging rails began to emanate from Flagstaff as the lumber interests marched through both the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests
In 1923, The Flagstaff Lumber Company constructed a line from Lake Mary to Mormon Lake, to access timber they had purchased from the Forest Service. It followed the old Mineral Belt course from the 1880s. While it was not intended to become a passenger line, it sometimes carried 300 passengers on a weekend to Mormon Lake. This was the real beginning of Mormon Lake as a recreational area.
The various lines continued to go where the lumber was during the first half of the 20th century.
The last of these lines to operate was the Allan Lake Line of the Saginaw and Manistee Company, reaching rich stands of timber south of Mormon Lake. Lumber carried by this line was used to build Williams and Luke Air Force bases in Arizona, and March Air Force Base in California during World War II.
It was that railroad line our family encountered in the summer of 1963 as we drove the Lake Mary Road. For years, I pondered what a train could possibly be doing in this beloved forest. As it turned out, I was lucky to have seen it when I did because it ceased operation in March of 1966, and in 1967 the iron rails were pulled.
The era of railroad logging in the Coconino Forest had come to an end.
Meanwhile The Tunnel had become a point of curiosity, shown only on a few maps and a mystery to many who tried to find it.
In the 1920s Forester Fred Croxen reported that while the rails were still laid in the tunnel, the wooden shoring had begun to come down and the ceiling had partially caved in.
Old timer Ralph E. Fuller of Pine tried several times in vain to find it. He told a reporter in 1983 that it was 40 years after he came to Pine as a youngster before he found The Tunnel.
"I searched many times, both without directions and with directions furnished by people who had either been there or knew someone who had been, always without success."
He said each time he asked directions from ranchers or Forest Service people "the usual reply I got was, `Yes, it's there someplace under the Rim. Some of the boys run across it while they were hunting lions, or chasing cattle, but I am not sure just where it is at ' Finally I went to see Floyd Pyle, who is an old timer cowboy and lion hunter in Payson."
Pyle gave him directions that worked, but Fuller reported, "One can walk within 100 feet of The Tunnel and not find it."
The problem is that The Tunnel is up a branch canyon from the East Verde River, not in the main canyon. The quickest way is to come over the top of the Rim. One would park near the monument to the Battle of Big Dry Wash, which is at the head of the East Verde River. The trail north from that spot leads to General Springs. The chevrons on the trees marking the Crook Military Trail lead into the woods south of the Rim Road (FR 300). Right there, a switchback road begins leading down the edge. Close observation will pick it out, the rocks moved up to the sides.
This road was used by early settlers to climb the Rim and to drive cattle to Winslow.
Hiking down this antique road, one begins to descend the mountain and then suddenly the road makes a hairpin turn to the right. This is where the trail to The Tunnel takes off to the left. It is a crude trail that takes the hiker up into the side canyon. Soon the tailings from The Tunnel excavation can be sighted up to the left.
A steep, circular ascent will bring a person to the top of those tailings, where the walls of a stone house are encountered. It is speculated this held explosives and supplies for the operation. Just around this house is the gaping hole of The Tunnel.
Since going that way is a long drive from Payson, I prefer an 18-mile drive to the Washington Park Trailhead below the Rim. From there the hike up the East Verde River canyon is about two miles, and by close observation one can discern the tunnel trail leading across the dry wash to the right. Just before that, as the hiker comes to where the headwaters cease and the canyon is dry, the ruins of the tunnel crew's houses can be seen up on the bank to the left.
The first time I found The Tunnel was in the summer of 1963. After the long struggle up the canyon, and the exciting discovery of the gaping hole in the mountain, I thought surely I was the first person to have been there in decades. My imagination was short lived. Just inside The Tunnel, scrawled on the sandstone wall in charcoal, was that very day's date and some initials. I had missed them by an hour. Since then, every visit reveals more names "of fools in public places."
Being there is like a pilgrimage to a dramatic past, the dream that Payson might have been a railroad center.