A trip from Payson to Phoenix takes about 90 minutes, depending on our destination in the Valley. Would we still make that journey if it took 8 to 12 hours? What if the drive required being covered with dust or mud while sliding down steep washes, blowing out tires on rocks and dodging flash floods?
Back before the Beeline was paved in 1958, that's exactly what travelers faced. The late Polly Brown (Payson pioneer and 1966 Rodeo Queen) told of driving a freight wagon loaded with store goods over the road when it was still the old military route. There had been a good rain, and the creeks were full. When she reached a bridge, she boldly drove on across, only to look back and see the bridge wash away right after her back wheels touched the bank on the far side of the crossing.
What began as a prehistoric Native American trade route became useful to Apache and Yavapai raiders driving cattle back to their camps in the 1800s. Later, soldiers protecting settlers, cattle ranchers and miners used the trail, extending it to reach forts and improving the road surface. For awhile, burro trains hauled supplies to the early inhabitants.
In the early 1900s, the construction of Roosevelt Dam began, bringing more people and more roads to the area. Roads reached out to the Mazatzal foothills, and the burro trains and horse-drawn wagons disappeared in favor of early cars, the most notable being a Cadillac touring car driven by Charlie See and Julian Journigan.
In 1924, the iron bridge was built at "the narrows" over Rye Creek by Jake's Corner, enhancing the route from Globe to Payson.
Harvey Bush, a Mesa lumberman, began promoting the construction of a road from the Salt River Valley to Payson in the 1920s. Timber from Payson was needed for Valley buildings. In addition, firefighters needed better roads to be effective when Rim Country fires threatened that timber.
Although the Depression made funds scarce, on March 21, 1933, Harvey Bush hefted the first shovelful of earth for the new road. CCC construction crews added needed manpower. In 1934, the road opened to the public, shortening the 12-hour trip to a mere nine hours.
Political support followed when Payson leaders Alf Randall, Guy Boardman, Harry Goodfellow (Natural Bridge owner), Jim Deming, Bill Haley, and Grady Harrison petitioned U.S. Senator Carl Hayden to improve the steep, rocky road.
In spite of competition from those who wanted to develop a road from Phoenix to Prescott instead, the plan moved ahead. The route was shortened by eliminating circuitous portions, while grading improved the surface. The new, shorter route, which took only three to four hours to travel was named the Beeline, in honor of its straighter path.
Among many who worked on the actual construction were Mel Counseller, Rusty Hastings, Moody Pickett, and Del Medlin. Jim Hart, Maricopa County Supervisor with a cabin in Payson, smoothed the way by negotiating for land with Yavapai tribes, so that the lower section of the road could cut across the reservation.
On July 19, 1958, a ribbon-cutting heralded the opening of the two-lane, paved Beeline Highway to Payson. A movement to name the highway Hartline after Jim Hart ended when he died in a car crash in 1960. The Beeline Highway opened up the old cow town of Payson to tourism and growth, based on Rim Country's natural splendor. Payson's Western events and atmosphere added to the lure for Valley residents.
Future improvements of the highway brought four lanes, massive cactus relocation effort and 10 more bridges, including the state's first cantilevered segmental bridge, plus wildlife protection for a number of endangered species.
However, since we are commemorating the hard work of all those who brought a paved road to Payson 50 years ago, we'll stop for now at this historic moment in July of 1958 and begin turning our thoughts to how we can celebrate the Beeline in 2008.
Sources for this article include Stan Brown's "Crossing the Mighty Mazatzals" in the Journal of Arizona History for winter of 2006, Beth Counseller's "Rim Tales" in the Payson Roundup on February 8, 1995, Nyle Leatham's "Paved Road Led to End of Pioneer Era" in the Arizona Republic and Mark Shaffer's "Highway Fuses Nature and Technology," in the Arizona Republic on Jan. 4, 1998.
Lita Nicholson is a Gila County Historical Society Board member NGCHS and a Payson resident.