In 1883, the news broke throughout Union Park that eastern financiers, including magnates of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, were sponsoring a railroad line that would come from Flagstaff down through the Tonto Basin, passing near Union Park.
The idea electrified the residents of the Rim Country with hopes that they would become rich because the markets of the whole nation could open to them.
The announced plan was to link the transcontinental railroad at Flagstaff with the mines of Globe. Many soon talked about taking the line south all the way to the Gulf of California in Mexico. The name of the line was to be “The Mineral Belt Railroad.” It would open up the lumber market in the north, the minerals of Tonto country and Globe, the coal at San Carlos, and the import/export possibilities of a seaport.
Flagstaff’s newspaper, The Weekly Champion, would print, “It is claimed that a thousand people in this section are cut off from any communication with the outside world for the lack of mail service. This is a matter of great importance to the businessmen of our town, as well as the people of Tonto, and calls for prompt and direct action on the part of residents on both sections. Flagstaff is the natural market for the people of Tonto, and the Mineral Belt road will more directly unite the interests of the two sections.”
By spring 1883, the fever was running even higher because workers were being recruited to begin construction. Forty-two men were employed, even though they were to receive no cash; only their board and stock certificates in the railroad company. They would start with the hardest engineering aspect of the line, the tunnel through the Mogollon Rim.
The workers erected several stone houses in the canyon of the East Verde River, at the highest point where springs begin to emerge and the river flows above ground. The construction crew had to hike a half-mile up a side canyon to the tunnel site.
On Sept. 29, the chief engineer Captain Tucker reported, “The camp at the tunnel is lively and in healthy operation. The hill is faced off in good shape and the tunnel is in 50 feet.”
Fred Haught, the first of that clan to stake a claim in the Rim Country, had built a cabin in the canyon right where the proposed railroad was to come down. He notified his relations back in the Dallas, Texas area that they had better come and join him. He told of lush grasses for cattle, the minerals to be mined and the prospects of wealth accruing from the Mineral Belt Railroad. In 1885 Fred’s father Sam Haught Sr. and his brother Sam Haught Jr. brought their family to the East Verde River. They settled at the mouth of Dude Creek, with a plan to build a store and saloon there where the trains would stop to take on water.
The tunnel was so remote the company decided to begin laying track across the Rim from Flagstaff to bring materials to the East Verde canyon.
By mid-May 1883, a survey had begun, and by December, the order went out to immediately build 50 miles of the line. Excitement in Union Park rose to fever pitch, but construction of the rail line was intermittent because of a constant struggle for funds. By the time workers had drilled the tunnel about 110 feet, crews were pulled off to help build the roadbed from Flagstaff. Work on the tunnel fell idle.
Then in 1884, a panic hit Wall Street and the involvement of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was withdrawn. The creator of the plan, Chicago lawyer Col. James W. Eddy, pursued various investors until his finances were impossibly complicated. He even sold the rights to develop properties along the line.
The Riordan family in Flagstaff contracted with the Mineral Belt to furnish the ties and timbers and by January of 1887, they were laying the rails south from Flagstaff. There were 200 men working on the job, many recruited from Union Park and Tonto Basin.
Excitement continued to climb when on Feb. 12, 19 carloads of rails arrived from the East and by March, six miles of grade and track had been completed. Trains actually began to go over the rails carrying construction material. In April 11 more miles of track were laid, and by September, 40 miles of track were in operation, carrying loggers and ranchers in addition to freight.
A passenger and freight station was established 10 miles south of Mormon Lake and all the talk in the saloons at Payson (for by then the town had its new name) was how the line would soon reach all the way to Tonto Basin.
Just think of it, folks were saying! Canada and Mexico, New York and Los Angeles would all be coming together at Flagstaff! — A saloon there was even named The Mineral Belt.
On Oct. 15, 1887, it all came to a sudden halt. Col. Eddy’s funding had run out and backers were withdrawing their support. He could not meet the payroll, and in December, Riordan and his partners bought the railroad at a tax auction for $40,440.
It was incorporated as the Central Arizona Railway Company and would be used to haul timber to the lumber mill at Flagstaff.
However, Col. Eddy kept the dream of a through line alive, and in the summer of 1889, his surveyors reached Payson from the end of the tracks on the Rim. They had found a new route over the Rim that avoided the tunnel on the East Verde River. However, when Eddy was unable to regain control of his original company, the hope for the Mineral Belt Railroad suffered a final demise.
Others like Riordan still dreamed of a railroad from Salt Lake City to Guaymas, Mexico, but when another financial crash hit Wall Street in 1893, all hopes were dashed. Payson and the Tonto Basin would never become rail centers.
For the 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 this, Payson, Pleasant Valley and the Tonto Basin quit looking toward Flagstaff for economic salvation and turned their attention toward Globe. That change of purview helped politicians in 1889 carve out of Yavapai County what would become Northern Gila County.
Meanwhile, the tunnel became 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 it.
“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, Fuller talked to cowboy and lion hunter Floyd Pyle in Payson and received directions that worked. Fuller went on to say, “One can walk within 100 feet of the tunnel and not find it.”
The problem lies in that it is up a branch canyon from the East Verde.
The quickest way to reach it is to come over the top of the Rim, from the monument to the Battle of Big Dry Wash. Chevrons on the trees going east from the East Verde canyon mark the Crook Military Road, leading off Forest Road 300. Almost immediately, careful eyes will spot a switchback road leading down over the edge, with rocks pushed up on both sides. This is the old trail made first by Devin’s army in 1868 and used later by ranchers to drive cattle from the basin to Winslow.
Hiking down this antique trail one begins to descend the mountain, when suddenly the switchback makes a hairpin turn to the right. This is where the trail to the tunnel takes off to the left. A crude trail leads up into the side canyon, where tailings from the tunnel are sighted up to the left.
When excitement in Union Park was still running high about the potential railroad, the residents were encouraged to plan for an official survey of their village and the establishment of property lines.
Next: Union Park becomes Payson