The isolation from the “outside world” that Payson had known from its beginnings was being overcome during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with the construction of Roosevelt Dam in 1903, new ways to access the beautiful and secretive Rim Country were in demand. Throughout the 1920s, public pressure was growing for the creation of a more direct route than afforded by the Apache Trail. A prime mover in this effort was a Mesa businessman name Harvey Bush. He was in the lumber business and the growing population in the Valley of the Sun placed a high value on new sources of lumber. Lumbermen had avoided the Rim Country because there was such a high cost of bringing it out of the Sierra Ancha and Mazatzal Mountains. Harvey Bush realized there were great possibilities if he could enlist the help of the United States Forest Service in launching a planned road over the barrier of the Mazatzal Mountains. The Forest Service supervisors agreed on the need for a road. It would serve for fire protection as well as enable ranchers to commute to their grazing allotments.
With their cooperation, a road was planned that would follow the old army road into the Tonto Basin. The plan was ready by 1932, but America’s Great Depression left government unable to finance the project. Meanwhile, an argument raged between the community leaders in Mesa and Phoenix over which town should be the starting point for the road. Mesa won, arguing for the relief of unemployment, opening Maricopa County to new products (like lumber and recreation), and an increase in gasoline consumption increasing the county’s tax collections. It would also help ranchers who used the sheep drive, for feed could be readily transported along the trail.
The plan was to begin the route from Power Road in Mesa, take it to the Stewart Mountain Dam, over to Sunflower Valley following the old Reno Road, and then proceed around the base of Mount Ord through the cinnabar mining camp. The road would descend into Tonto Basin at Packard’s Store (Punkin Center), follow the new road from Roosevelt Dam to Jake’s Corner, and cross Rye Creek on the iron bridge at “The Narrows,” constructed in 1922 to aid in mail delivery. From there, it would climb Ox Bow Hill into Payson.
In 1933, the federal government rescued the plan when the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation pledged funding for the employment of 50 men. On March 21, Harvey Bush turned the first shovel of dirt, and Judge Gilbert gave a speech in which he officially named the road “The Harvey Bush Highway.”
Most of the work was done with pick and shovel, though there were so many cuts and culverts to build, work was slow. Foresters trained the neophyte workers and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors loaned heavy equipment for the more difficult stretches. The proposed completion date was July 1933, and the town of Payson planned a free barbecue for everyone. However, the work dragged on so long that festivity had to be canceled.
The incomplete road was at last opened to the public in 1934. Thirty to 50 cars a day immediately began using the Bush Highway, even as 200 lads from the Civilian Conservation Corps continued the construction. Their excellent work can still be seen along the old route, observed from parallel sections of State Highway 87. Driving from the Valley to Payson took from five to nine hours. Old timers tell how their early model Fords had to be backed up the inclines in order to allow the gravity-fed fuel to reach the engine. Hazardous creek crossings caused the loss of several lives, and modern archeological studies have discovered campsites, discarded food containers and auto parts witnessing to the difficulties of the trip. Early travelers could count on car parts shaking loose on the rocky, washboard surface; tires were flattened by sharp rocks; and radiators were blown by steep climbs. Mel Counsellor recalled those drives, “I shook the pickup bed off my truck driving that road. It was just a trail, rocks and boulders and washes. If you met a car you had to pull off; it was that narrow.”
Elaine Drorbaugh, former Payson Town Council member, recounts her trips on the Bush Highway. She and her husband, Walt, were caretakers at the Tonto Fish Hatchery. Trips up the mountain required leaving Mesa without breakfast because “you wouldn’t keep it down during the five and a half hour journey... You dared not leave town without a blanket, shovel, jugs of water and an ax.”
In 1937, Alf Randall, a businessman in Payson and Pine, was determined to do something to improve the Bush Highway. He called together a small group of civic-minded men to discuss what could be done. Payson merchant Guy Boardman, Harry Goodfellow, owner of the Natural Bridge, Jim Deming, Bill Haley and Grady Harrison drew up a petition for the highway to be included in the State Highway system. They submitted it to U. S. Senator Carl Hayden, but Regional Forester Frank Pooler responded to Senator Hayden that the government had already spent its funds for the development of the Bush Highway. Then he dropped a bombshell. “The Bureau of Public Roads is concentrating a greater portion of their survey allotment on the Verde River Project, and it is felt that inclusion of the Bush Highway… is too remote a possibility to justify a detailed survey from Forest funds at the present time. Furthermore, if the petitions for including of the Bush Highway on the State Highway System are successful, then State rather than Forest funds should finance the survey.”
Rim Country entrepreneurs thus discovered plans were being made by the State Highway Department to develop a major highway from Phoenix along the west side of the Verde River leading to Prescott and Flagstaff. This solidified the determination of local promoters, believing the north-south road should come over the Mazatzals instead of along the Verde, to service the Rim Country on its way to Winslow and Flagstaff. In response, they formed the Northern Gila County Chamber of Commerce, enlisting leaders from Gisela, Pine, Winslow and Mesa. They all knew such a newly developed road would not only make it easier to supply the Rim Country, but would bring a lucrative tourist trade.
Harvey Bush and Senator Hayden joined the Rim Country effort, placing political pressure on the government to complete a new survey of the Bush Highway. In 1939, their efforts were rewarded, and improvements on the graded highway were begun. However, cars still had to contend with rockslides, washboard gravel, a slick hill at Slate Creek, and treacherous creek crossings. A place to stop for respite, food, and auto repairs had been established at Sunflower when the Bush Highway first went through. In 1941 the family of Charles Harry Connolly purchased the business and property. Almost every car that came by stopped for water and food, if not repairs.
Nyle Leatham, who worked on the road crew, said, “Later people might reminisce about the good old days of isolation, but how we welcomed the new road then.”
He said that with the new grading “you could drive 50 miles an hour or so. I drove a cut down Chevy from Mesa to Payson in 3 hours and 15 minutes.”
Meanwhile, the government was helping employment in Payson by building a landmark that would endure for a century to come, the Rock School.
SOURCES: Oral histories and diaries found in the library archive of the Rim Country Museum; several articles from Arizona Highways Magazine during the 1940s and 1950s; From The Desert To the Mountains, Archaeology Study of State Route 87, by Karolyn Jensen, Statistical Research, Inc., Tucson; on site observations of Stan Brown; press releases from the Arizona Department of Transportation, 1987-1996.