The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 46: The town comes of age with a highway

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Editor’s note: This is the last of Stan Brown’s “book” on the history of the town — from wilderness Indian country to modern town. Next Brown will begin a fascinating series taken from the diary of the first teacher in Tonto Basin. “I found her handwritten diary in the Sharlot Hall Museum, and have spent the last several years transcribing it and researching all the references to people, places and events. I think it will be of great interest in the Rim Country as she describes life in Tonto Basin in 1880, and gives intimate descriptions of those pioneer families there,” he writes.

Eager eyes were cast increasingly upon Payson and the Rim Country from the Phoenix metropolitan area as desert dwellers longed for an easier road over the Mazatzal Mountains. The Northern Gila County Chamber of Commerce was equally eager to receive tourists from the Valley. With pressure from both sides of the mountain, a new day was about to dawn for Payson. It might be said the town was about to “come of age in the modern world” and lose its isolation.

It was in the early 1950s that a Maricopa County supervisor named Jim Hart joined forces with the regional chamber of commerce to forge a more modern road over the mountain than the slow and dangerous Bush Highway. Supervisor Hart had a summer home in Payson, to which he often retreated, and he interceded with the Salt River Pima and Fort McDowell Indian tribes to obtain a diagonal right-of-way across their reservations from McDowell and Country Club in Mesa to the intersection with the Bush Highway at the Saguaro Lake turnoff. This shortcut gave the name “Beeline Highway” to the project. From there the old route was to be upgraded, curves straightened, bridges installed, and the leg around Mount Ord was moved west along Slate Creek to eliminate the rough trail down through old Camp Reno.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

A monument to Jim Hart was placed near the place where he lost his life.

The workers, among them some Payson residents, attacked the route with vigor, dynamiting their way through the canyons and hillsides. The crew lived at the cinnabar mining camp along Slate Creek, called Goswick Camp. One of the workers was Mel Counseller, who had never operated a jackhammer before.

“Those first few days I suffered,” he reported. “My wrists were so sore. I’ve seen guys with their wrists swollen to twice their normal size. But you got used to it. The jackhammers got so hot we had to wrap them in the sacks the dynamite came in so we could hold onto them. And it was pretty loud. I think that’s how I lost my hearing.”

Sometimes the rocks from a blast rained down on the neophyte highway workers. Counseller told how the fumes from the nitroglycerin in the dynamite gave them headaches, and the foreman had to go to Payson to the doctor at least once “he hurt so bad he thought his head was gonna come off.”

One of the trucks had no brakes and when driver Del Medlin backed the load up to a canyon to dump it over the edge, he pulled the emergency brake to stop the truck but the brake handle came off in his hand. The truck kept rolling and Del jumped out of the truck just as it went over the cliff. [1]

By the second half of the 1950s the Beeline Highway was still a gravel road, but traffic was increasing. It was evident the road needed to be paved before the roadbed was completely destroyed. That pavement was laid, forming the first paved road over the mountain into Payson, and the ribbon for the two-lane highway was cut when it reached Payson, July 19, 1958.

The Arizona Republic proclaimed, “At last Payson is connected with the outside world by a paved road.” [2]

The quiet, backwater town was on the threshold of a population and land boom. To celebrate, the people of Payson hosted a free barbecue, the one they had to postpone back in 1933 when the Bush Highway did not make it when planned.

The Republic newspaper went on to say, “The old-timers of Payson have long hoped for a paved road to Phoenix. Some had about given up and figured they wouldn’t live to see it. Now that the new road is there, the old cow town is taking on some very marked changes. The sound of hammers echoes from the sides of new commercial buildings, permanent and summer mountain homes …” [3]

Valley newspapers heralded Supervisor Jim Hart as the “Father of the Beeline,” and a movement was launched to honor him by naming the highway “the Hartline.” However, on Feb. 6, 1960, Jim Hart was killed on his way home from Payson in single car accident near the intersection of Shea Boulevard.

Paysonites, grateful for his contribution, were moved to memorialize him with the purchase of a piece of equipment for the Lewis Pyle Memorial Hospital, where Hart had served on the board. The money raised was not quite enough for the equipment planned, so the fund was directed instead to a monument on the highway near the place where Hart lost his life.

The pavement brought a huge increase in traffic over the following 20 years, becoming for desert dwellers a gateway to one of the state’s finest recreation areas. [4]

Likewise, the growing population of the Rim Country was grateful for quicker transportation to the Valley of the Sun. When life began running out for the surface of the two-lane road, and auto and truck accidents mounted, the Arizona Department of Transportation planned to make this historic route a four-lane, divided highway. Gradually, segment-by-segment, this was engineered and built. In the late 1970s and early 1980s sections from Payson south to the junction of State Route 188 were built. Then between 1995 and 2001 the $170 million highway from McDowell Road in Mesa north to State Route 188 was under construction. The modern highway, with its engineering feats, received many awards, and in November 2003 the State Board for Highway Designation gave this route over the Mazatzals a new name: The Beeline Scenic Parkway.

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

This monument to Maricopa County Supervisor Jim Hart was erected in remembrance of his role in getting improvements made to the Beeline Highway.

It seemed that a saga of Arizona history had ended, and a new one was about to begin. From 19th century settlers pressing for military protection, to the economic ambitions of 20th century merchants and local politicians, roads across the Mazatzal Mountains were deemed a necessity. From the military departments during the Apache War to the supervisors and Forest Service superintendents of Maricopa and Gila counties, it took influential persons in high places to get the job done. The completion of this major highway across the Mazatzals had a social, economic and political impact on both the Salt River Valley and Payson. The road eventually spawned a number of commuters who could now travel to their business headquarters in the Valley several times a week while working on their personal computers at home the rest of the time.

From the early days of the first Bush Highway local leaders stated that tourism would be the key to Payson’s future economy. The scenic highway became the gateway for visitors to Payson, the Rim Country and beyond, with its prime recreational opportunities for hunting, fishing, camping and escaping the desert heat. From a small mining and ranching center in the waning days of Apache occupation, the frontier town of Payson had taken on the heartthrob of a modern American town.

[1] Payson Roundup, February 8, 1985, interview with Bill Gist and Mel Counseller by columnist Beth Counseller, page A8.

[2] Arizona Republic article from 1959 found in the Rim Country Museum archives, Gilbert Collection, folder 3

[3] Ibid

[4] Between 1980 and 1996 traffic on the narrow two-lane pavement quadrupled, and injuries and deaths increased 25 percent each year, according to ADOT. In those years, 152 people died on the Beeline Highway; not one year was free of fatalities.

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