Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We'll Be Coming Round The Mountain

Since I was a little kid, I loved to gaze out of train windows and tell myself stories about the landscape, the tall buildings and the people who lived in every part of the country. One summer on a visit to Arizona, My husband and I heard about The Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale, Arizona and being train buffs decided to board. We passed places that ignited my imagination.
The Verde Canyon Railroad, a standard gauge railroad built to haul copper ore, operates today as an excursion train. Our narrated journey took us up, down, around and through a rich geological hub; a natural habitat for raptors and mule deer, javelina (a pig-like animal), antelope, fox, coyote, elk and the occasional mountain lion. Foliage, trees, flowers and the Verde River contrast with pinnacles of red rocks and nature’s carvings of limestone and basalt.
We saw the mining town of Jerome, dubbed The City in the Sky and The Wickedest Town in the West, planted halfway up the side of the mountain on Cleopatra Hill above a vast deposit of copper.
Beneath the tracks, the Verde River, 160-miles long, plays host to carp, catfish, bass, bluegill and the Great Blue Heron. A river where we observed a Heron enjoying his aquatic lunch.
Cameras at the ready, we scanned the cliffs for dwellings inhabited by Pre-Columbian Sinaqua Indians between 100 and 1125 A.D. A cave outlined with soot from cooking fires is pointed out.
From a tent city to a prosperous company town to abandoned shops, homes and streets inhabited by lonesome ghosts-Jerome was restored to life fifty years later, in 1972, by flower children with a flair for the artistic. Today, about 500 residents, artists, writers, artisans and musicians, call the town home and welcome tourists who wander its streets, patronize boutiques and trendy restaurants and catch a glimpse of yesteryear in Jerome’s Historical Society Mine Museum.
Claims on Mingus Mountain were registered as early as 1876. Rough terrain hindered efforts to reach the closest railroad station in Pueblo, Colorado; a near impossible task. Completed in 1882, The Atlantic and Pacific narrow gauge railroad connected Jerome to the town of Ashfork (originally a stage depot) and eventually extended to Jerome Junction.
Close to the depot are the remains of The United Verde Copper Company purchased by Senator William A. Clark in 1888, the Senator reaped a windfall of $1 million per month in a seven year period. Clark learned the largest lode lay beneath the Jerome smelter; the smelter led to the birth of the town of Clarkdale named after the Senator who built the 38-mile United Verde and Pacific Railroad. Two hundred and fifty men, two hundred mules, picks and shovels and black powder explosives built the line in one year’s time, in 1895, at the cost of $1.3 million equal to $40 million in present day dollars. The coal-fired railroad soon switched to oil after embers from the coal-fire kept burning down the trestle above the town of Jerome.
The first Verde Canyon excursion train, powered by one diesel locomotive, pulled out of the Clarksdale yard with 180 passengers on November 23, 1993 – destination Perkinsville, Today, the forty-mile round trip to the Pekinsville Station takes about four hours at ten to twelve miles per hour.
We passed a hard, gray slag heap that covers about forty acres; waste material from the smelter poured in a molten state. Old timers tell tales of red-hot ribbons glowing through the night. The slag heap has been purchased for the purpose of extracting millions of dollars in gold and copper. The job will, it is estimated, take twenty years.
Beneath the tracks, the Verde River, 160-miles long, flows; it stems from a natural spring northwest of the canyon near Ashfork; eight major creeks supply the riparian river where carp, catfish, bass and bluegill thrive. The water plays host to the Great Blue Heron; the bluish-gray wading bird, who measures three to four feet tall, enjoys fishing. Unfortunately, the heron has taken the day off but we were able to observe an eagle enjoying his aquatic lunch.
The Verde Valley has been with us since prehistoric times; sediments deposited in what was once a great but shallow lake created layers of limestone throughout the valley. To the left of the lake bed, a red sandstone formation circles the towering volcanic Black Mountain (1,000 feet above the other rocks); its soil rich with plant life.
An old telegraph line is pointed out as the train begins to descend into the canyon; the crew carried a transmitter and would tap into the line, the only means of communication in the early days. On the left side of the train is a basalt cliff, a 300 million-year-old formation composed of huge blocks of sandstone with irregular deposits of fine-grained shale that decomposes into mud when exposed to the atmosphere. On the far side of the river is a circle of stones; the long ago dwelling of Hohokam Indians. Seams and scraps of calcium carbonate in the cliff’s fissures are a legacy of the water that covered the area before it evaporated.
The natives chased wild game into an arroyo (a deep gully) where hunters trapped the animals. The area is home to mule deer, javelina (a pig-like animal), antelope, fox, coyote, elk and the occasional mountain lion. We searched the Red Rocks but a lonesome cow was the only animal in view. Meat would supplement the Sinaqua’s diet of corn, squash, beans and peas. Cactus (Ocotillo and Prickly Pear used for jellies and hand creams) and Banana Yucca (Native Americans ate the fruit, made soap and braided the fibers for sandals) as well as wild-flowers decorate the scene. The Sinaqua left the area around 1400; some archeologists believe they moved to northeastern Arizona and were absorbed by another tribe of Native Americans.
The train passed Sycamore Canyon -known as The Little Grand Canyon-. Beyond Sycamore, the lands on both sides of the river are part of the Coconnino or Prescott National Forests. Red-tailed hawks, black hawks, owls and ravens make their home along the Verde River and several pairs of bald eagles-the birds mate for life- migrate to the North Verde Canyon each year while at least thirty-five bald and golden eagles winter from December through March. Black and Decker, a pair of resident Bald Eagles, fledged an eaglet in 1993 and have hatched progeny including twins ever since.
The Sycamore Creek and the Verde River meet and our train entered Verde River Canyon. Beliefs, yarns and secrets thrive in the Sycamore Wilderness Area. The tin roof of an old ranch house came into view and we heard the story of Mr. and Mrs. Packard who homesteaded 60 acres between 1890 and 95. Mr. Packard lacked moral restraint; Mrs. Packard forged his name on a quick claim deed, sold the property for $1,800, bought a rifle and two horses and disappeared. A 19th Century version of the television show Without a Trace. Then there’s the saga of a lost Spanish goldmine, discovered in the 1760s, with a rich vein of gold, five to ten miles east of Perkinsville. All but two of the conquistadors were killed by Apaches but the mine has never been found.
A purplish-brown rock called Tapeats Sandstone came into view as we left Sycamore Canyon. Above the sandstone is Martin Limestone with some layers that contain materials that have an oil-like odor that are thought to date back to the Age of Fishes 416 million to 358 million years ago when bizarre, diverse and abundant lobe-framed fish swam in the Devonian Seas. Redwall Limestone, a mixed reddish-pink called Mottled, tops the Martin. A majority of the caves are in the Redwall.
Trees to the right of the train are plentiful: white-barked sycamores, cottonwoods, willows with their heart-shaped leaves and walnut and box elder, ashes and oaks fraternize with juniper and mesquite and add a wealth of cool, verdant green to parts of the region providing shade for the water.
The Red Rocks, sculpt into fantastic shapes by nature are given fanciful names by whimsical residents of Sedona. Cameras are aimed at Elephant Rock, Turtle Rock, Whistler’s Mother, Balancing Rock and The Budweiser Frogs. Clouds streak across the sky and hover over the cliff; a screen of watercress tries to hide a stream of cold water, called Big String, spilling over rocks into the Verde River.
We removed our sunglasses as we pass through a man-made 680 ft. curved tunnel carved out of solid limestone; we emerge and cross a steel bridge. The walls on both sides of the track have dropped away and we were now in the Perkinsville Valley. In 1912, the railroad placed a station on a ranch owned by A.M. Perkins. The buildings are all old structures: a bunkhouse, the base of a water tower, the old depot and a house originally occupied by the Santa Fe station master. The stop became a ghost town in the early 1950s. An additional eighteen miles of track, still used for hauling freight by the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad, runs to the town of Drake and meets the Santa Fe Line.
The engines on our train reversed and our return trip to Clarkdale began. An opportunity to see sights missed, moments to be captured on film and in memory and a chance to watch an eagle, as we did, glide high above the rocks, wheel, salute, and bid us farewell then soar higher and higher into the sapphire sky.



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