The Little Engine That Did. Verde Canyon Railroad.
It all started in the tiny town of Jerome, Arizona that clings to a steep-angled mountainside two thousand feet above the valley floor. There is nothing easy or accessible about Jerome, yet during its heyday, over 15,000 residents called this vertical burg their home. They were here for the mines, which through the decades, churned out a billion dollars worth of gaudy ore. It was the wealth of the mines that lured them but it was the railroad that brought them.
The railroads were the arteries that conquered the unforgiving landscape and fed the communities of the Verde Valley. While the mines have been closed over half a century, the Railroad continues to be an economic engine for the region.
In 1895, the first track laid directly into Jerome was the United Verde & Pacific Railway, which originated from Jerome Junction near Chino Valley. With 186 curves on the short 26-mile narrow gauge stretch, the Railroad became known as the crookedest line in the world. The builder, William Andrews Clark, also owned United Verde Copper Company and would continue to leave his indelible imprint on the area, including a town with his namesake.
The shift from underground to open-pit mining led to a complete restructuring of Jerome and the surrounding area. Construction of a new smelter began on the valley floor, changing the bucolic landscape, choking out farms and orchards but creating an entirely new town. Clarkdale — named after William Andrews Clark — was Arizona’s first company town, designed with precision planning and technological advancements far from the norm in the early 1900s. The community of sturdy brick homes included modern conveniences such as electricity, sewer and copper piping.
In 1911 Clark financed construction of the Verde Valley Railway, a 38-mile standard gauge line from Clarkdale to Drake. It took 700 men using picks, shovels and dynamite one year to complete the task. It was an astonishing feat considering that the line included a 734-foot tunnel carved through a mountain and a trestle spanning a 175-foot gorge aptly named S.O.B. Canyon. Completed in 1912, the Verde Mix, as it was nicknamed, proved to be a workhorse, continuing to haul passengers and freight even after the mines closed.
Railroads link the shores of the east coast to the west coast, the mountains of the northwest to the deserts of the southwest, and the fields of grain to the factories, mills and high rises. Fortunately there are those who keep this American institution alive and Dave Durbano is one of them. He is often asked how he became interested in railroading. Here is a snippet of how Verde Canyon Railroad came to be.
In his youth, Dave, the youngest of three sons, lived on a farm near railroad tracks in Roy, Utah. Along with helping his parents, Vic and Carmela, and grandfathers on the farm, he kept active by riding his bicycle, hunting rodents in the fields with a BB gun and playing war games with the neighborhood boys. Focusing his energy on learning to fly as a young teen, by age 16, Dave soloed and began flying his tandem-seated Super Cub across the Utah frontier.
By his early 20s, Dave was the quintessential salesman, peddling vacuum cleaners, portrait albums, monastery baked goods and new or used cars. He invested in mercury mines in Nevada and gold claims in Idaho and dabbled in penny stocks. In his late 20s, Dave and a few others advanced a concept for making industrial pallets and utility boxes into the manufacturing of railroad grade crossings. Dave was the force who sold the innovative grade crossings to cities, states, municipalities, counties and industries. He found that selling them was easy; getting them installed was another story. Maintenance crews for major railroads didn’t want to be bothered putting in grade crossings for entities other than themselves. Dave seized the opportunity to start a railroad construction business which eventually branched out from installing crossings to building and maintaining industrial tracks. This was the birth of Western Railroad Builders.
During the early 1980s, Western Railroad Builders constructed a rail line near Soda Springs, Idaho for the Conda Partnership (now Monsanto). They mined phosphorus used in many products such as soft drinks, toothpaste, baking and leavening agents, water treatment chemicals, insecticides and herbicides. Because of Dave’s railroad experience and entrepreneurial drive, he was given the opportunity to move the product on the industrial spur to the Union Pacific Railroad’s mainline.
Shortly thereafter, most major railroads started to divest themselves of small feeder lines less than 500 miles long. Because Western Railroad Builders had a solid reputation for quality workmanship and timeliness, with keen construction, maintenance of way and operational knowledge, Dave was asked to bid on many of these shortlines. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was the successful bidder on five different short lines. One of those railroads was the one presently traveled by Verde Canyon Railroad. In 1988 Dave purchased the Drake to Clarkdale, Arizona line from the Santa Fe Railroad based on freight figures alone, without seeing the condition of the track or the scenic corridor through which the rails were laid. His first trip through the canyon was on the front of a GP9 locomotive. This was the birth of Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad (AZCR) but the narrative was far from complete. The undisturbed wilderness, ancient ruins and ageless geology that Dave viewed in the Verde Canyon from the front of that GP7 wouldn’t let him rest until he figured out a way to have others experience what he had felt on that maiden voyage.
The first excursion train of the Verde Canyon Railroad rolled out of the Clarkdale depot on November 23, 1990. It carried neither freight nor ore, only people, seeking the beauty of a wild river-carved canyon where eagles nest among high cliffs and wind makes music in the cottonwoods. Along the way they hoped to catch a glimmer of the ones who came before, whose perseverance, vision and hard work made it all possible. That’s what a railroad is: not just lengths of iron linking one place to another, but a symbolic connection of the past to the present.
People travel from all over the world to ride the rails into the Verde Canyon — an average of 90,000 people per year. They come to experience the sights and to revel in the casual elegance of train travel as they discover the heritage of the landscape. It’s a journey worth taking. It is the scenery that lures them, but it is the Railroad that still brings them … because it’s always a good day when you’re on a train.