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Tue, March 19

New book details Ash Fork boom-and-bust history

The cover of “Images of America: Ash Fork.”

Courtesy<br> The cover of “Images of America: Ash Fork.”

Fires and losing its economic mainstays have ravaged Ash Fork, but nothing has ever kicked this community all the way to the ground.

Arizona's Official Historian Marshall Trimble lived through some of Ash Fork's hard times as a youngster in the 1940s and 1950s, so he was a perfect choice when Arcadia Publishing was looking for someone to author Ash Fork's history for its latest "Images of America" series.

"It really was a labor of love," Trimble said.

Trimble also wrote a humorous tale about fictitious Ash Fork characters in 1999 entitled "Never Give a Heifer a Bum Steer." This new book, however, is all facts alongside a wealth of historic photos that sometimes feature Trimble himself.

Trimble dedicated the book to Ash Fork's long-time historian Fayrene Hume, whose extensive photo collection helped fill the book.

The site of Ash Fork has been along a major traveling route since prehistoric times. Lt. Edward Beale sealed its fate when he went through with his camel expedition in 1858 to carve out a wagon route.

The railroad followed the same general route in 1882, and within a few months the town sprung up. By 1895 a north-south railroad route to Phoenix added to the town's importance.

In 1885 the first in a series of devastating fires hit the downtown and destroyed nine businesses. The next one struck in 1893, then another in 1905.

Trimble's family had its own problems with fires. The first two partially burned the little trailer they called home, when chimney sparks ignited a tarp his father had placed over the leaky roof.

Trimble was accidentally responsible for the third fire when he absentmindedly filled an oil can with gasoline instead of kerosene when his mother sent him to the station. His mother poured the gasoline on wet wood that she was using to heat a drum full of water for the family laundry.

Flames burst into the air when his mother lit the wood.

"It did start a fire," Trimble recalled. "It started a fire in my mother, too.She cussed me out in three languages."

With the railroad came other industries, such as the huge stockyards where ranchers would ship their herds much faster than they used to trail them.

Fred Harvey chose Ash Fork for perhaps his most majestic Harvey House of all. Trimble, who shined shoes there, dedicates an entire chapter to the stately 1907 Escalante hotel and restaurant that served countless railroad travelers.

Ash Fork got another huge boost when the government built Route 66 through it in 1926.

But within three decades, the series of economic blows hit town.

The railroad company moved its main route north of town in the late 1950s to avoid a steep climb to Williams.

Like all the railroad men who worked out of Ash Fork, the job for Trimble's dad moved to the Phoenix area. His father had worked on the north-south Peavine route through Prescott that is gone now, too. Trimble remembers riding that route and swimming at Prescott's Granite Dells.

Ironically, even though it was one of the few historic structures to survive numerous fires, the railroad tore down the Escalante in 1968.

Hume begged then-Gov. Jack Williams, whose father worked at the Escalante, to save it.

"He said, 'It's their property and they can do whatever they want,'" Hume recalled. "I just wanted him to at least talk to them."

Ash Fork lost nearly all that was left of its original Route 66 business district in 1977 to the "Big Fire" and then to another multi-structure blaze in 1987.

The final major blow to Ash Fork's existing economy came in 1979 when the Interstate 40 bypass south of town was complete.

The Arizona Department of Transportation closed its major Ash Fork maintenance facility that same year.

But today, Ash Fork has made a museum and tourist center out of the cavernous ADOT structure, one of the few historic buildings left along Route 66.

And the town continues to make a living off its major remaining economic engine, the flagstone quarries that surround it. These quarries produce some of the most sought-after construction flagstone in the world.

"Ash Fork is like an old boxer who keeps getting knocked down but refuses to quit and keeps getting up again to fight another round," Trimble writes in the last chapter.

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