Monday is 25th anniversary of the last freight train through Prescott
PRESCOTT - It happened abruptly and with little fanfare: On Sept. 22, 1983, the final Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe freight train left the Prescott Depot on Sheldon Street.
At the time, no one realized that that afternoon's train would end an era.
But just days afterward, remnants of a tropical storm washed out more than a mile of track, and the railroad opted not to make the repairs.
Prescott's rail service was already suffering by that time; the local freight train schedule was down to one or two arrivals a week, and passenger service had left about two decades earlier, say residents from the time.
1983's Tropical Storm Octave merely dealt the final blow.
Even though 25 years have gone by since the end of Prescott's railroad period, another era appears to have begun that day - one of nostalgia for the days when trains regularly made their way through the historic downtown.
As a boy growing up in Prescott, Marc Pearsall says he always was aware of the presence of trains. But it was not until after the final freight train left the community that Pearsall began to appreciate what the community had lost.
Now, as a railroad buff and transit professional in Tempe, Pearsall is among those who still harbor regrets over lost opportunities. "Growing up in a Santa Fe Railroad town, there was something about the depot - it got into the blood," said Pearsall, who now works for the City of Tempe's public transit division.
As a Prescott High School student, Pearsall got involved in the late-1980s effort to preserve the local railroad system for a possible tourist line or freight link.
According to information that Pearsall compiled in 2007 while working for the Arizona Department of Transportation, the railroad offered to sell the entire 28-mile Prescott Branch line, with rolling stock and locomotives, to the community for about $700,000, but the city could not come up with the money.
Ultimately, the railroad sold the branch line to a rail contractor, which scrapped and removed the line in 1992. "It would have been the cherry on the icing of Prescott," Pearsall said of the community's original plans to preserve the line for a scenic tourist route.
Longtime Prescott resident and businessman Cam Smith expresses similar views.
"Today, I think we would have had a freight line and a very beautiful scenic line," Smith says of the potential of the 1980s proposal. "The downtown would have been a lot more historic."
He also voices regret over the loss of the original Santa Fe rail link.
"There was a big negative effect," said Smith, who was involved with Yavapai Lumber at the time. "We got a lot of stuff by rail."
Along with lumber, he said trains delivered beer and fuel to the community - all of which had to switch to truck hauling after the railroad left.
Mary Baker, past director of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce, remembers putting in scores of hours on the effort to buy the railroad. "I wanted the city to buy the line," said Baker, now a Town Council member in Prescott Valley. "I thought they should leave it for transportation, because in 20 years, we would need to have rail again."
Baker added: "We fought it for a long time. Many of us were railroad buffs, and we could see the future (need)."
And of the $700,000 purchase price, Baker said, "It was not very much. Look at how many grants we've had to get for rails-to-trails."
Local historian Elisabeth Ruffner also referred to the hundreds of thousands of dollars the local communities have spent in recent years buying back the rail right-of-way for trails, such as Prescott's Peavine, and Prescott Valley's Iron King.
The value to the community "is something I couldn't even begin to measure," Ruffner said of the proposed purchase. "We wouldn't have had to use Federal Enhancement funds to buy back the property."
Prescott's freight trains were just the final remainder of the near century of local rail history, which dated back to about 1887 and originally included bustling passenger and freight routes.
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