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Days Past: Engine trouble: Prescott's 1893 railroad war - Part I

Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy photo<br>The first railroad train reaches Prescott, Jan. 1, 1887.

Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy photo<br>The first railroad train reaches Prescott, Jan. 1, 1887.

In the late 1800s there were significant mineral deposits in Central Arizona and fortunes were waiting to be made. But without any nearby navigable rivers, and given the rugged terrain, mine development was impeded. Railroads - if they could be built - offered the solution. So for a time there were two railways into Prescott but with only enough business to support one.

This happened despite Prescott's having lost much of its political clout and some of its population when the Territorial Capital moved to Phoenix in 1889. In fact, Prescott's population, while it was home to two competing railroads, was less than 1800 people.

This "war" had its origins in 1882 when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad tracks crossed Arizona Territory along the 35th parallel some 60 miles north of Prescott - after a substantial delay while Canyon Diablo was being bridged. The path to prosperity for Prescott and the surrounding mineral-rich area was clear - a railroad connecting Prescott to that northern Arizona main line. Thus, in the spring of 1884, a group of Prescott businessmen and politicians began a survey of rights of way between Prescott and the A&P line.

Local capital was not adequate to the task of construction, thus outside venture capitalists were approached and, in June 1885, two opposing groups of investors presented their plans. One syndicate, fronted by Oakes Murphy, a former territorial governor and still an Arizona political force, proposed a narrow gauge line from the A&P to Prescott with a branch line to Jerome. The second syndicate, headed by a wealthy newcomer, Thomas S. Bullock, proposed a standard gauge line from the A&P to Prescott but with no mention of a branch line to Jerome.

When pressure was placed on the Murphy and Bullock groups to end their competition, and to get construction started, the two companies combined. Internal turmoil on the board of directors was immediate and four months later Bullock forced Oakes Murphy and two others off the board. He won a skirmish, but also gained influential enemies.

Financial assistance for construction of the Bullock line came in part from Yavapai County. The county issued bonds at the rate of $4,000 per mile, but had stipulations including a requirement that any extension from Prescott to Phoenix must use the Hassayampa route (thru Wickenburg). Bullock agreed, but reluctantly, for he much preferred a Black Canyon route in order to bring his railway close to known mineral deposits in the Bradshaw Mountains.

There were two prospective routes from the A&P to Prescott: due south from Ash Fork or southeast from what is now Seligman. Bullock chose the longer Seligman route since it would be far easier to build.

In July 1886, the laying of track began. Construction moved rapidly because the route was over mostly level ground, requiring relatively few cuts and fills and little grading. Bullock's decision to use substandard construction practices speeded the work and further cut costs, but would cause maintenance headaches when the line went into service.

Construction continued without incident until late December when both of Bullock's locomotives were sabotaged and temporarily out of service. Bullock had to lease an engine from the A&P to complete construction. Initial construction into Prescott was completed Dec. 31, 1886, just at the county's deadline.

The new line had immediate problems. The two engines, each of Civil War vintage, were too small to handle more than six railroad cars at a time. There was no initial provision for turn around at Prescott, thus the first train had to back up all the way to Seligman. Poor quality roadbed construction caused problems in bad weather. As a result, rails and rolling stock were in continual disrepair, timetables were not followed and shipments were almost always late.

Most importantly there was no progress on a Prescott to Phoenix link while Bullock sought to lobby his way around the county's Wickenburg route requirement. Prescott's honeymoon with its new railroad was soon over and a war was inevitable when Bullock's stalling tactics involved another wealthy newcomer who desired a Prescott to Phoenix line - but one that must be via the Wickenburg route.

Next week: A new competitor enters the fray.

Days Past is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners, International ( This and other Days Past articles are available at The public is encouraged to submit articles for consideration. Contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 445-3122, ext. 14, or via email at for information.

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