Frank Murphy’s Impossible Railroad

State historian Marshall Trimble recounts the story behind a masterpiece in engineering and one of the most spectacular standard-gauge railroad lines in the country. Bradshaw Mountain Railway 1

Gold was first discovered in the Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona in 1863. Over the next few years, prospectors would comb the hills south of Prescott in search of treasure. Soon, the mineral-rich mountains were dotted with mines large and small. Once the prospector’s pick hit pay dirt, it wasn’t long before somebody built a town nearby. They gave them picturesquely whimsical names like Big Bug, Bumble Bee, and Rich-in-Bar.

The biggest problem facing the miners was transporting their newfound wealth back to civilization. There were millions of dollars in gold and silver in those hills, but it cost $21.50 a ton to haul ore by muleback across the mountains to Prescott. The town of Crown King sat on top of a mountain at 6,000 feet elevation. Some of the slopes were so steep, it was said that “mountain goats had to shut their eyes and walk sideways.” Mining men speculated the possibilities of building a railroad to the town to haul out the gold. “Impossible!” they concluded.

They should have known that you never tell an Irishman that something’s impossible. Frank Murphy was a visionary who thrived on doing the impossible. A few years earlier, he’d built a railroad from Ash Fork to Phoenix, linking the capital city with the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad in northern Arizona that marked the closing of the frontier period in Arizona history.

The Santa Fe Prescott and Phoenix Railroad line was better known as the Peavine. My father was an engineer on the Peavine for some 30 years. It had so many twists and turns south of Ash Fork that an early rider declared, “This ain’t a railroad line; this is a pea vine.” And the name stuck.

Crown King, sitting high atop the Bradshaw Mountains, was a boisterous town in its heyday as a mining town. During the 1890s, 17 men were killed here, mostly in arguments over women and card games.

In 1888, the Crowned King Mining Company was organized and shipped their first bullion, a 146-pound gold bar worth $46,720. Soon, the town had 500 residents with stores, hotels, sawmills, a church, a school, and a burro express to Prescott. The town’s rich payroll also supported the saloons, gambling dens, and bordellos that sprung up nearby.

The Crowned King produced $1.5 million during the 1890s and thousands of other mines dotted the area, but the shipment of ore and mining-supplies transportation created enormous problems. That’s when Murphy approached the financial backers of the Prescott and Eastern Railroad about the idea of building branch lines into the rugged Bradshaw Mountains. Their response was favorable, and Murphy incorporated the Bradshaw Mountain Railway. The line would have two branches. One would go eight miles up Big Bug Creek to the Poland Mine—that’s just south of the town of Humboldt on State Route 69. The other line began at the end of the Prescott and Eastern Railroad terminus at Mayer up to Crown King in the pine-covered slopes of the Bradshaws, 3,000 feet above Turkey Creek in the valley below. The 28-mile road from Mayer to Crown King would be difficult to build but would run through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Arizona. It was 13 miles to the top, and the grade was so steep that they needed a dozen tight switchbacks. For every two miles of track, it took seven miles of track to cover it.

Work began on the Poland spur, and on Jan. 29, 1902, while blasting out a cut for an approach to a tunnel, workers uncovered a rich vein of gold and copper 400 feet long and six to 12 feet wide. Most of the Murphy’s workers quit their $2-a-day jobs and became gold miners. Murphy quickly imported a couple of carloads of Irish tracklayers to pick up the slack, and on April 29, the railroad reached Poland.

Following completion of the Poland line, work was immediately begun on the Crown King branch. Work was relatively easy between Mayor and Cleator, but the country became rough and required several switchbacks to ascend the mountain. Unstable soil along with the incredibly steep grade made construction difficult. Switchbacks had to be blasted out of the mountainside. A crew of 600 workers, mostly Irish, battled through the brutal winter of 1903–04, and on May 4, the first steam engine chuffed its way up the mountain and rolled into Crown King. The 60-mile trip from Prescott took almost five hours. The impossible had just become possible.

Murphy’s railroad was recognized as a masterpiece in engineering and remains one of the most spectacular standard-gauge railroad lines in the country. By 1907, the mining districts in the area were producing more than $1,140,000 in gold and silver annually. The area continued to boom right up through World War I, but during the post-war depression, metal prices fell dramatically and many of the rich bodies of ore began to play out. The engines had become old and worn from the hard pull up the mountain.

In 1920, the railroad abandoned the Crown King branch. The Poland spur closed soon after. Frank Murphy didn’t live to see the demise of his impossible railroad. He died in Prescott on Aug. 22, 1917.

After the trains quit running, residents of Crown King used horse-pulled rail cars to haul supplies up the mountain. The cars rolled back down the mountain, using hand brakes to control the speed. In the fall of 1926, a special excursion train chuffed up to Crown King for one last ride. By 1939, both branches of the Bradshaw Mountain Railway were completely abandoned. The tracks were pulled out, and automobiles began using the old track bed for a road.

During the next couple of decades, Salt River Valley residents motored up the rough road to Crown King to escape the summer heat. Nearby Horsethief Basin was a Phoenix City Park complete with fishing pond, tennis courts, and outdoor theater. Today, visitors can still drive the dirt road following the lazy switchbacks to the top of the mountain at Crown King on what used to be the track bed of Frank Murphy’s “Impossible Bradshaw Mountain Railroad.”

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