|Verde Canyon Railroad excursion soon after leaving
the Clarkdale depot
Verde Canyon Railroad:--Rail Fanning in a Mining District
By Don Woodwell
While visiting the Grand Canyon recently, my wife and I happened
upon a brochure describing the Verde Canyon Railroad (VCRR) excursion
train. After riding the Grand Canyon Railway, my wife was not
real keen on another train trip, but this one looked different.
The train went along the bottom of a river canyon instead of
overlooking it from a mile above. We asked around our Sedona
(AZ) resort and learned that that the VCRR was at one time a
supply train for a copper ore smelter that was mined in nearby
Jerome. This was really beginning to sound interesting since
I'd been planning to model a narrow gauge mining railroad.
Jerome was built at the site of a huge, rich copper deposit
that was staked out in 1876, the town was named after its principal
backer, Eugene Jerome. The town's fortunes swung pendulum-like
based on copper's value for the next 77 years when the last mine
and the Clarkdale smelter closed. It was in these times that
railroading played a major role in copper mining and the development
of Northern Arizona.
Driving southwest from Sedona, we headed down a long slope and
in the distance across the Verde Valley we could see Jerome nestled
high on the opposite mountains glistening in the bright morning
sun. After visiting the Jerome State Historic Park (JSHP) we
enjoyed a nice breakfast in the English Kitchen, one of the original
Jerome restaurants (1899). The JSHP is the mansion built by James
Douglas -- owner of the Little Daisy Mine -- and the nearby land.
It's filled with mining artifacts and geological dioramas depicting
the location of the rich copper ore veins in the surrounding
It wasn't until after we arrived in Clarkdale for the Noon departure
of the VCRR excursion train, that I found Russell Wahmann's(¹)
book that described so well the huge engineering challenges that
faced the Jerome railroad builders in the late 1800's.
Trains transported copper ore to the Clarkdale smelter by standard
gauge locos and ore cars, and Wahmann's book inspires those of
us who want to model mining operations such as these. Locomotives
used on the Jerome to Clarkdale line include a three-truck Climax
loco (unusual for a mining operation), a couple of ALCO 0-6-0s,
and eventually two ALCO 2-6-6-2 Mallets that were purchased to
handle the heavy ore car loads from the mine to the smelter.
We arrived at the VCRR's modern, two story, southwestern-style
depot with plenty of time to buy our tickets, browse the book
store, and take train photos before we boarded one of the restored
passenger cars. The train consists of both open and closed cars
so you can either watch the scenery in deeply cushioned comfort
or stand out on the open cars to take photos. We did both as
our first class coach had a food and drink table that we couldn't
pass up. The tour guide on the open car had a continuous stream
of colorful stories about Verde Canyon's history, flora, and
fauna especially the bald eagles that nest there. The Verde River
flowing through the canyon is flanked with cottonwood trees giving
it a green color almost year round, hence the Spanish description, "verde."
In 1911, the Santa Fe started grading for the Verde Valley Railroad.
This standard gauge, 38-mile line from Drake to Clarkdale to
follows the twisting Verde River through the Verde Canyon for
the 18 miles east from Perkinsville to Clarkdale. In some places,
the river and the railroad share space only a few feet apart.
A few miles east of Perkinsville, a relatively short but significant
tunnel cuts through a sharp promontory. The new railroad enabled
the United Verde copper mine to receive heavy materials for the
new planned smelter at Clarkdale.
The railroad supported the mine smelter until operations petered
out in 1953. By 1959, however, the railroad's survival was ensured
when the American Cement Company began operations. Initially,
the plant supplied cement to the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Arizona,
but eventually it's' output was and still is fed into Phoenix
to boost that city's growth. The VVRR became the cement plant's
lifeline by supplying both coal and coke to feed the plant's
huge appetite for both raw materials. The plant's limestone reserves
are estimated at 150 years giving today's VCRR a steady customer;
and the base for long-term excursion service.
Dave Durbano of the Arizona Central Railroad purchased -- sight
unseen -- the Verde Valley Railroad from the Santa Fe Railroad
in 1988 based on its' freight revenues. On Dave's first trip
through the Verde Canyon he was struck by the undisturbed wilderness
and decided to add an excursion service to his freight line so
that others would be able to appreciate the scenery and discover
the line's historical significance
Engineer waves to the passengers
as the FP7 runs around the train for the return from
Perkinsville to Clarkdale
The Verde Canyon trains are pulled by FP7 numbers 1510 and 1512
-- only two of twelve that remains in North American service.
The long story of the FP7s began in 1966 when they were first
delivered to the Alaska Railroad. Later they serviced the Wyoming-Colorado
Railroad. Trains consist of both Pullman Standard cars (1946-47
vintage) and stainless steel cars built by the Budd Company.
The latter were once part of Santa Fe's "El Capitan" route
between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Twenty-three of the mileposts from Clarkdale (MP 38) to Perkinsville
(MP 18.5) are highlighted in the official VCRR magazine(²)
making it easy to pick out the more historical or spectacular
scenes. The 40-mile round trip takes 3 ½ to 4 hours at
a leisurely 12 mph. There are no paved roads into the canyon
so the area is pristine, and taking the train is much less strenuous
than the hiking alternative. Quite simply, riding the train is
a comfortable way to get up close and personal, and enjoy the
Verde Canyon's natural beauty!
VCRR train in a deep canyon along the route to
The line's operating schedule accommodates the morning freight
train that goes to Drake to pick up incoming raw materials for
the cement plant. When our passenger train returned from Perkinsville,
the freight was right behind it. After we stopped at the depot,
the freight cars trundled past on their way to feed coal to the
We met a lot of other fine folks who were rail fans like us.
Some were out-of-towners or just local. We all felt that our
day spent on the VCRR was great plain fun and very enjoyable!
(¹) Wahmann, Russell, Verde Valley Railroads: Trestles,
Tunnels, & Tracks, Jerome Historical Society, Jerome, AZ
(²) Rail: Official Magazine of the Verde Canyon Railroad,
L.C., 300 N. Broadway, Clarkdale, AZ, 86324-2302
These spires are close by the track just after
leaving the only tunnel on the line