A History of Seligman, Arizona
A RAILROAD RUNS THROUGH IT
In the 1850s, pioneers like businessman Francois Xavier Aubrey and surveyor Lt. “Ned” Beale, through trial and error, forged the best travel route through Northern Arizona. Wagons first began moving out west on that trail, then the railroad tracks were laid along that same path, and eventually paved thoroughfares like Route 66 and Interstate 40 followed the same course. Seligman is one of the many towns that popped up along this well-traveled route.
Although the Civil War would delay track construction for years, in 1866 the Atlantic Pacific Railroad obtained the right to build along the 35th parallel from Albuquerque to California. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad, which owned the majority of Atlantic Pacific stock made an agreement with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, also known as “Santa Fe”, to build the railroad through Arizona. Construction of railroad lines did not start in Arizona until the 1880s and presented problems due to rocky ground, large washes, and lack of water and workers. But through much hard work by many laborers, the railroad through Arizona reached Flagstaff by 1881, the location of the future sight of Seligman (known as Mint Valley at the time) by 1882, and the Colorado River in August of 1883.
Seligman, first named “Prescott Junction”, started in its exact location because of the town of Prescott’s determination to be connected to the newly constructed railroad line 72 miles to the north. Prescottonian, Tom Bullock, proposed to build a railroad track to connect Prescott to the main railroad line at a point they named Prescott Junction and he raised $300,000 to finance his venture.
In his agreement with Yavapai County in May 1886, Bullock agreed to a $1000/a mile penalty if the railroad line was not completed by midnight December 31, 1886. After overcoming one obstacle after another the last spike was driven five minutes before the midnight deadline. The railroad line, named the Prescott and Arizona Central (P. & A.C.), finally connected Prescott to the goods and traveling opportunities on the mainline.
By the time the P. & A.C. was completed in 1886, railroad officials had renamed Prescott Junction “Seligman” after Jesse Seligman, of J.W. Seligman Co. of New York, to honor him for his firm’s contributions in financing the railroad lines in the area. Although officially renamed Seligman in 1886 the town was still referred to as Prescott Junction on rail maps for years.
Eventually the P. & A.C. proved inefficient and use of the line ceased in August 1893 in favor of other superior lines to the Phoenix main rail line. Seligman lost its place as the junction to Prescott but the community remained and by 1895 Seligman had its own post office.
Due to faster trains, and changes in train schedules, the railroad found that it needed to change division points. In 1897, the divisions at Williams and Peach Springs were consolidated at Seligman because of the area’s abundance of easily traversable flat land. This designation brought new life to the small town. Seligman became a large switching yard consisting of many tracks and served as an important livestock shipping center. According to the August 13, 1897 edition of the Southwestern Stockman out of Phoenix, “Up in Northern Arizona the Santa Fe is practically making a new town. It is at Seligman, once called Prescott Junction, where the now defunct Prescott and Arizona Central road had its junction with the Atlantic and Pacific.”
Houses sprang up for the growing number of railroad workers based in the town. Seligman was also a regular layover for railroad laborers working on the trains between Winslow, Arizona and Needles, California. Many residents of Seligman built small rooming houses, little more than shacks, in their backyards that helped temporarily house these railroad workers traveling along the line.
SOPHISTICATION FINDS SELIGMAN
In the early part of the 20th century most long distance travel was accomplished by train travel. Since these trains did not have sleeping cars or dining cars, all trains stopped frequently for lunches and for overnight stays. In order to accommodate these needs, the Fred Harvey Company in conjunction with the Santa Fe Railroad built a chain of hotels and lunch counters called “Harvey Houses” to offer the well-to-do train clientele gourmet food and elegant accommodations throughout the Wild West.
In 1905, a Harvey House opened in Seligman and significantly changed the face of the town. One of 23 Harvey House railway hotels in the country, “The Havasu”, named after the native Havasupai tribe of the area, was built in the territorial Spanish style. The Havasu and the accompanying Santa Fe Depot and Reading Room consisted of an upscale train depot with platform and ticket office, a grand 2-story hotel with an elegant surrounding garden, a lunch counter, and a fine dining room.
The Havasu and its neatly uniformed staff stood out in the small remote town inhabited by ranchers and railroad laborers. The new hotel and dining establishment offered job opportunities for the family members of the local workforce. Many local women became “Harvey Girls” along with traveling Fred Harvey employees who would work at various Harvey House locations along the rail line. Because the Harvey House had the resources of the railroad they were able to bring in fresh meat and produce to their restaurant and lunch counter that no other establishments were able to do.
Trains such as the El Capitan, San Francisco Chief, Southwest Limited, and Super Chief stopped in Seligman with passengers either staying at the hotel or just stopping for a meal at the restaurant. The train travelers could buy postcards of the western states that had each Harvey Hotel labeled on it. To let folks back home know where they were, they could mark an X next to “HAVASU, Seligman, Arizona” on the postcard before sending it off. Seligman may not have been a big town but it was a Harvey Hotel location and that made it somewhere important.
MOTORING OUT WEST
As time passed, the railroad slowly lost its popularity to a more independent form of travel and Seligman made the transition from a railroad stop to a town catering to automobile travelers.
As automobile traffic increased during the early 1920s it became apparent that more direct routes needed to be created for cross- country car travel, especially to California’s Pacific coast. Oklahoman, Cyrus Avery, founder of the U.S. 66 Highway Association, proposed a plan to create a southwestern highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. On July 23, 1926 Avery’s “Main Street of America”, Route 66, officially became a reality. This road would have a profound effect on Seligman and all the towns along the Route chosen.
Route 66 was assembled from local roads throughout Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The process to attach all of these roads to create the 2,448 mile highway took over a decade. It was not until 1938 that U.S. Route 66 was reported as “continuously paved” from Chicago to Los Angeles. In order to maximize driving on flat terrain with moderate climates, the new highway had an untraditional diagonal course connecting numerous rural towns, including Seligman, which brought greater mobility to the people of the remote communities as well as the travelers passing through. As traffic on Route 66 started flowing through Seligman, the ranch and railroad-based town became linked to greater America in another way besides the railroad.
For the first seven years of the existence of Route 66 in Seligman, the town’s eastern section of the road ran next to the railroad tracks, on what is now Railroad Avenue. During this time automobile travel became increasingly more popular than train travel and in 1933, to help traffic flow through town, Route 66 was moved away from the railroad tracks, one block north, where it is today.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Seligman residents watched thousands of displaced mid-western families driving through town on Route 66 towards California to find work. It was a common sight to see these victims of the Dust Bowl heading west in their old vehicles filled with all their worldly possessions. Times were hard in Seligman too. Even though traffic flowed through, the travelers had no money to spend on their way through town.
During World War II, the residents of Seligman watched the convoys of military trucks, jeeps, and cannons pass through on Route 66. The trains during the war carried troops not travelers. The Havasu became one of many official mess hall stops for the constant transportation of the military. The restaurant could not provide the quality that it once did but made up for it in quantity. All available Seligman residents were needed to work at the Harvey House to feed the troops during this busy time.
After the war, in much more prosperous years, more mobile Americans started touring the country in their cars. The residents of Seligman began to develop new businesses and services for travelers. Motels, restaurants, gas stations, and automobile service stations occupied the town and hummed with business.
As a result of the new car culture in America, the passenger train system suffered considerably. People could still patronize the Havasu on their way through town driving on Route 66 but the once grand hotel and dining room were underused. Eventually the Havasu, like most other Harvey Houses, was forced to close its doors. After closing in 1954, the Seligman Fred Harvey House was converted to office use for the AT&SF Railroad. Cubicles and drop ceiling were installed and all of the beautiful furniture and art that had adorned the hotel were sold at auction. Some pieces of original Harvey House furniture and plumbing fixtures can be found in Seligman houses today.
By 1966, there were so many cars driving through Seligman that the State of Arizona decided that the two lane road was not sufficient to handle the traffic and Route 66 was widened to 4 lanes within the business district of Seligman. This was no easy feat since most of the Seligman businesses were built right on the road. Most businesses had to remove parts of their buildings to make room for the extra lane of traffic on their side of the street. Some businesses only had to make minor changes. The Central Commercial building needed only remove its large awning for the new lane. Other businesses had to resort to more drastic measures to make way for the new lane on Route 66. The Black Cat Bar had to rebuild a whole new building farther back from the road because their current building was in the path of the road construction and had to be completely demolished. The widening of the road changed the face of the town but it was a needed change for the increasing traffic that would continue to come through town for the next eleven years.
THE AGE OF THE INTERSTATE
Seligman had come to rely on the traffic and business Route 66 brought to town. But that traffic stopped on September 22, 1978. It was on this date that Interstate 40 opened just a couple miles south of Seligman, replacing U.S. Highway 66 as the main thoroughfare between Ash Fork and Kingman. Seligman had seen its share of hard times in the past but this by-pass of the new interstate hit the town of Seligman like nothing before. One day 9,000 vehicles were passing through town in a 24 hour period, the next day they were all gone.
For nearly ten long years, Seligman learned to deal without the economic base of catering to travelers. Gas stations and restaurants were forced to close. The businesses that were able to stay open had to learn to live on a fraction of the business or they changed their businesses to cater to the increasingly small community. Almost all of the people that had once stopped to eat, get fuel, and stay the night were now quickly
driving by just two miles south of Seligman, not even aware they were passing by a town. The train system followed suit and passenger trains ceased stopping in Seligman in 1984. For all intents and purposes, Seligman no longer existed to the world. Many townspeople were forced to move, others had to stay because they were not able to sell their homes in what was becoming a ghost town.
For years after the bypass, Seligman’s saving grace was the income from the 250 railroad workers that frequented the town. For many years, Seligman was the Santa Fe Railroad’s division point between Needles, California and Winslow, Arizona. Due to Santa Fe regulations the workers were mandated to take 8 hour breaks before returning back to work and back to their homes. Therefore, the railroad workers spent much of their time in Seligman. They stayed the night at the motels or rented rooms or outbuildings from townspeople. They ate at the restaurants and drank at the bars. They even went to the school sports games and other town functions. But on February 5, 1985 the Santa Fe Railroad changed division points and stopped using Seligman as the community in which the railroad workers took their breaks. This was not only a sad day for the men to whom Seligman had become a home away from home but it was an enormous economic blow to the town that was already surviving on so little business.
The Seligman residents of the dwindling town tried for years to come up with plans to revitalize their community. They talked of attracting new industries or companies to town to create jobs but nothing materialized.
One of the Seligman residents, Angel Delgadillo, owner of a barber shop and pool hall on Route 66, thought that maybe making the old Route 66 a “Historic” highway would encourage travel through Seligman and help the economy. On February 18, 1987 Angel succeeded in forming a group of like-minded people and they formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, with the headquarters based out of Angel’s Seligman barber shop. Within a year, the Association succeeded and the State of Arizona made old Route 66 a Historic Highway. (For more information see the page “The Angel of Route 66”)
Seligman became known as the “The Birthplace of Historic Route 66” and the popularity of driving Route 66 increased dramatically after the historic designation was bestowed upon it. Travelers started flowing through town. New residents moved to town and old buildings opened up with new businesses. Seligman is now, again, a frequent stop for visitors from all over the country and the world. After all, Seligman still lies in the middle of the best travel route in Northern Arizona just as it did over 130 years ago when it was just a railroad stop called Prescott Junction.