Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'

Flashback Friday: Dual underpasses helped turn Benson into a 'highway city'

By Steve Elliott / ADOT Communications
January 3, 2020

In spring 1941, the front page of the San Pedro Valley News noted a major Arizona Highway Department project getting underway in the southeastern Arizona community of Benson.

As part of an interchange for what was then State Route 86 (now Business 10/East Fourth Street) and Benson-Douglas Highway (then US 80, now State Route 80), two underpasses on the east side of town would carry State Route 86 under westbound US 80 traffic and the railroad tracks.

"Of interest to Benson people will be the fact that the barrels of the underpass will have the wording 'Benson 1941' on the face of the structure in 14" bronze letters," the article said.

Not long after, much of the paper's front page was devoted to a map showing the layout of the interchange and an article explaining that the underpasses, "of ultra-modern design" and "the latest type of traffic separation," were on track to open in September of that year. 

"This is the first structure in Arizona to combine both traffic separation on highway as well as railroad," it said.

Those large bronze letters remain on the railroad underpass, as do the scored parallel lines and simple designs that give both structures an Art Moderne theme. More importantly, after nearly 80 years these underpasses continue to provide value and safety for those living in, visiting and traveling through Benson. For the record, much of SR 86 east of Tucson was later replaced by Interstate 10. 

The Benson Visitor Center's credits the underpasses with helping give rise to Benson as a "highway city."

"Weary travelers used the town's service stations, motels and restaurants," it says. "Benson became a modern oasis, especially when intense heat made driving arduous."

The map at right allows you to explore this interchange as it is today, and the photo below from the Benson Visitor Center shows the interchange when it opened. If you're as into this subject as I am, here are Google Street View links to travel through the underpasses heading west and east.

According to ADOT's Arizona Historic Bridge Inventory, the Benson underpasses were part of an extensive program during the Great Depression to separate automobile traffic and trains. Similar improvements included the Stone Avenue Underpass in Tucson, the Winslow Underpass on SR 87 and the Casa Grande Underpass on SR 84. Like the others, Benson's featured a distinctive architectural treatment – in this case, simpler and modern for the times. 

"The Benson Underpass is one of a handful of such structures to trade on the Art Moderne style," ADOT's report says, citing the 17th Avenue Underpass near the State Capitol in Phoenix among the other examples. 

I like to look for old newspaper articles celebrating the completion of such impactful projects. But events leading up to the United States' entry into World War II began to understandably take over the San Pedro Valley News' attention as 1941 went on. If there was a major celebration when these structures opened, and I sure hope there was, I wasn't able to find an article about it during a recent visit to the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records