Remembering the “Father of Arizona Highways”

By Peter Corbett / ADOT Communications

A weathered bronze plaque on a highway marker honors C.C. Small as the “Father of Arizona Highways.

Along State Route 89 at Yarnell Hill, a weathered bronze plaque on a highway marker honors C.C. Small as the “Father of Arizona Highways.”

But this 85-year-old memorial at Lookout Point offers no explanation of how Small earned this lofty title. So we visited yellowing pages in the state archives for an explanation. 

First we learned that Small gained his engineering experience working on railroads in the Southwest, Mexico and Bolivia before he turned to building Arizona roads a century ago.

He worked for the Arizona Highway Department during the 1920s, a pivotal era when Arizona and the nation were furiously creating roads for a surging number of motorists. The agency became Arizona Department of Transportation in 1974.

Article in July 1925 Arizona Highways magazine.

It was his position as location engineer, picking road alignments across desert and mountain terrain, that helped earn Small the title of Father of Arizona Highways – the roads, not the magazine.

Over his 13-year tenure, starting in 1919, Small presided over construction of what became Route 66, along with improvements to US 70 from Phoenix to Duncan and US 89 from Nogales to Flagstaff. A junior Highway Department staffer remembered Small as “the guy who ran the place,” according to an Arizona transportation history published for Arizona’s centennial in 2012.

In July 1925, Small wrote in Arizona Highways about choosing between two routes from Phoenix to Prescott for development of a modern highway.

In an understatement, Small noted there was “considerable controversy” between those favoring the route through Wickenburg and Yarnell to Prescott and supporters of the Black Canyon route through New River, Mayer and Dewey.

“After considerable study of the merits of the two routes it was decided that the Wickenburg route could be made a first class highway at less cost than the Black Canyon route,” he said.

That became the main route to Prescott until after World War II, when the Black Canyon Highway was developed through Cordes Junction and became the most direct route from Phoenix to Prescott. But Small did not live to see that. His death in April 1932 at age 58 shook the State Capitol.

In a proclamation, Gov. George W.P. Hunt praised Small:

In a proclamation, Gov. George W.P. Hunt praised Engineer C.C. Small

“The people of this state have suffered a very serious loss in the death of Engineer C.C. Small, which to me is keenly personal. ...The many beautiful highways which wind in majestic splendor from one end of the state to the other constitute living proof of his enormous skill, for as you know Mr. Small played a very prominent part in their construction.”

Flags at the Arizona Capitol were lowered to half-staff.

Small was also honored by his peers at the American Society of Civil Engineers in November 1933 with the dedication of the memorial south of Yarnell at Lookout Point. But the plaque, with a bas relief caricature of Small, didn’t include details of his life and remarkable career.

Charles Churchill Small was born Jan. 12, 1874, in North Truro, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, to Levi and Rebecca Small. At age 16, Small started his engineering career with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, according to Arizona Highways magazine. He was self-taught and not a college graduate.

Small then left New England to work in Mexico for the Chihuahua & Pacific Railway and the Mexico Central. The Chihuahua & Pacific started plans in 1880 for what would become the 400-mile route from Chihuahua City to Los Mochis, Sinaloa, through Copper Canyon. It is one of North America’s most scenic railroads and an engineering marvel with 86 tunnels and 37 bridges.

The Chihuahua & Pacific company faltered, and the entire route wasn’t completed until 1961. But it’s possible Small had at least some input into its early designs.

At the outset of the 20th century, Small returned from Mexico to the United States to work over the decade for a series of railroads, including El Paso & Southwestern, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. El Paso & Southwestern was developed by copper interests to serve mines in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. The 1902 train station in Douglas built by El Paso & Southwestern is still in use as the city’s police headquarters.

Small also worked for railroads in Mexico and Bolivia during this decade.

Records found by David Newlin, a history buff and avid genealogist, sketch out Small’s employment arc in the second decade of the century.

A 1910 census document shows Small was working as chief engineer for railroad construction at a mine near Tyrone, New Mexico. He was listed as single, and it’s unclear if he ever married.

In September 1912, Small went to Guatemala to work for a railroad, according to a State Department document. He was authorized to stay in the country through April 1914.


In 1918, Small registered for the World War I draft in Yavapai County at age 44. He listed his occupation as chief engineer for the United Verde Extension Mine in Jerome, which hit a supremely rich vein of copper in 1916 and made James S. “Rawhide Jimmy” Douglas fabulously rich.

A year later, Small went to work for the Arizona Highway Department. During his tenure, the state’s highway inventory doubled to 2,000 miles. The department was moving so fast it was using three miles of blueprint paper annually with all its highway plans.

Small worked under five state engineers and with dozens of other engineers. The Arizona Highway Department by the mid-1920s was the state’s largest employer as road-building ramped up to meet demand. Small was appointed deputy state engineer in 1928.

In that job, he started construction of a difficult stretch of US 60 from Globe to Show Low that included the bridge in Salt River Canyon.

Beyond his engineering expertise, Small was hailed as a man of integrity and decency, according to his obituary in Arizona Highways:

“Kindly and retiring, a host of many friends mourn his passing, from the laborer who worked under his direction to the head of the highest financial institutions in the state. His reputation for fair dealing is a proud record for any man to leave behind, and time will prove the excellence of his roads.”