This stop off State Route 80 takes you back in time

By David Rookhuyzen / ADOT Communications

Logo on building from LowellThe great thing about highways is they can take you nearly anywhere, including back in time.

Take State Route 80, for instance. This 120-plus-mile highway in southeastern Arizona swings you through some truly historic places such as Tombstone and Bisbee. The road itself has a fair bit of history to it, dating back to the 1920s and one of the first east-west transcontinental highways in the country. 

Then there's Erie Street in Lowell. If you turn off State Route 80 just before its junction with State Route 92 on the south end of Bisbee, you will feel like you have gone into some sort of time warp. 

With an aesthetic that can only be described as "vintage," the signage, storefronts, (non-functioning) gas pumps and a lot of the cars along this just-under-a-quarter-mile road date from 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s. Bisbee Historical and Mining Museum photo, Lowell in 1930sIt's a carefully cultivated look this small community has crafted in recent years to ensure that Lowell stands out next to the equally colorful Bisbee.

According to the Bisbee Mining and History Museum, 19th century mine workers and their families established small clusters and communities to be close to their work in the era before cars. Lowell came from this tradition, with Erie Street being established as a business and social center near the Lowell and Hoasten Mines. Lowell was incorporated around the same time as Bisbee in the early 1900s and received an official post office in 1904. However, even then the "town" was Erie Street and two back alleyways, much as it is today.

The photo to the right is from the museum's archives and depicts what the street looked like in the 1930s.

In the age of automobiles, Erie Street even became part of old US 80, Just past the pit sign in Lowell AZa transcontinental highway that developed off the older Bankhead Highway. The route is documented in 1927 by the nascent American Association of State Highway Officials (today the American Associaton of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO). US 80 traveled from Savannah, Georgia, to San Diego, running through eight states. In Arizona, it snaked its way between New Mexico and Yuma, hitting places such as Douglas, Benson, Tucson, Phoenix and, yes, Lowell.

While Lowell has always been a one-street town, most of the surrounding communities were eventually razed as the open-pit Lavender Mine went into operation in the mid-1950s, leaving Erie Street a lone throwback to an earlier time. The town's slogan, still to be seen on one of the signs, became "Just pass the pit!"

As times changed and the interstates came, stretches of US 80 began to be decomissioned starting in 1957. In the 1980s the final stretch in Arizona was renumbered as simply State Route 80. During all this, the road was shifted out of Lowell and Erie Street became a local road once again. However, Erie Street still connects to the state highway on its north and south ends.

But this did not mean the end of Lowell. In the last decade, the business owners on Erie Street and other enthusiastic individuals have banded together in what they call the "Lowell Americana Project" to use the once-bustling street as a kind of outdoor museum to showcase the distincitve flair of American design between the end of World War II and the early 1970s. 

Next time you feel nostalgic and like taking a drive, a trip to Lowell will help scratch both of those itches.

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