40 years later, Hattie B. lore chugs on

40 years later, Hattie B. lore chugs on

By Laurie Merrill / ADOT Communications
February 24, 2020

Pardon me boys. Is that the Hattie B. choo-choo?

It’s been nearly 40 years since a passenger train dubbed the Hattie B. chugged its way into Arizona transportation history as one of the only ways to cross the Salt River during epic flooding that washed out most bridges and temporarily closed the busy Interstate 10 bridge spanning the river.

Whether called the Puddle Jumper, Sardine Express or, most commonly, the Hattie B., this short-lived but storied railroad was certainly the little engine that could, with five cars and two engines shuttling tens of thousands of commuters across the Salt River in Tempe. 

Feb. 25 marks the 40th anniversary of the Hattie B.’s maiden trip. Though long gone, the train holds a special place in the memories of those who hopped aboard it and others who viewed it as a ray of sunshine during the dark and rainy days of early 1980. 

At the time, a group of melodious ADOT employees sang in the agency’s Fender Benders choir, which wrote and performed the “Hattie B. Choo-Choo,” sung to the tune of the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” The first verse begins this post.

By early 1980, the Phoenix region had been getting drenched for months as storms swelled rivers and interfered with transportation.

After engineers determined that the rising Salt River was scouring piers on the I-10 crossing, the bridge was closed, leaving the Mill Avenue Bridge as the primary span for motorists and the heavy duty Southern Pacific railroad bridge for trains.

The I-10 closure affected more than 100,000 vehicles that regularly used it between downtown Phoenix and the East Valley.

“It was huge news when almost all the bridges were flooded,” recalls Doug Nick, ADOT assistant communications director for customer outreach who was in high school at the time.

ADOT coordinated with Amtrak and Southern Pacific to put together an emergency train shuttle across the Salt River.

Under contract with ADOT, Amtrak relocated from California two diesel engines and up to six cars with 84 seats. Southern Pacific provided operating crews and rescheduled freight trains to avoid conflicts.

Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and his wife, Harriet, also known as Hattie, were among a host of officials who took a test trip aboard the train. It was named the Hattie B. in honor of the state’s first lady.

It subsequently earned the Sardine Express moniker because it was so packed with passengers. It was also tagged the Puddle Jumper.

“Folks got a ride,

Aboard the Hattie B. Choo Choo.

Got there in time,

Without the traffic jam line.”

T-shirts bearing the train’s nicknames began circulating among residents, who saw the Hattie B. as a beacon of light in the darkness.

The Hattie B. carried more than 46,000 riders between Mesa and Phoenix during its two-week tenure. It was put out of commission when I-10 and other bridges reopened after floodwaters receded.

The train ran from 5:30 a.m-10 p.m. Monday to Friday between Union Station in Phoenix and the Mesa rail station 15 miles east. It also stopped at the FedMart in Tempe and AiResearch, now Honeywell. The one-hour round trip was $1 in exact change each way, and the Hattie B. made seven trips daily. 

Behind the scenes, hundreds of ADOT employees worked nights, weekends and holidays assessing damage, finding alternate transportation modes, planning emergency and permanent repairs, controlling traffic, and, up north, plowing snow.

A big share of the burden fell on ADOT’s Structures Section, as the unit was known then, which closely monitored the I-10 bridge and others statewide, and ADOT planners, who arranged shuttle rail and bus transportation for Mesa and Tempe residents on short notice.

Outside agencies that played a role in the Hattie B.’s creation included the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Maricopa Association of Governments, the region's transportation-planning agency.

The Hattie B. episode was of particular significance to Phoenix because the city was smaller at that time and easily unified by common events, ADOT's Doug Nick said.

“It was a different time back then,” Nick said. “Phoenix was much smaller, much more provincial ... Calamity brought people together.”

“We were leaving Tempe Station ‘bout quarter to 8,

Missin’ all that traffic, Gee it was really great!

You cannot malign’er, nothing could be finer.

Whoo-whoo, Hattie’s choo-choo, there you are!

Whoo-whoo, Hattie’s choo-choo, there you are!”

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