Historic Road

Transportation History: The Phoenix-to-Prescott Territorial Road

Transportation History: The Phoenix-to-Prescott Territorial Road


Transportation History: The Phoenix-to-Prescott Territorial Road

Transportation History: The Phoenix-to-Prescott Territorial Road

By David Rookhuyzen / ADOT Communications
May 18, 2020

Today there are more than 85 highways crisscrossing Arizona that will get you where you need to go. No matter if you are traveling from Winkleman to Superior, Springerville to Sanders, or Lake Havasu City to Quartzsite, there's a highway to get you there.

But it this wasn't always the case. In fact, it was 110 years ago this month that Arizona took major steps in constructing the first north-south highway across the state.

It was with some jubilation that the Arizona Journal-Miner in Prescott welcome the arrival of civil engineer F. R. Goodman on Tuesday, May 10, 1910, proclaiming that the event "practically inaugurated the work on the Territorial north-and-south highway."

As our comprehensive history of transportation in the state says, the north-south highway they reference is one of the two original state roads envisioned by the Territorial Legislature in 1909. An east-west highway would run between Duncan and Yuma. The north-south highway would go between Douglas and the Grand Canyon. To make this a reality, in 1909 the legislature put all territorial road construction under the position of the Territorial Engineer, who was required to be "a practical competent civil engineer." That person was J.B. Girand, Goodman's boss.

Goodman arrived in Prescott to oversee construction of the first 12-mile segment of the highway. The contract for the road was awarded to a company called Johnson & Shea of Riverside, California, one of four bids received. 

According to the Journal-Miner, Girand was expected to arrive the next morning and to stay to oversee the work. 

The Arizona Republican published an update on May 27, 1910, saying that work on the road was "underway and is proceeding satisfactory." There were somewhere between 30 and 40 people already working on the project, but "it is expected soon that the force will include somewhere between seventy and a hundred men." Unlike modern State Route 89, which runs southwest toward Wickenburg, this road was heading direclty south and would have to go over a pass near Mount Union, like what you can see in this 1914 map of the proposed system. The maximum grade was supposed to be 6 percent. 

"It will afford one of the finest scenic roadways in the west when utilized, as well as one of the most substantial," the Journal-Miner said. 

As picturesque as that sounds, more than a year later it was not yet finished. On July 7, 1911, the Holbrook News reported that Girand was going to again be in Prescott to oversee the continuation of the road past the initial 12 miles. Once that segment had advanced sufficiently, similar construction would start north from Flagstaff toward the Grand Canyon, the paper reported. During the the last three years before statehood, crews completed 145 miles of road.

In the meantime, the Holbrook News said "there is now a very respectable substitute in the old road via Wickenburg ... Travelers to Prescott can get through with their automobiles very nicely now, even though the road is not what they would like, nor what the territorial highway will be when finished." 

It seems that respectable substitute would become that de facto road, as a 1917 map of the state shows the route between Phoenix and Prescott going through Wickenburg and Congress. This would be the route US 89 would go in the 1920s after a shorter connector between Prescott and Wickenburg was completed. By the end of the decade, that highway would run the length of the state between Nogales and the Utah state line.

The drive for a state highway system eventually led to the myriad of routes we enjoy today. Girand got it right when he assured the Holbrook News that "the territorial highway system is growing into a gigantic undertaking, but one that will be a monument to this day and generation, a developing influence throughout the territory, the value of which cannot be overestimated."

Pavement, safety improvements underway on State Route 88

Pavement, safety improvements underway on State Route 88


Pavement, safety improvements underway on State Route 88

Pavement, safety improvements underway on State Route 88

May 11, 2018

Aerial view of Apache Trail / SR 88

By Angela DeWelles / ADOT Communications

Apache Trail, also known as State Route 88, was built in 1903 to serve as an access road for construction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam.

But it’s so much more than that. SR 88 is a part of Arizona’s history and today offers motorists a scenic way to get to Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt lakes.

Right now, a project is underway to rehabilitate pavement and make other safety improvements along a 17-mile stretch from near Apache Junction to an area east of Tortilla Flat within the Tonto National Forest (mileposts 203 to 220). This post has images showing the latest work, and the slideshow below has many others.

Most construction will occur during daylight hours, Mondays through Thursdays, and no weekend or holiday construction is anticipated. One lane of traffic will remain open during paving with flaggers directing motorists through the work zone.

Please allow extra travel time while these improvements continue through late summer.

Here are some fast facts about the project, including details on what steps ADOT employees must take when working on such a historically significant road.



1) Before work on the pavement-preservation/safety-improvement project could begin, crews completed an emergency repair project on a stretch of SR 88 between mileposts 201 and 214. “We did emergency work on the flood-damaged road from August to November 2017,” said Roger Vial, ADOT transportation engineering specialist. The governor issued a declaration of emergency, and we repaired 24 areas before we could even start on the main project.”

2) The improvement project includes work to flatten out roadway curves at six locations. Other safety improvements include paving selected pullouts, updating signage and pavement markings, removing rocks to limit rock fall onto the roadway and removing and replacing guardrail.

3) The project will also repair the concrete ford across Tortilla Creek near Tortilla Flat. “The ford is a one-lane bridge; water runs beneath it,” said Vial, explaining that the work requires a temporary water management plan to protect the Gila topminnow fish and lowland leopard frogs that call the creek home.

SR 88 Pavement Preservation (May 2018)

4) Because SR 88 is a historic road, ADOT had to negotiate and implement an agreement that “spells out how we’re going to mitigate any adverse effects. We consulted with the Tonto National Forest, tribes and the State Historic Preservation Office,” explained ADOT Cultural Resource Program Manager Ruth Greenspan. When working on any historic road, ADOT has a process in place that allows most projects to continue without any issue, Greenspan said. “For the projects where there’s going to be some changes made that may affect the historic integrity of the road, we’ll outline a treatment plan that typically includes documentation and historic research.”

Historic Highway 286 reaches ranches, tiny border town of Sasabe

Historic Highway 286 reaches ranches, tiny border town of Sasabe


Historic Highway 286 reaches ranches, tiny border town of Sasabe

Historic Highway 286 reaches ranches, tiny border town of Sasabe

February 28, 2018

Arizona Centennial Sign

By Peter Corbett / ADOT Communications

State Route 286 runs out of Arizona real estate on the edge of Sasabe, a tiny outpost on the border with a general store, post office and end-of-the-road tranquility.


Sasabe Store

To the south is Sonora and a border crossing station into Mexico that looks like a state park visitor center. To the north, 45 lonely miles through the Altar Valley, is tiny Robles Junction, also known as Three Points. It’s another 30 minutes east on the Ajo Highway, SR 86, to reach Tucson.

This is the historic Sasabe to Robles Junction Highway, a route that follows the early trails of Jesuit missionaries who traveled this region in the 18th century led by native peoples, including the Tohono O’odham.


SR 286 Sign

The tribe’s reservation is beyond the Baboquivari Mountains that line up on the horizon west of SR 286. Kitt Peak National Observatory is a northern bookend in the Quinlan Mountains.

SR 286 is a lightly traveled but well-maintained two-lane highway that’s been in the state system since 1955.

There’s been a border crossing at Sasabe since 1916. The town was known as San Fernando until sometime in the 1930s. A red-brick border station built in 1937 is on the National Register of Historic Places.

SR 286 serves a number of old Arizona ranches. Rancho de la Osa (bear) is a guest ranch near Sasabe that opened in 1926. The Miller family has run the Elkhorn dude ranch seven miles west of SR 286 for nearly 75 years.



Bird-watchers and other nature enthusiasts are drawn to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge with 117,000 acres of desert grasslands and wetlands along the highway. It was established in 1985 to reintroduce the masked bobwhite quail to the habitat.

Where the Arizona road ends, Sasabe welcomes a trickle of visitors from north and south of the border. It is Arizona’s least-busy border crossing. The port of entry is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Sasabe’s town square, where the road curves to the west, consists of the Sasabe Store, Hilltop Bar and an adjoining post office – ZIP code 85633 – that’s landscaped with ocotillos taller than the adobe building. The store is in a 1920 building and has been operated by the same family since 1932.

SR 286 as it runs north from Sasabe descends from an elevation of 3,500 feet to about 2,500 feet at Robles Junction. The highway roughly parallels Interstate 19, which links Tucson and Nogales to the east. Arivaca Road, which passes through the historic town of Arivaca, connects SR 286 to I-19. Arivaca Road is at milepost 12 on SR 286.

Cameron Approach Road opened eastern gateway to Grand Canyon

Cameron Approach Road opened eastern gateway to Grand Canyon


Cameron Approach Road opened eastern gateway to Grand Canyon

Cameron Approach Road opened eastern gateway to Grand Canyon

February 15, 2018

Cameron Road Bridge

By Peter Corbett / ADOT Communications

Traveling today’s modern highways to the Grand Canyon, it’s hard to imagine the challenges motorists and road builders faced in the early days of the national park.

While the national park will celebrate its centennial next year, a paved road from Williams to the South Rim – State Route 64 – wasn’t completed until 1933. It is one of the state’s historic roads.

The highway east from Cameron to the Canyon was paved in 1936 after years of lobbying, creative financing and construction over difficult terrain from the Painted Desert to the pinyon and pine forest of the South Rim. Known as the Cameron Approach Road, it generally followed the Navahopi Trail used by Navajos and Hopis long before the national park existed.

Much of that 1930s route and a key highway bridge were abandoned after several decades when SR 64 was realigned. The new alignment still connects Cameron to the Canyon, and the old bridge is plainly visible from the new route.

Building that segment of SR 64 and a key highway bridge was an important chapter of Arizona highway history that opened Grand Canyon to increased tourism by automobile.

“In a local and regional sense, the road is perfectly illustrative of Grand Canyon’s 1925-39 golden age of road building wherein the National Park Service and Superintendent Minor Tillotson transformed the park’s transportation system from rutted wagon roads to modern automotive highways,” Michael Anderson wrote in a report for the Historic American Engineering Record, an organization that documents historic sites and engineering feats.

This account is based on Anderson’s 1994 report.

Tillotson, Grand Canyon engineer from 1923-27 and superintendent until 1939, blazed the way for the eastern route to the national park. The Cameron road would ultimately link the South Rim to the North Rim via US 89 and Navajo Bridge, built by the Arizona Highway Department in 1929. It also advanced the Park Service’s goal of connecting its parks in Arizona to those in southern Utah.

In the late 1920s, the Fred Harvey Co., which provided tourist services at Grand Canyon, maintained a primitive road from the Canyon to Cameron. It followed a stage coach trail and the Navahopi route. Company buses took visitors to Cameron and Tuba City trading posts.

Tillotson argued for a new road and obtained funding for it in the early days of the Great Depression. In December 1929, the Arizona Highway Department, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service each agreed to pay $5,000 to survey a new eastern route to the Canyon.

Later, land acquisition was temporarily sidetracked when the National Park Service director balked at paying $30 to two Navajo allottees for 16 acres of right of way.

Ultimately, it took nine projects totaling $1.06 million to build a 31-mile road from Cameron to the Canyon. That’s the equivalent of about $20 million today. One key project was a 300-foot bridge built at a cost of $45,000.

While work progressed on road-building, Phoenix contractor Vinson & Pringle started construction of the bridge Oct. 1, 1933. A 12-man crew was later increased to 23. The historic engineering report outlined some of the details of the 8-month bridge project:

  • Daily pay was $4 for laborers, $5 for truck drivers, $8 for stone cutters and $10 for stone masons.
  • Vinson & Pringle had a lot of job turnover for painters who were frightened by the heights of painting the bridge structure. Most were out-of-work house painters who were unaccustomed to working high above the ground.
  • A landscape architect insisted on sandstone veneer for the bridge’s wing walls and abutments instead of concrete. The attractive stone walls matched those at Desert View.

The bridge was completed June 9, 1934. It carried SR 64 traffic for decades before the road was realigned. The bridge still spans a canyon 150 feet above the new alignment of SR 64. Barricades block the old road and the bridge.

The 7,100-foot Gray Mountains rise high above the bridge. The scenic Little Colorado River gorge is less than a mile north of the current alignment of SR 64.

A plank road was once the way between Yuma and San Diego

A plank road was once the way between Yuma and San Diego


A plank road was once the way between Yuma and San Diego

A plank road was once the way between Yuma and San Diego

November 21, 2017

By Peter Corbett / ADOT Communications

Arizonans think nothing of a quick weekend drive from Phoenix to San Diego’s beaches in about six hours. But a century ago, that trip could take the better part of two days across primitive roads and nearly impassable sand dunes.

Horses were more reliable for traversing sand dunes until enterprising road builders came up with a boardwalk for motorcars in 1915.<

That’s right. Early adopters of horseless-carriage technology built a road of wooden planks across seven miles of sand west of Yuma in California. Arizona notably did not follow California down the path of building wooden roads.

The Plank Road and the Colorado River bridge at Yuma, completed in April 1915, were key steps forward for motorists traveling across the Southwest deserts in the early 20th century. Those advancements also were factors in competition between San Diego and Los Angeles to be the western terminus for a cross-country highway along a southern route.

The Colorado River State Historic Park in Yuma has a Plank Road display with a Model T automobile. There’s also a preserved section of the Plank Road at the Bureau of Land Management’s Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area south of Interstate 8 on the Gray’s Well Road about 12 miles west of Yuma. That's where these Bureau of Land Management photos were taken.

Plank Road skeptics like civil engineer Joseph Lippincott, an Auto Club of Southern California consultant, pegged the wooden highway as “the most asinine thing he had ever heard of,” according to a San Diego Tribune report at the time.

But the road, despite its flaws, carried traffic for more than a decade until it was replaced in 1926 by an asphalt road that became US 80 and more recently Interstate 8.

One Yuma merchant praised the Plank Road. “It is no ride across the Sahara Desert, but rather a pleasure trip anyone can enjoy,” the man said, according to B. Johnny Rube in his 1996 book A Wooden Road Through the Hollow of God’s Hand.

Initially, the Plank Road was boards laid in parallel tracks to provide a path for adventurous drivers. In 1915, the California Highway Commission took over the Plank Road, installing 12-foot by 8-foot wooden sections on the dunes west of Yuma.

The knock on the one-lane Plank Road was that it forced drivers traveling in opposite directions to use pullouts every 1,000 feet to pass each other. Maintenance was a constant problem as horse-drawn scrapers were used to clear the sand, which damaged the planks and made for a rough ride. Sand drifted across the planks and drivers would “lose” the road and end up stuck in the sand. That created commerce for the Fort Yuma Quechan Indians whose horses served as the tow trucks of the era, pulling cars out of the sand and back onto the Plank Road, said Tina Clark, historian of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.

The Plank Road was an extension of previous methods early motorists used to get through sand dunes and other difficult terrain.

In 1910, the National Highway Association employed a pathfinder named A.L. Westgard to explore cross-country routes from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. He’s been described as the “Marco Polo of the Motor Age.”

While scouting a route called the Trail to Sunset , Westgard used rolls of canvas on the sand to get across the Yuma dunes. He later carried wooden planks on his vehicle to get across sand or mud flats, according Arizona Highways, published by the Arizona Department of Transportation.