Thursday, November 26, 2015

Crookton Cutoff -- Eagle Nest, Doublea, Crookton and Seligman

Westbound Approaching Eagle Nest With Eastbound Headed Toward Doublea
As I write, the automatic spell checker keeps changing "Crookton Cutoff" to "Crouton Cutoff."  Since this is not a discussion of salad, I will attempt to disable one more useless piece of technology.

I have never thought of the BNSF Transcon as a mountain railroad.  Since the completion of the Belen Cutoff in the 1920's, bypassing Raton and Glorieta Passes, the line across New Mexico and eastern Arizona avoided significant punishing grades.  The climb to the western continental divide east of Gallup was tame in both directions.  In fact, in that area, unless you know what to look for, you do not even realize you are crossing a geographic marker.

All changes at Flagstaff, but this is not a mountainous area, either.  The peaks surrounding Flagstaff are volcanoes, some dormant, some active, all part of Northern Arizona's San Francisco Volcanic Field, a group of geologically young volcanoes on the southern margin of the Colorado Plateau.  

Active Volcano Field Overlooking Flagstaff
During its roughly six million years history, this field has produced more than 600 volcanoes.  The most recent eruption, at Sunset Crater, occurred in 1064.  A short drive north of Flagstaff reveals lava fields at SP Crater that, to this day, resist vegetation.  

Absent these volcanoes, north central Arizona would be relatively flat and arid like the rest of the Colorado Plateau.  However, the volcanic activity has created a varied landscape with forests that extend from the Pion-Juniper up to the Bristlecone Pine life zones.  The most prominent landmark is San Francisco Peak, a stratovolcano rising 12,633 feet and overlooking Flagstaff.

Westbound Stacks Beneath San Francisco Peak
West from Flagstaff, the land descends rapidly off the Colorado Plateau toward Needles, California and the Colorado River, from 7000 feet to 495 feet in 210 miles -- about the distance from Oklahoma City to Dallas.  From Flagstaff to Williams, the Transcon and Interstate 40 wind downward through volcano fields and Ponderosa Pine.  

Volcano Overlooking Williams
West of Williams, the descent becomes breathtaking.  Williams to Ashfork is 16.5 miles, in which elevation drops 1,700 feet -- from 6,800 to 5,100.

The original Atlantic and Pacific single-track line down this escarpment was constructed in 1882 through rugged Johnson Canyon.  Remnants of that line are still passable today with a properly equipped Jeep, though the tunnel in the canyon was blocked the last time I was there.  The ruling grade on this line eastbound was close to two percent.  Also a great operating headache were the numerous narrow curves.

In 1911, the AT&SF constructed a second main track that, from Welch, followed a more northerly and less rugged grade.  That line was, and still is, noted for several horseshoes curves, particularly at Corva, and upon completion it became the eastward grade. 

Pushers Beneath San Francisco Peak
In both directions, however, the line was an operational nightmare.  Helpers were needed for eastbound trains, while westbounds constantly fought, not always successfully,  to keep from running away on the grade into Ashfork.

West of Ashfork, the two tracks ran side-by-side on relatively level ground until reaching Pineveta.  Old US 66, still maintained by the Arizona Highway Department, ran beside the tracks.  Though the general lay of the land sloped downward from east to west, at Pineveta, both the tracks and highway began to climb.  The original A&P tracks took the harsher and steeper route up the grade, while the later AT&SF second track followed a more temperate route through a horseshoe canyon at Gleed.  Even this more moderate grade required helpers for westbounds.  In other words, trains out of Ashfork required helpers in both directions!

Near the summit west of Pineveta, one line crossed above the other.  If you check out this area today on Google Maps, you can still see both old road beds.  One is labeled "Gleed Station Road," while the other is simply called the "Old Santa Fe Railroad Bed."  Again, both are somewhat passable in a properly equipped Jeep, although be warned; the going is rugged.

Eastbound Beneath Lava Dome at Crookton
The two lines came together at Crookton, Arizona, and then ran downgrade into Seligman (emphasis on the second syllable).  Because of repeated operational difficulties, the AT&SF eventually constructed a new line from Williams to Crookton, bypassing Johnson Canyon and Corva -- named the "Crookton Cutoff."

The new line was opened December 19, 1960, when I was ten years old.  I would have loved to watch the construction, because this was one of the few major rail lines in the United States constructed with what we might call "modern" methods.  Railroad construction in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century was accomplished with mules, shovels, picks and dynamite.  Railroads followed the "lay of the land" as closely as possible.  Thus, the two lines from Williams to Ashfork curved back and forth among stream beds and other geologic formations.
Eastbound on Crookton Cutoff Watched Over by Cinder Cones
The Crookton Cutoff, however, was constructed during the Interstate Highway era, in which transportation corridors no longer followed water courses, no longer curved this way and that around hills.  Instead, the new Interstates, and the Crookton Cutoff, simply spanned depressions on enormous fills and plowed through hills in enormous cuts.  The Crookton Cutoff is an example of what railroads in the American West would look like if they had been constructed after 1950.

Some of the cuts on this line are truly phenomenal, particularly at Doublea (named for the "Double A Ranch") where the line runs through a terraced, man-made canyon over a mile long and 100 feet deep.  At Eagle Nest, the line runs on a fill almost one hundred feet high. 

Meet at Doublea

Eastbound at Eagle Nest Entering Huge Fill With Lave Dome in Background
At one time, it was possible to follow the line closely on railroad service roads.  Those passages, unfortunately, have been gated so that photographing the Cutoff today requires in several places driving through rugged territory and a fair amount of hiking.  I would not recommend approaching this area, particularly Eagle Nest, in anything less than a pick-up.  Four-wheel drive should be preferred.  Without four-wheel drive, one should avoid the area entirely in the rain and snow.
Westbound Beside Abandoned Lava Quarry
After the opening of the Crookton Cutoff, the original Atlantic and Pacific line from Williams to Ashfork was abandoned.  The second track was maintained and today is the "Peavine" line running south to Phoenix.  West of Ashfork, both tracks have been abandoned, though the old roadbed is still plainly visible from old Route 66.  

Everything in this part of the world seems to have "old" attached to it, including your author!

Eagle Nest

My favorite location on the Crookton Cutoff is Eagle Nest, one of the most isolated places in the southwest.  If you drive there and climb the hills to take photographs, you can easily imagine that you are the last person left in the world.  Whether that is a good or bad feeling depends upon your evaluation of the world.

Eastbound at Eagle Nest Coming Off Huge Fill and Into Cut, With Lava Dome to Left

This portion of the line runs through the northwestern-most edge of Coconino National Forest, which also includes the Ponderosa Pines and lava beds around Flagstaff and the red rock cliffs of Sedona.  At Eagle Nest, the vegetation is almost exclusively Pinon-Juniper, 15 to 30 feet tall, a carpet of green in what one would otherwise expect to be grass and desert country.  The immediately surrounding rock is dark red lava, and from time to time there are breaks in the trees, in the lowlands, much like the grassland "parks" near the western continental divide in Colorado.

Pushers on Eastbound at Eagle Nest With Open Grassland in Background Surrounded by Pinon-Juniper

Eastbound in Cut at Eagle Next With Open Grassland Beyond

Pushers on Eastbound at Eagle Nest With Grasslands in Background

The San Francisco Volcanic Field includes several lava domes, one of which is prominent at Eagle Nest.  Lava domes are formed by dacite and rhyolite magmas, with high silica contents.  These magmas are highly viscous and form bulbous domes as they pile up at the site of an eruption.

Westbound Dwarfed by Lava Dome

Eastbound Oil Train Beneath Lava Dome
Westbound Pushers
Most of the volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field are basalt cinder cones, relatively small, usually less than 1,000 feet tall. Cinder cones are created when gas-charged frothy blobs of basalt magma are erupted as a lava spray.  While in the air, these blobs cool and fall back to earth as dark volcanic rock containing cavities created by trapped gas bubbles.  As the fragments accumulate, they form a conic hill.   At Eagle Nest, one can also see fine examples of cinder cones. 

Eastbound Beginning to Cross Large Fill With Cinder Cones in Background

Eastbound on Fill With Both Cinder Cones and Lava Dome in Background
Once sufficient gas pressure releases from the magma at a cinder cone, lave oozes quietly outward.  Lava typically squeezes out from the base of the cone and flows for hundreds of yards or even miles because of the low viscosity of the basalt magma.

Eastbound Photographed from Lava Formation

Westbound Pushers Through Lava Flow
There is a huge fill directly beneath such a lava flow at Eagle Nest that demonstrates why the civil engineers building the original railroad avoided this area.  At its height, the fill is close to one hundred feet tall.  

Westbound on the Huge Fill at Eagle Nest

Eastbound on Big Fill Beneath Lava Dome
Eastbound on Big Fill at Sundown

And Another
Eastbound on Fill
Cuts through the dark red lava are deep and numerous, as the line avoids the narrow curves and switch-backs so common to nineteenth century railroad construction.  This is high speed railroading at its finest, made even more enjoyable because Interstate 40 and civilization are so far away.  Even old Route 66 did not approach these badlands.

Another Eastbound Showing the Large Fill, Cinder Cones and Lava Dome

Eastbound On Big Fill Watched Over by Lava Dome

Eastbound Crossing Over in Cut at Eagle Nest
Some of the best shots at Eagle Nest can be taken in the late afternoon in fall from atop one of the lava flows.  Looking back toward Williams, one can see the Pinon-Juniper forest stretching for miles.
Westbound at Eagle Nest

Westbound at Eagle Nest

The following images help give a feel for both the isolation and beauty of Eagle Nest.


Westbound on Fill at Dusk

Westbound Approaching Eagle Nest

The deepest cut on the Crookton Cutoff, and one of the deepest cuts in the West, is located at Doublea.  The only cut that I have personally seen on a similar scale is at Belmont on Crawford Hill in Nebraska.   Doublea was blasted through limestone and sandstone, not lava, with multiple terraces to avoid rock slides.  
Westbound Entering Doublea Cut

Westbound in Doublea Cut

At one time, the AT&SF spread tar over the rock in an attempt to seal cracks and prevent erosion during freezing and thawing.  By the time I made it to Doublea, however, the tar was long gone.
Meet at Doublea

Doublea is about ten miles from Eagle Nest, and you may wonder why the surrounding rock is limestone and sandstone rather than lava.  Limestone is made from the skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams and mollusks that have fallen to the floor of an ocean over millions of years.  Sandstone is made from the compaction of sand deposited along shorelines and beaches.  Doublea is accordingly located in an area that during the Mississippian Age was covered multiple times by a shallow sea.  Doublea is also located outside the volcano belt, so that there is no lava in the immediate vicinity, even though it is only a short distance away.
Eastbound Entering Doublea Cut

Westbound Approaching Doublea
There are a number of quarries in this area, and I often mistake the sound of their equipment for approaching trains.  About four miles west of Doublea is another large cut showing quite clearly the various layers of limestone and sandstone deposited over the eons.
Eastbound Stacks Curving Through Limestone and Sandstone Cut On Way to Doublea

Eastbound Stacks Exiting First Cut West of Doublea at Dusk

Eastbound Auto Train in First Cut West of Doublea
Unlike Eagle Nest, Doublea is easily approachable on the appropriately named Doublea Ranch Road, which one takes west out of Williams.  For most of its length, the road is rock and gravel and will take you directly to the south side of the cut.  From there, the only limit to your photographs is your imagination.
Eastbound in Doublea Cut

Eastbound in Cut
I think the best time to photograph Doublea is fall, when the sun is relatively low in the southern sky but not so low that no sunlight enters the cut.  At that time of year, shots of trains at the east end of the cut entertain full sunlight.

Eastbound Exiting Cut 
Pushers on Westbound Oil Train Entering Doublea Cut
Images from the west end of the cut are also brilliantly illuminated.
Westbound Stacks Exiting Doublea Cut
Photographs taken of trains in the middle of the cut require that the sun be overhead enough to illuminate the tracks and also require a wide angle lens.  The images below were taken with a film camera using a 18-35 mm zoom lens.
Eastbound in Cut
Eastbound in Doublea Cut 
Westbound in Depths of Doublea

Westbound Trailers in Doublea Cut

There are also some nice shots available just west of Doublea.  A little climbing is required, but the results are worth the effort.

Westbound Past Doublea

Crookton is where the Cutoff ties back into the original mainline.  Remnants of the two old grades are still visible, making a nice visual comparison between the high-speed, modern construction of the Cutoff and the torturous grades and curves of the original railroad.  Standing at Crookton, one easily understands why the AT&SF spent millions to upgrade this portion of the Transcon.
Eastbound Beneath Lava Dome at Crookton

Crookton can be reached from old Route 66 via a turn-off immediately west of the highway bridge across the tracks.  There is no evidence of a town or any dwellings, and I have been unable to find anything of historical significance about the place -- other than the Cutoff itself.  
Eastbound Stacks at Crookton

Same Train Meeting Westbound at Crookton
Interestingly, as of this writing (November 28, 2015), there are a number of properties listed for sale on Gleed Station Road, one of the abandoned rail lines east of Crookton.  I have driven my Wrangler Rubicon down this "road," and it is an adventure.  One of the properties for sale is advertised as follows:

"See this beautiful remote piece of land, high up in Juniperwood Ranch.  Heavily treed at the top with a level area for building.  Hill is steep but unobstructed to get you some great views.  Saw a property full of deer, javelina and rabbits tracks.  Seller is re-doing a dirt path so you can get to top of your property.  Come and enjoy the scenery and wildlife.  Owner may even do short term financing with 20-30% down, but cash is king.  Sign on front of property."

According to the listing, the property has been on the market more than 180 days.
Eastbound Beneath Lava Dome at Crookton
Westbound, International Lash-up at Crookton
Ultimately, one's impression of Crookton is a place that never had a chance to blossom.  Perhaps, in another reality, Crookton might have flourished.  But in the world in which we live, Crookton is a "might have been," nothing more.
Westbound at Crookton With Lava Dome in Distance
Eastbound at Crookton
Westbound at Crookton
Seligman (emphasis on second syllable and a short "i") is a museum, one of the few surviving remnants of U.S. Route 66 that looks much as it did before the coming of the Interstate System.  Seligman has somehow managed to maintain the Western Kitsch that now, for the most part, is covered with tumbleweeds and sand along the abandoned portions of the old highway. 
Westbound Pushers Descending Into Seligman Bowl With Aubrey Cliffs in Background
From a railroad perspective, Seligman is significant because it sits at the bottom of a bowl; trains in both directions climb a grade out of town.  The village was named for Jesse Seligman, one of the financiers of the Atlantic and Pacific.  For many years, Seligman was a division point with a roundhouse, freight yard and machine shop.  Seligman was also a helper terminal until the advent of diesel-electric locomotives.
Westbound Approaching Seligman Under Watchful Eye of Lava Dome

Eastbound Climbing Grade Beneath Aubrey Cliffs
A Harvey House opened in Seligman in 1905, closing in 1948.  After closure, the AT&SF moved its offices into the building.  Train crews used the guest rooms while awaiting calls to Needles and Winslow.  In 2008, the building was demolished.
Eastbound Climbing Out of Bowl
Westbound Stacks with AT&SF Warbonnets Approach Seligman From East
After I-40 bypassed the town and the AT&SF closed the division office, one would have expected Seligman to wither.  Somehow, it did not.  I don't want to give the impression that this is a large desert community.  As of 2014, the population was 394.  The town stretches several blocks along the old highway with little to either side.  The median home price was $96,000.00 in 2014, and according to one web site I found, the "average commute time" was 14 minutes, which is hard to believe, since one can walk through the entire town in less than 14 minutes.  But Seligman is at least a "place," which is more than can be said for other abandoned Arizona communities along the old highway.
New Westbound Power
Eastbound Climbing Grade With Seligman and Aubrey Cliffs in Background
When I have driven through Seligman, the restaurants and drive-ins have been filled with motorcycles and tourists.  The motels are a throw-back to the days before standardization, when each town had its own unique inns with gaudy neon signs, when it was a good idea to ask to see a sample room before checking in.

Eastbound Passing Westbound
The following photographs were taken on the east side of town, where trains run beneath both lava domes and the Aubrey Cliffs, which run north from Seligman to the Colorado River and rise about 1,000 feet above the floor of the Aubrey Valley.  

Westbound Descending

Another Eastbound Ascending
Westbound Toward Seligman With Lave Dome Behind
Eastbound Above Seligman

And Another
Meet East of Seligman
West of Seligman in Aubrey Valley

The Aubrey Valley is 35 miles long, beginning just north of Seligman and running north to a central wash that drains from the north.  Both old Route 66 and the Transcon cross the valley from  southeast to northwest, climbing a grade of over one percent at Yampai.  
Meet in Aubrey Valley Above Aubrey Cliffs
Westbound Trailers Headed to Yampi
The highway then turns west, climbing Yampai Divide and then downgrade to Peach Springs.  The railroad does not climb the divide, instead following dry washes on both sides to a point where the Transcon utilizes its only tunnel.  I have not yet taken a photo at the tunnel but will do so in time and will include same in this post.

Eastbound Stacks Beneath Aubrey Cliffs

Eastbound Grain

The land north of Seligman gives one the feeling for the vast openness of the western United States.  Standing on hillsides, peering into the distance, one feels that one can see to the very edge of the earth.  

Eastbound Nod to AT&SF
Westbound Warbonnet Without Peeling Paint
Eastbound With Aubrey Valley Expanding Behind
This is truly isolated country.  To this day, I marvel at the audacity of those who believed a railroad could be built through this terrain. They were correct, as it turned out.  Still, it is a stunning achievement.  If you don't believe me, climb the Aubrey Cliffs and peer across the Aubrey Valley and tell me that the construction of a railroad was nothing out of the ordinary.
Eastbound Approaching Seligman

Eastbound as Aubrey Valley Narrows

Eastbound Manifest

Eastbound Showing Full Width of Aubrey Valley and Yampai Divide to North
When I see the Aubrey Valley, I am reminded of my own insignificance and of the universe of which I know so little.

To see my other posts, go to

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to


  1. Beautiful pictures, interesting commentary. Thanks for sharing this. When I was a little kid in the mid-60s my dad was Roadmaster and Assistant Division Engineer in Winslow. He loved the RR out there and I inherited that love as well going on to work for Santa Fe in the 80s and 90s. Nothing quite so thrilling as a big SF/BNSF freight powering across the desert and through the mountains. Again, thanks for rekindling the memories.

  2. East of Ash Fork the steeper line is the older one, but west of Ash Fork the steeper line was built when they double tracked around 1914.