by Drew Desmond, Secretary, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
When it first opened Aug. 1, 1920, it was declared “Yavapai’s Greatest Attraction” by Yavapai Magazine. A Jerome Chamber of Commerce brochure declared: “Members of the National Geographic Society … proclaimed it as ‘the most beautiful drive in America.’” What is known today as Highway 89A was originally called US Highway 79; the “Prescott-Jerome short line.”
To cynics (and the carsick) the curvy mountain road might seem to have been designed by a carnival-ride engineer, a drunk or both. In fact, Highway 79 would be considered an engineering marvel even by today’s standards. It cut the travel time and distance between the two cities (then the largest in the county) nearly in half. Still, the twists and turns on this roadway only mirror the odyssey taken to construct it.
Previously if one were taking a wagon from Prescott to Jerome, he would need to travel through Dewey, Cherry, Cottonwood and Clarkdale before heading up the mountain to Jerome.
Highway 79 turned off toward Mingus Mountain from the Granite Dells. Although a dead end today, one can still see the improved Y intersection just north of the Dells. Interestingly, the portion of the road from the Granite Dells to the Prescott National Forest recreational areas at the summit was funded by the U.S. Forest Service to make the areas accessible to automobiles. However, beyond the summit was nothing more than horse trails.
The last leg of construction started in Jerome and headed toward the summit. The first 4 miles out of Jerome were especially rugged and curvy, and copious amounts of TNT were necessary to clear and carve the road into the mountain.
“There was constant trouble in getting satisfactory help,” Yavapai Magazine explained. High rates were paid for labor, but the work was difficult and few men applied. Eventually the positions were filled by some Anglos skilled in heavy rock removal, with Apaches and Mexicans filling the rest of the openings. These three groups were kept segregated.
Once completed, the county was beaming about its new tourist attraction. Even the locals wanted to experience it. The Arizona Bus Company, operating a line between Prescott and Jerome, reported to the Journal-Miner that: “passenger traffic was growing between the two cities (and) the buses (were) carrying full loads.”
Yavapai Magazine offered a description of the drive when the road first opened:
“Just out of Prescott the road passes Lake Watson, a beautiful water gem, framed in granite walls. Then it plunges into the Granite Dells, a remarkably picturesque park of granite spires … Then follows a stretch of 13 miles through Lonesome Valley.
“Then with long, graceful curves, the road sweeps up the northern side of (Yeager) canyon … Stretches of young trees cover both sides of the canyon (that replaced) the forest giants destroyed and marketed in Prescott and Jerome” in the 1880s and ‘90s.
“A six-mile climb brings the driver to Mingus Pass and … the summit of the road (at) 7,023 feet.” Soon, “One gets the first glimpse of the Verde Valley nearly 4,000 feet below. The pointed walls of the Verde Canyon tower high above the valley in a panorama of kaleidoscopic changeableness. The highway sweeps down into the heavily wooded depths of Mescal Gulch and then up again to Mescal Pass.
“Through the two miles of Mormon Gulch and the final two miles of Deception Gulch, the engineers had to fight for every inch of the way.”
Even to this day Route 89A is a worthy attraction. It is one of only three designated historic roads in the state of Arizona.
Sources: Yavapai Magazine: 8/1920, 8/1921, 9/1921.
Weekly Journal Miner 8/11/1920.
Photo: Courtesy of Tim Gronek