About NATRA Blog

This page is meant for folks to post their thoughts on the Saturday group run. I (Neil) will post a blurb about who showed up and where it was held. From there, I hope that other runners will share their thoughts since we often have different experiences on the same run. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Run Through History: NATRA's Abandoned Johnson Canyon Railroad Grade Adventure

Twenty-one years ago, my co-workers at the Kaibab National Forest filled my head with wonders when they showed off an abandoned railroad grade that led to the infamous Johnson Canyon Tunnel. That year, they convinced me to take a graduate historic preservation class at Northern Arizona University taught by the late Dr. Charlie Hoffman. Charlie required us to nominate a site to the National Register of Historic Places, and he further encouraged me to re-write the nomination as a paper for the 1993 Arizona History Conference in Kingman. Surprisingly, "The Johnson Canyon Railroad Grade: 9.3 miles of Treacherous Railroading in Northern Arizona" won best graduate student paper along with a $250 award!   For those of you on yesterday's run, click on the link and you can read more about the history. (It is important to note that while most of the grade is on the Kaibab National Forest, the tunnel and lands around it are privately owned.)

(Johnson Canyon video from 2012 run)
In short, crews constructed the grade across Arizona in the spring of 1882, however, Canyon Diablo (this may warrant a future group run) and Johnson Canyon proved to be major impediments holding up opening the opening of the Atlantic and Pacific railroad line. The Atlantic and Pacific established construction camps around both troublesome areas and each had their own colorful short-lived histories. Once workers completed the bridges and tunnels the railroad reached both Flagstaff and Williams in September 1882, and the construction sites soon became ghost towns.
In 1960, the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad abandoned their rugged grade through Johnson Canyon due to its high maintenance costs and built a 22 mile double-tracked re-route from Williams Junction to Crookton. Today, the abandoned grade is closed to motorized travel making it a perfect mountain bike ride and judging by Saturday's turnout, it has become one of our most popular annual Northern Arizona Trail Runners group adventures.

We parked near the bottom of Johnson Canyon where it crossed Forest Road 6. This greatly helped as our steepest uphill greeted us about 50 yards west of the cars, warming our bodies quickly. it was nice to have a tail wind propelling us as well! After topping out we enjoyed a quick view of the 200 yard diameter Johnson Canyon Crater thought to be a sink hole or a collapse lava tube. However, the debate goes on; I was once told by a local that UFOs landed there regularly. When I told him I had never heard that story, he told me that I was part of the government cover up. Ha.

(Kathleen O'Neill Photo)

Soon enough we turned onto the old grade and headed east passing through rock cuts and the same scenic views that cross country travelers once enjoyed from the comforts of the Santa Fe "Chief" train. After 2.4 miles on the grade, we finally arrived at the spectacular tunnel. We figured that if we played chicken with a downhill train, the 18 of us might just win. On the tunnel's east portal, the group all gave a mighty choo-choo and we took the shot below. Robert suggested we set up a coffee shop here and call it "Late for the Train." 

(Matt Ryan photo)
We all felt like freight trains powering back to the vehicles as the return was completely downhill. Try this on a mountain bike. If you don't have a head wind, you can cruise the whole ride without pedaling!  In hindsight I suppose we should have finished this run at Late for the Train, but we chose to hit up the Kickstand instead for great eats and hot coffee to warm our chilled bones.

Next Saturday we will be closer to home at the Campbell Mesa Trail System!