March 7, 2007
Filed under Travel
The Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix Railroad once hauled timber out of the mountains around Prescott. Nobody does that anymore; those mountains are now a national forest — part of the largest stand of ponderosa pine in the world. The railroad, of course, is gone, but not its roadbed. It’s now the Peavine Trail: A hiking trail that twists like a creeping vine —
naming it must have been easy — as it winds by a riparian lake, wrapped in bulrushes, and through amazing rock formations known the Granite Dells. Then it heads toward open range. It’s a good walk: 9.2 miles round-trip. Rusty and I did most of it. Nothing with a motor is allowed on it.
The national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy helped with its creation. I had not heard of the rail-to-trails project, even though it has been around since the 1960s and has 1,359 trails nationwide. These trails are fashioned from former railroad corridors, and can be found in every state. Flat or following a gentle grade, they go through urban, suburban
and rural America. You can bike, hike or skate, if it’s paved; or, you can ride a horse or a wheelchair. And you can even cross-country ski if you’ve got a trail with snow on it. In those areas where snow takes over in the winter, snowmobiles are generally allowed. More than 350 of the rail-trails nationwide provide access to fishing lakes; in some cases, the
In urban areas they aren’t just for recreation, but link neighborhoods and schools to parks, waterfronts and shopping (for more information, log onto www.railtrails.org). The Prescott National Forest has more than a million acres laced with 450 miles of multi-use trails. Along with the popular pedestrian pursuits, the forest also offers canoeing and kayaking. There is even some successful gold-panning done up there. Prescott, a time-honored city of 34,000, is on the fringe of the forest, and is the prime bivouac area for those headed into it. Unlike most towns in the West that occurred haphazardly by the promise of cheap land, the availability of water or at the craze of prospectors or speculators, Prescott was designed as a proper city from the start.
Miners prospecting for gold first settled this area. It was that presence of gold that prompted President Lincoln to designate Arizona a territory in 1863. Our cash-poor Union was two years into the Civil War. Lincoln dispatched a contingent of loyal Midwesterners and New Englanders to build the territorial capital here in the north-central part of the territory. This was a political play, as he wanted to keep the Arizona Territory in the Union camp. He definitely did not want governing power in its southern reaches — namely Tucson, 200 miles south — where Confederate partisans lurked. Thus Prescott was created, and by outsiders from back East. It was their prim, aesthetic temperament and sense of decorum that forged the town’s character, which is as strong today as it ever has been.
With shaded streets, well-kept yards and Victorian houses of an earlier era, Prescott seems the idealized small town. Courthouse Plaza, dominated by the Yavapai County Courthouse, works for me as the classic town square — the centerpiece of anytown, USA. In the evenings, people show up here to read, stroll, play on the grass or just sit and talk. In many American communities today, shopping malls have become social centers. I say it’s by default, simply because nothing exists in those places like Prescott’s Courthouse Plaza. In 1867, with the war over, Arizona’s capital finally shifted to Tucson. It moved back here later, but shifted permanently to Phoenix in 1889. In spite of its pedigreed propriety, Prescott was a cowboy town. In the early 1900s, there were some 40 saloons along the wooden sidewalk of Montezuma Street, still known today as “Whiskey Row.” The Palace Saloon was one of them.
It is still here, serving whiskey and beer at the oldest bar in the state. Arizona was a territory for almost 50 years, until it entered the Union as our 48th state in 1912. Only 15 percent of the state’s land is privately owned. The rest is devoted to forests, parks, wilderness, wildlife preserves, recreational areas and Indian reservations. Indian nations occupy more land in Arizona than in any other state. John C. Fremont, the storied Western explorer and Civil War general, was the territorial governor here for five years. In 1856, he ran for president. Fremont made his fame, however, as a major player in the formation of California. There, he was a senator for a few years. Streets and schools all over California bear his name, as does a prominent Knob Hill hotel in San Francisco.
There are towns named for him in 11 states but, interestingly, none in Arizona. But there is Mt. Fremont near Flagstaff. And I know of one street that has his name. It’s not famous, but what happened on it put a whole town on the map. It was on Fremont Street in Tombstone, where Wyatt Earp and his brothers took on the Clanton Cowboys gang in their famous shootout near the O.K. Corral. Trivia? Yes, but it’s the stuff without which no campfire would be complete.
Fremont’s home here has been moved to the site of the Sharlot Hall Museum. The largest museum north of Phoenix, its grounds cover three acres, which is called a “campus.” If you view this facility as a place of higher learning, which it probably is, then I suppose a person could stretch the definition of “campus” to include it. In Prescott, they do fashion things with refined flamboyance. Bill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org