ABC Arizona Communities
All Roads Lead to Holbrook
A few years ago the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce declared their community “headed in the right direction.” Though it hasn’t always been true, it has been that way for a long time. In fact, Holbrook has also been a place to which people are headed. The Santa Fe Stage Company established passenger and mail service in 1867 from Santa Fe to Los Angeles along the middle route, which meant across northern Arizona Territory. The stage found a convenient crossing of the Little Colorado River where it is joined by the Rio Puerco, and within a year or so Juan Padilla and Berado Frayde from New Mexico built a stage station with a store, restaurant and hotel at that point, calling it Horsehead Crossing. After Camp Apache was located in the White Mountains in 1870 General George Stoneman had a supply road built from the military outpost to Horsehead Crossing. And beginning in 1876 the Mormon immigrant trail from Utah, known as the Honeymoon Trail, used the same crossing for wagon trains going to all of eastern Arizona.
This map is a reconstruction published in 1943 of the trails that led to Horsehead Crossing in the first decade following the establishment of the Territory of Arizona. It doesn’t show General Stoneman’s road, nor does it continue the Mormon trail. The headquarters of the Hashknife outfit, established about 1883 or 1884 is shown, and the Star Mail Route taken by the stage line and the first territorial governor’s party.
By 1880, the stage had stopped running but the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was building into Arizona from Albuquerque. Grading contractor John W. Young had recently purchased the stage station knowing it was on the surveyed railroad line. But Young was disappointed when the railroad arrived in 1881 and picked a location for a depot where the valley was wider, about two miles west of Horsehead Crossing. Still he suggested naming the place after the railroad’s chief engineer, Henry R. Holbrook. Within a few years the new town would become the principal shipping point and center of commerce in eastern Arizona. By then no one could recall why it’s former location was named Horsehead Crossing. The steep bluffs bordering the two rivers probably reminded travelers of the more famous Horsehead Crossing, on the Pecos River in Texas.
This photo from the National Archives and Records Administration documents the center of the single business street, rebuilding after the fire of 1888. The photographer is standing at the railroad main line with the foundation of the burned depot and a rail spur in the foreground. At right, along Front Street, is the A & B Schuster General Merchandise store and the Mormon Arizona Cooperative Mercantile Institution relocated from nearby Woodruff and Horsehead Crossing before that. The storefront with the sign at left is F. J. Wattron’s Drugs & Notions. Next door to the left is the Cottage Saloon, nicknamed “Bucket of Blood” after the infamous saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Gambling and booze too often resulted in gunfights. Today, Front Street is named Bucket of Blood Street.
Commodity speculators from the east coast and Texas had driven a boom in the cattle industry in that state which went bust in 1885. They turned to northeastern Arizona to try again. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company was formed with about a million acres of cheap railroad land grant. Ranch headquarters was located a short distance southwest of Holbrook. From 1884-1887, nearly 40,000 longhorns, 100 cowboys and more than 2,500 horses were shipped to Holbrook. Having grown to 60,000 head within a few years, it was the third biggest ranch in North America. And though it only lasted 16 years, it wielded tremendous power in northeastern Arizona, altering settlement there forever, where its legacy is still evident. Called The Hashknife outfit, after its brand which resembled the tool favored by chuck wagon cooks, the beef and land development company owned alternate sections, giving it de facto control over about two million acres. Armed cowboys sternly enforced a policy of excluding homesteaders and warning trespassers. Mormons who had settled from 1876-1878, before government surveys, found their land claims in jeopardy. Sheep ranchers already grazing flocks in the area were considered a threat.
Freight wagons piled high with sacks of wool arrive at the depot around 1906. The row of storefronts pictured in the 1889 photo (above) are located just out of view at left. The railroad shipped 300,000 pounds of wool from Holbrook in the first year of the town’s existence. By 1896 the freight depot handled 1.1 million pounds of wool, 20,000 head of cattle and 22,000 head of sheep.
In Holbrook, the line of saloons between the tracks and the river supported at first by railroad worker paychecks now served a hard-working, hard-drinking, quick shooting bunch of cowboys. It wasn’t long before the town seemed headed in the wrong direction, with a violent reputation to rival the other wild west towns along the A & P. In 1887, Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens became a legendary figure after calmly walking Holbrook’s main street with his over-the-shoulder hair wafting on the breeze. After reaching the house where the Blevins gang, wanted by the law, was hold up, Owen’s Winchester pierced the walls to leave three dead, including a 16-year-old. Some who read newspaper accounts worried that Holbrook and Tombstone could tarnish the whole territory, dampening business investment and chances for statehood. Owens was not reelected in 1888. Still, Holbrook maintained a reputation for over-the-top lawlessness and tough law enforcement for more than another decade. In 1899, Navajo County Sheriff F. J. Wattron was criticized by the President of the United States for issuing a too gleeful invitation to a hanging. It turned out to be the only hanging to ever take place in Holbrook.
Apache county had been created out of the eastern part of Yavapai County in 1879 by powerful mercantile and sheep interests centered in St. Johns, which became county seat. But as Winslow and Holbrook blossomed with the railroad there was a struggle to wrestle the county seat away from St. Johns. Finally, Navajo County was created out of the west half of Apache County by the territorial legislature in 1895 and Holbrook narrowly beat Winslow to become county seat.
This 1912 panorama looking west shows how the railroad ran down the center of the main business street. There’s a locomotive puffing smoke in the distance. In the 1880s there were only a few scattered homes on the north side of the tracks (on the right in this view) and no business buildings. The residential neighborhood was first located among the cottonwoods that lined the river, seen at left. The Navajo County Courthouse (1898) is seen at extreme right, built on higher ground. Floods would soon drive the residential and business districts in that direction.
Several years of drought followed by the severe winter of 1898 killed half of the cattle grazing the Hashknife range and the beef industry collapsed just as it had in Texas. Aztec Land and Cattle filed for bankruptcy in 1900 and Holbook entered a period of relative tranquility. Now calamity visited the community only in the form of periodic disasters. The big fire of 1888 was followed by flood in 1891. Drought and overgrazing by sheep and cattle produced more silt in the Rio Puerco and Little Colorado until the stream bed was higher than parts of town. The flood of 1923 was the worst ever, cutting off Holbrook by rail, highway, telephone and telegraph. Streets were inundated, homes and commercial buildings washed away and one life lost. Beginning in the 1930s the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed levees to protect those homes and businesses that remained on the south side of the tracks. Work on the levees continues today.
One of the earlier motels catering to travelers on Route 66 is pictured about 1931. The back of this postcard says “a large assortment of genuine Navajo Indian rugs in stock at all times.” Though it doesn’t look very inviting today it seemed to offer most everything you could want, including a good mattress.
With the development of automobile travel, Holbrook businesses came to line two main streets, Navajo Boulevard seen here looking north in 1937 and Hopi Drive running west and east one block north of this view. Joy Nevin Avenue and the railroad tracks are just behind the photographer of this “real photo postcard,” the prolific Burton Frasher (1888-1955) of Pomona, California. The left side of this block is hard to recognize today, taken over by giant plaster dinosaurs advertising a rock shop. The white house that was home to Scorse’s Green Lantern Café in 1937 is still there, but the Holbrook Hotel built in 1884 and housing a Buick-Oldsmobile dealership in 1937 is long gone.
Holbrook’s fortunes increased with every new road bringing tourists and shoppers. Trains stopped at Adamana, 15 miles east of Holbrook, for tours of Petrified Forest National Monument created in 1906. It wasn’t long before tours of the Painted Desert, Petrified Forest and the Hopi pueblos would start in Holbrook. Beginning in 1913, an Ocean to Ocean highway was constructed across the country, named the National Old Trails Road. Coming from California, the automobile road followed the Santa Fe railway until Holbrook. There it crossed the Little Colorado River twice to go south to St. Johns and Springerville and into New Mexico. When named highways were given numbers in 1926, US Highway 66 from Winslow took a new alignment at Holbrook, staying north of the Rio Puerco.
Judging by the number of cars, The Motaurant was a popular stop on west Highway 66, Hopi Drive in Holbrook when this postcard was issued late in 1953 or early 1954. Not a complete octagon, the café wing was nevertheless built to resemble one of the better Navajo hogan homes. Another postcard for The Motaurant from the late 1940s advertised organist Fred Laskowsky playing your requests in the “refined cocktail bar” at left. Drinks and then back on narrow, two-lane Route 66 at 50-65 mph.
“Sleep in a Wigwam” said the back of this Petley Studios postcard from the 1950s, “a novel and unique place to stay.” Built in 1950 by Chester E. Lewis based on a design used for six other such motels from California to Florida, it was first called Wigwam Village No. 6. Though closed from 1974-1988 when I-40 bypassed the downtown, today it is still operated by the Lewis family. Besides the seven Villages, there were other teepee design motels, including one in Tempe.
In 1917, Holbrook became the terminus of a new railroad, the Apache Railway extending south to sawmills at Snowflake, Standard and McNary. Lumber became a commodity shipped out of Holbrook. Today, the Apache Railway brings paper from a mill near Snowflake. Over the years, Holbrook has also been a supply point by truck for the Hopi mesas to the north and the Mormon settlements to the south, along Highway 77. Highway 377 also comes in from the south, from Heber and the rim country. But it was Route 66 that created one long strip development through downtown Holbrook, offering travelers a variety of gasoline stations, restaurants, motels, curio shops and amusements. That’s the town that still greets motorists on Interstate-40.
This is the intersection of Hopi Drive and Navajo Boulevard, looking northeast about 1952. The cupola of the courthouse is seen above the yellow-brick Masonic Lodge (1917). Motorists on Route 66 headed east would drive the length of Hopi until arriving at this intersection at lower left, then turn left to proceed north on Navajo, passing the courthouse. If they turned right, they would pass the scene pictured above in 1937, cross the railroad tracks and the river with the option to head south toward Snowflake (Highway 77) or southeast toward St. Johns (US 260 in 1952 but renumbered 180 today).
This 1960s Agfachrome aerial photo by Bob Petley locates Holbrook between the Little Colorado River at lower right corner and the reddish bluffs bordering the river valley. You can easily make out the Wigwam Motel on long and wide Hopi Drive (click on the picture to see full-size) and the Santa Fe railroad running parallel one block south. In upper left, Navajo Boulevard has climbed out of the valley to curve back to the east as Route 66, going to the Petrified Forest on the horizon.
William S. Abruzzi, “The Social and Ecological Consequences of Early Cattle Ranching in the Little Colorado River Basin” Human Ecology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (March 1995) pp. 75-98.
Catherine H. Ellis, Holbrook and the Petrified Forest (2007).