The rise and fall of small towns in the Southwest is an interesting study in itself. Infrastructural development progressed quickly in many boom towns, while the long term community planning was limited by the local resources. For example, when the local economic resources played out in a gold rush town, the wheels of progress came to a screeching halt. Likewise, when the golden age of railroad travel came to an end, many of the small railroad towns in the Southwest became ghost towns overnight. Railroad towns that were lucky enough to have a Federal Highway run through the community during the dawn of the age of automobile travel benefited from renewed economic prosperity, but in some cases the local highway project turned into a curse of sorts too. This is especially true in old railroad communities that later became Route 66 towns, which were tragically bypassed by Interstate Highway 40.
Ash Fork, Arizona is a prime example of a small town that has been subject to many setbacks through the years, yet this community has survived. Ash Fork began as a railroad town in the 1880s. A fire burnt the small town to the ground in the mid 1890s, but fortunately the rebuilding process began when the age of railroad passenger car touring was coming to a peak.
In 1907 the landmark Escalante Hotel was built by Fred Harvey in Ash Fork. The Escalante was one of many Harvey House facilities that accommodated western railroad travelers and visitors of the National Parks.On a side note, I worked at the Harvey House facility in the Grand Canyon National Park in recent years, so I am familiar with the history of this famous company. By placing hotel resorts in strategic tourism locations along railroad lines, Fred Harvey set the standards for tourist accommodations that all others follow to this day. Any town that had a Harvey House instantly became part of the thriving tourism economy back then, so the Escalante certainly was an asset for the town of Ash Fork.
People from back east and around the globe wanted to experience the natural wonders of the newly settled west back in the early to mid 1900s. The Grand Canyon was by far the most popular scenic destination back in those days and the nearby towns like Ash Fork which offered accommodations definitely benefited from the overflow numbers. Ash Fork also had natural wonders of its own that tourists flocked to see. The Cathedral Caves and Dante’s Descent are located near Ash Fork and these attractions were popular back in the day. Currently the Cathedral Caves can only be accessed by private guided tours and the State Of Arizona has closed access to the gigantic sinkhole called Dante’s Descent, so the loss of these attractions was a bummer for Ash Fork too.
When the age of railroad tourism started to steadily decline, automobile tourism was on the rise. Route 66 soon became America’s Mother Road after it was paved and this famous travel route went right through downtown Ash Fork, Arizona. The Escalante Hotel in Ash Fork found itself positioned to become one of the most famous landmarks on the Mother Road. This famous Harvey House resort finally closed in the late 1940s after serving thousands of travelers during the golden age of Route 66 tourism.
Because of the high volume of traffic on Route 66, many sections of the old two lane road were expanded to four lanes in the 1950s. The Route 66 expansion project in Ash Fork involved razing much of the original downtown area to make way for the widened road. Needless to say, the Federal Highway expansion project coldly destroyed much of the original character of this old historic old west town, which was yet another great loss.
The Route 66 road widening project was slow to progress and this dramatically slowed the economic projections of Ash Fork. A second blow to the economic outlook of Ash Fork took place in the early 1960s when the railroad line was moved far away from town. Then a third devastating economic blow was dealt to Ash Fork when most of the downtown businesses were destroyed by fire in the mid 1970s. The controversial Interstate Highway 40 was completed in this same decade and this modern Federal Highway completely bypassed old Route 66 in Ash Fork. The completion of I-40 was like the proverbial nail in the economic coffin, as far as Ash Fork was concerned.
Basically, the historic town of Ash Fork was left in shambles by the road widening project and it never recovered from the devastating fire before being totally bypassed by Interstate Highway 40. Travelers now zoom by on the freeway without giving much thought to stopping to check out Ash Fork at all. This is kind of a shame, because Ash Fork once was a premier destination way back when.
After getting off the freeway in Ash Fork, visitors will find themselves in a Route 66 wasteland of sorts. Ash Fork looks like a town that has been in shambles for many years through no fault of this town’s own making. After a few minutes, it is easy to see that a strong sense of community pride exists and this it what keeps Ash Fork alive in modern times.
Ash Fork is the Flagstone Capitol Of America and the local quarries are still in business. Places like the old Escalante and the turn of the century businesses from the early 1900s are long gone, but some of the 1940s era Route 66 buildings have survived. Hollywood movie scenes have also been filmed in Ash Fork in recent years, because the property prices are much lower than average. Unbelievably, one film project actually involved burning an old building down just to film a scene! Remnants of the railroad and the steel water towers can also still be seen in this place. All around town there are old pieces of memorabilia from the golden age of Route 66 Ash Fork that the nostalgia buffs will take interest in. There also are a few new restaurants and shops that cater to the trickle of Route 66 tourists that pass through, but the local diner still looks like the busiest place in town.
The town of Ash Fork does have a great tourist attraction that is well worth recommending. As mentioned earlier, community pride runs thick in this town and this heartfelt pride can be experienced at the Ash Fork Historical Society Museum. This local museum is not heavily promoted in tourist brochures, so a visit can easily turn into a personalized learning experience. The museum facility is surprisingly large and there are plenty of interesting exhibits. The Ash Fork Historical Society Museum serves as a complete time capsule of the grand hospitality that this town was once famous for and there are many stories waiting to be told. It is best to call to make reservations in advance, so the doors will be guaranteed to be open on days when the tourism flow is slow.
Is Ash Fork a place that is worth driving an extra few hundred miles to see? ... Most folks will probably say no, but a devoted Route 66 nostalgia buff will definitely say yes! Visiting places like Ash Fork does help to keep Route 66 tourism alive in this modern age. Ash Fork is a great example of a Route 66 landmark that has taken several devastating economic beatings, but the local people never gave up hope!
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