Flagstaff hotel owner John W. Weatherford envisioned a toll road from Flagstaff up to the timberline of the San Francisco Peaks; similar to the road up Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Horseback trips on the peaks had long been a popular activity, but Weatherford thought a vehicle-worthy road would enable more people to see the views. He pitched his idea to the U.S. Forest Service, Flagstaff City Council and Coconino County Board of Supervisors for a permit to construct a 14-mile road. The permit was issued in 1916, and construction began in September 1920, with Weatherford optimistically predicting the road would be open the following July.
Inclement weather caused the first of many delays.
The road began near the Flagstaff city reservoirs at the west entrance to Schultz Pass, northwest of Flagstaff. A toll house, gate, and sign were situated at this site. The decomposed granite road proceeded north to Arnold Spring, a half-way point, where Weatherford planned to build a restroom for travelers and a cottage for his family. There was a turn-around point here, in case the 9000-foot elevation was too much for anyone.
The road continued with a series of hairpin curves to Fremont Saddle at an elevation of 10,800 feet. From there, the road was to cross into the Inner Basin area of the mountains. Part of Weatherford’s dream was to build a top-of-the-world hotel located near Doyle Saddle that included 50-75 guest rooms, a Harvey House-quality dining room, rustic cottages and curio store.
Fate seemed to work against Weatherford and his project with frequent setbacks, some out of his control. Heavy snows collapsed the roof of his opera house/theater next to his Weatherford Hotel in Flagstaff. He needed money to rebuild that, plus the onset of World War I further hampered road construction efforts. After the war, he sold stock in his San Francisco Mountain Boulevard Company to raise cash. By 1924, seven miles of road had been constructed. After 10.4 miles were completed to Fremont Saddle, a grand opening was held on Aug. 15, 1926.
Participating vehicles lined up on Leroux Street by 9:30 a.m. to proceed parade-like up the road with local Boy Scouts directing traffic. A picnic lunch was served at the top and special commemorative souvenirs made. Lowell Observatory lent a telescope for use that day. One-hundred-seventy cars reportedly made the trip with the $1 toll being waived that day. The road’s banner year was 1928, when Weatherford collected $5,000 in tolls.
The Great Depression years in the 1930s again caused delays in construction, plus Weatherford’s deteriorating health took a turn for the worst and he died on Jan. 8, 1934, at age 74. His will stated his preference to be buried in a mosque atop Fremont Saddle, but that wish was never fulfilled.
Weatherford (1859-1934) was born in Texas and arrived in Flagstaff in 1887. Mining work evidently brought him to Arizona in 1879. His time in Flagstaff of nearly a half-century saw him as a deputy sheriff, justice of the peace, livestock operator and merchant. He built the now-celebrated Weatherford Hotel and he was involved in establishing the Normal School (now Northern Arizona University) in 1899.
A letter dated April 25, 1934, was sent to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from prominent northern Arizona residents a few months after Weatherford’s passing. The letter asked the government to exercise its option to purchase the toll road from the San Francisco Mountain Boulevard Company. A provision in the original agreement stated that the secretary of Agriculture could demand that the grant be returned to the government after 15 years.
The signers of this petition encouraged the government to take over the road because Weatherford was deceased and there was no one overseeing the project. The signers wanted the government to maintain the road in good condition because of the spectacular geologic structure and biological zones on the peaks available to both visitors and scientists.
Another letter on San Francisco Mountain Boulevard Company letterhead dated Aug. 28, 1936, asks Raymond Hussey, Coconino National Forest supervisor, to inspect the roadwork being done to Doyle’s Saddle.
Perhaps agreements between Weatherford descendants and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the road had been reached. The letterhead touts views of 400 miles and the road is known as “the Switzerland of America.”
In 1942, Congress approved payment to the Weatherford descendants for the improvements made to the road. At that point, the road became part of the U.S. Forest Service road system. Discussion occurs periodically about resurrecting the road for both visitors, firefighting and researchers.
Today, however, the road is not open for vehicle use.
- S. D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the author.