Featured photo: After interchanging with the FMI Railroad at Clifton, the Arizona Eastern departs for Lordsburg. All photos © 2016 by Michael Polk.
After twenty two hours of consecutive driving, Michael Polk and I had finally arrived in Eastern Arizona. The adrenaline had finally kicked in after the exhausting drive with little to no sleep. At the sight of the first train on our cross country odyssey, we knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime.
Descending the nearly 5% grade through Morenci, The Freeport-McMoran Industrial Railroad made their presence known on the way to Clifton, Arizona. It was like watching a train descend Saluda. In fact, this is one of the steepest railroad grades in the United States.
Above: The FMI slowly descends the 5% grade from the mine into Morenci, Arizona.
The Freeport-McMoran Industrial Railroad, commonly referred to by their reporting mark of FMI, is the result of one of the largest copper mines in the world. After first discovering copper ore here in the 1870s, investors from the east settled here and formed the towns of Clifton and Morenci to house thousands of miners.
By 1879, the railroad finally reached Clifton in the form of a narrow gauge line to the smelter and became one of the first steam-powered railroad in the State of Arizona. This railroad would eventually become the FMI. By the early 1880s, the Arizona & New Mexico Railroad built a branch line from Lordsburg, New Mexico to Clifton, making the town a terminus. There, the railroad would interchange with the mine’s own industrial line.
With the newly built railroad, it made shipping the ore much easier. Before the steel ribbons reached Clifton, the only way to the mainline railroad in the south was by mule. Often, these mule teams were attacked by Apache Indian tribes en-route. By the 19-teens, the Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the branch line and continued interchange with the mining railroad at Clifton.
This line was operated by Southern Pacific and then Union Pacific until 2008, when Iowa Pacific purchased the Clifton Subdivision as part of their Arizona Eastern Railway.
In 1988, Southern Pacific sold the line from Globe to Lordsburg to the KYLE Railroad, which eventually became part of RailAmerica in 2001. RailAmerica then sold the line in 2004 to Iowa Pacific Holdings, who owned and operated the shortline until 2011. The line was then sold for over $90,000,000 to Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the current operators of the Arizona Eastern.
The Arizona Eastern is a railfan favorite because of their unique standard cab Dash 8-40B’s. The classy orange, black, and yellow of the Genesee & Wyoming’s corporate scheme also make for a special touch. The railroad interchanges with the FMI every day throughout the week, traveling up and down steep grades and tight curves to reach Clifton Yard. The railroad brings loads for the mine and hauls away materials produced by it.
Truly, watching these two railroads work together is an amazing experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to witness it with anyone but Mike. And it was only the beginning. Later that morning, we traveled about an hour to Ray, AZ to watch the Copper Basin Railway return from a mine run out of Ray. By this time in the day, it was 73°F! It was a total contrast to the sub-zero temperatures of the midwest that we had experienced just days before.
The Copper Basin has been independently operated since 1986, when Kennecott Copper handed over the operation. This stretch of railroad was originally built by the Phoenix & Eastern Railway in 1904 and was leased to the Santa Fe until 1907, when the Southern Pacific took over the subsidiary company.
Today, the railway is one of the most photographed shortlines in the country and is a railfan favorite because of the company’s friendly attitude to photographers. The two of us were very thankful to the company for allowing us such access to their railroad.
At Hayden, the train slowly runs through the dumper. Here, the ore deposits are dumped and sorted out through a smelting process. The ore is in its most natural form here, but will be refined and made pure for manufacturing purposes.
Much of the reason that the Copper Basin has been so successful is due to “Jack” Jacobson, the company’s Chief Operations Officer. With his great work ethic and mutual respect for his employees, his railroad has become one of the most efficient and well-managed operations in the country.
In all, this was an amazing first day on our cross country road trip west. We spent over three weeks exploring Arizona, California, Nevada, and Colorado – aquiring some of our best work yet. Subscribe for more videos from the “Go West” series here: http://www.YouTube.com/user/DelayInBlock
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