Arizona is nothing more than an enormous desert… right? In my youth that was, in fact, my perception of the Grand Canyon State. Prior to 1997, I had never left California and my only exposure to railfanning was in the hills of Tehachapi. But after joining the Air Force that year, I was assigned to Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, where I was introduced to the BNSF Railway Seligman Subdivision and discovered Arizona was loaded with scenery that contradicted my youthful and flawed perceptions.
I was immediately intrigued by the scenery located along the higher elevations, where the majestic San Francisco Peaks tower over the region and the vibrant Ponderosa pines engulf the scenery. As an added bonus, the silver and red warbonnet locomotives were still healthy in numbers, and the classic Santa Fe signal bridges still controlled train movements along the rails. The experience was quite the contrast to what I had become accustomed to growing up in Southern California.
BNSF ES44DC 7320 leads the HKCKBAR1-17 550 feet above the floor of Canyon Diablo on May 20, 2017. The bridge was built in 1947, replacing the original single-track bridge in favor of a new double-track bridge to increase capacity.
Somewhat regrettably, I spent the majority of my time between Williams Junction and East Darling. My infatuation with the dense pine forests resulted in my missing out on hundreds of miles of what is arguably the Southwest’s most diverse and photogenic landscape. Fortunately, nearly 14 years later I was reassigned to Luke AFB, and it wasn’t long before I was back on the Seligman Subdivision, determined to learn more about the line’s history and to photograph BNSF’s southern transcontinental railroad in its entirety.
The Quest to the West
The Seligman Subdivision’s story began on December 3, 1881, following the arrival of Atlantic & Pacific Railroad at the subdivision’s easternmost point of Winslow, Ariz. The route west predominantly followed surveys completed by A&P engineer Lewis Kingman and endured just about every conceivable obstacle including wage disputes, weather delays, labor shortages, management disputes, supply deficiencies, competitive blockades, and funding issues. These factors challenged the line’s progress, yet the vision of a transcontinental railroad endured.
Construction continued at a respectable pace of one mile of rail per day for most of the railway’s construction, but slowed significantly during the erection of the bridge at Canyon Diablo. Measuring 225 feet long, and 550 feet above the canyon floor, the completion of the bridge across the gorge proved difficult and delayed track laying westward. Regardless of the challenges, nearly six months later the first train finally crossed the canyon on July 1, 1882.
From here, A&P crossed over one divide after another, reaching Yampai Summit near the end of 1882 and Kingman by March 1883. A few months later, the right-of-way crossed the Colorado River at Topock on August 3, 1883, where it continued for nearly 13 miles west across the California desert into Needles, the line’s westernmost point until October 25, 2019, when BNSF reallocated mileage from the Seligman to the Needles Subdivision. The change established mile 566.2 (just west of Topock) as the Seligman Subdivision’s new western termination point. While the arrival into Needles was no small feat, the struggle for economic and transcontinental relevance still loomed. After all, the railroad still had not accessed the booming regions of California.
Southern Pacific did everything in its power to keep competitors out of California, including building east out of Mojave into Needles in an attempt to halt A&P’s entry into California. While SP agreed to interchange at Needles, the partnership was far from successful due to low rail traffic and uncooperative SP management. Atlantic & Pacific’s threat to build a parallel line into California ultimately resulted in its acquisition of the Needles line by lease effective October 1, 1884, which included trackage rights into San Francisco. These trackage rights, along with further expansion into southern California, created a transcontinental route, complete with access to the Los Angeles area.
On October 21, 2017, BNSF ET44C4 3952 leads a westbound domestic intermodal train up the 1.42 percent grade near Yampai Summit.
Expanding Capacity and Increasing Efficiency
Stretched across the sparsely populated Northern region of Arizona, the Seligman Sub was integral to the development of the West. By slashing shipping costs and transit time, the railroad facilitated the movement of bulky goods in and out of Arizona, making it more practical for native industries such as mining to prosper and subsequently attracting more migrants to the region. By 1902, Santa Fe took full ownership of the A&P route. As traffic steadily increased from new markets, congestion and delays prompted Santa Fe to increase capacity across the route in order to meet the emerging needs for both freight and passenger service.
Optimization efforts along the Seligman Sub commenced in 1901, when the installation of a second main proceeded west from Winslow in 1901. During the double-track project, several small-scale realignments also took place to ease operating conditions. Although financial complications and resource availability slowed the double-track effort, by late 1923 the only single track remaining between Winslow and Needles were the bridges at Topock and Canyon Diablo, which were replaced in 1942 and 1947 respectively…