Sitting astride the longest remaining stretch of the original US Route 66 lies a town that has, in a secular sense, been reborn. Located on the former site of an early settlement of the Havasupai people, it later became a stage stop on the Mojave Road. The name Prescott Junction was coined when the Arizona Central Railway Co connected it's Prescott feeder line to the
Atchison Topeka &
Santa Fe Railway mainline, which had reached this point in 1882. This information is of particular interest to my husband Joe and myself, as his great great grandfather on his maternal grandfathers side, Col. Henry Clay Nutt (1833-1892) was on the board of directors of the AT&SF Railway. He was also a major player in pushing through the legislation that allowed the southern spur of the railway to be built in the New Mexico Territory. The fact that Joe's ancestor was instrumental in the opening of the southwest territories to settlement is a matter of great pride for both of us. Joe is currently in process of adding Nutt to his surname, as he has always felt a very strong connection to that part of his heritage; perhaps the ever-present call of the desert originates there. Our later travels will take us to Nutt Mountain, which is located a few miles from Nutt, NM. We will also visit the Mt. Nutt Wilderness area in Arizona, which is just about 100 miles from the town which was re-named Seligman in 1886 in honor of Jesse Seligman of the JW Seligman Co. of New York, which had helped to fund the rail lines in this area.
In 1891 the rail line replaced the inefficient Prescott feeder line and the junction was move northeast to Ash Fork. Seligman became a switching yard and shipping point for local cattle ranchers. The economy was boosted somewhat by the fact that this terminal was used as an overnight stop by the crews as they switched teams between Winslow and Needles, CA. The crew members rented cottages, shopped in local stores and even attended sporting events at the town's school. Some old-timers in the area tell tales of long time friendships forged between locals and railway workers, many of whom
considered themselves residents and became like family.
In 1926, portions of existing roads between Chicago and Santa Monica were pieced together to form US Route 66, a move designed to make it easier for people to drive across the country uninterrupted. Up until 1933 the original roadway paralleled the railroad tracks through Seligman, but as train travel slowed and auto travel increased the highway was re-routed one block north to its current location.
Route 66 continued to play an important part in Seligman's growth as an overnight stopping point for travelers chasing the California Dream. From the highway's inception in 1926 until it was bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1978, this section of the Mother Road carried Americans from east to west by the thousands. Refugees from the
devastation of the dust bowl chugged through in Model T Fords with their entire lives strapped to roof and running boards throughout the 1930's. In the early to mid 40's huge military convoys moved soldiers and the trappings of war back and forth across the desert, but it wasn't until after WWII that tourism really took off. Returning veterans flush with cash bought cars and the era of auto tourism and the family road trip vacation began. Many of those same veterans had fond memories of getting off the train here to march up and down the main street of town to stretch their legs as they headed across country prior to shipping out, and that drew them back here in droves. The southwest immediately became a popular destination and the quiet, dusty towns along America's Highway began to boom. Indian trading posts popped up every few miles and every wide spot in the road filled with motor courts, gas stations, cafes, and
enough curio shops to choke a horse. You can still see the sun-bleached remains today.
The town took another hard hit in 1984 when passenger trains ceased to stop there, leaving only freight and through trains thundering past on their way to enrich other towns. The Seligman community stubbornly refused to give up on their home and fought valiantly for economic survival, but their tenuous hold was slowly slipping away when one man, second generation barber and lifelong resident Angel Delgadillo, stepped up to the plate. Delgadillo's family had emigrated from Mexico in 1917 for his father's work. Angel was
born in Seligman in 1927, and he and his siblings grew up in a house right beside Route 66 near the edge of town. You could say that he grew up with the highway and had a front row seat to the parade of history that passed along it. He still does today; at age 90 he is still active and cutting hair for those lucky enough to have good timing. His barber shop, which was his father's before him, is today filled with old photos and memorabilia and is a popular stop in Seligman. Back in 1987, however, he was just a guy who believed that Route 66 could again be a major tourist destination if people could just be reminded that it hadn't disappeared with the advent of the interstate highway system. With this in mind he organized a meeting with other like-minded folks from other towns along the highway at a local restaurant, the Copper Cart, and the Historic Route 66 Association was formed. Together these creative visionaries planned, pushed and prodded until the State of Arizona dedicated the section of 66 from Seligman in the east to Kingman in the west as "Historic Route 66", a designation today shared by all remaining sections of the original US
Route 66. The plan succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams; when Angel and his wife Vilma first put a few memorabilia knick-knacks for sale in their barber shop, the modern era of Rt. 66 tourism was born. The tourists came, and the towns along the route experienced a revival that continues to this day. For it's part in the restoration of the Mother Road, Seligman today holds the title of "The Birthplace of Route 66".
When we were there this last time, in July of this year, the town was bustling with tourists and Route 66 aficionados from around the world. I heard more languages spoken that day than one would in the lobby of the United Nations Building. People milled about inside and in front of every building, and selfies were being take
n every two seconds. A band played for an appreciative audience of foot tappers outside the Snow Cap Drive- In. This iconic eatery, built in 1953 (mostly of scrap material from the rail yard) by Angel's late brother Juan Delgadillo (1916-2004), is still owned by his family. Juan's famous sense of humor is reflected in menu items that include "cheeseburgers with cheese" and "dead chicken". The entry door has two knobs; the one on the right is a dummy and the one on the left gains you entry to the counter area,
where hundreds of business cards in a cornucopia of languages from all over the world hang from walls and ceiling (no, I didn't, but I will next time!).
I'm telling you, this town was really hopping! It was around 104 degrees Fahrenheit that day and the crowd around the soda fountain and gourmet coffee bar was far too thick to navigate (I'm guessing iced coffee was far outselling hot), so we wandered on down the street. Strolling through the historic buildings brimming with unique shops and cafes, diners and museums, was a wonderful way to fill several hours; truthfully, I could have stayed for days, and in future trips I may do just that. The beauty of this place is that all these businesses are locally owned, and while all are based on nostalgia, each one shows you the specific perspective of it's owner or owners; most all of them are eclectic, quirky, and just plain fun! It is the land of cute sayings on everything from t-shirts to magnets (my favorite was "I'm pretty sure my last words will be 'Hold my beer and watch this!'). There are no big box chain stores here, no every-flavor-as-long-as-it's- vanilla shops. There are a couple of "primary-color" gas stations and a "green-and-yellow" sandwich shop at the I-40 off-ramp and at the edge of town, but not here in town, and that is exactly how I hope it
The town of Seligman is widely recognized as the inspiration for the mythical "Radiator Springs" in the animated Pixar movie Cars, and cars are indeed the name of the game here. (A less widely known fact is that the scene in "Cars" where the town disappears off the map after the interstate passes it by is based on Angel Delgadillo's description of how the 9000 cars passing through downtown Seligman
daily in 1978 literally stopped overnight when I-40 opened).
The ever-present reminders of the
American car culture's influence on this stretch of highway includes the neon shrouded retro-style motor courts still functioning in their original capacity today, as well as vintage gas stations and cars of every era and style. Old road signs, oil cans and advertising art pay homage to cars and motorcycles in every shop and on every corner. The town hosts many rallies and car club events and fun runs every year, some drawing over 800 cars each year. Harleys and Indians rumble through town on a daily basis, leather clad riders flashing upside-down peace signs at riders on late model japanese bikes, the universal signal for "it's all good, Bro". International tourists "get their kicks" in vintage corvettes and t-birds rented from boutique rental companies, and everyone makes a pit stop at the Roadkill Cafe, who's motto is "you
kill it, we grill it", for a Splatter Platter or Swirl of Squirrel plate.
Be Blessed, my Friends, and let the angels in! -Lynn