Historic subway spire found in desert may be returned to its home

(Photo by John Bianchini)
This decorative spire with 'subway' on all sides, was built by the Arizona Highway Department with WPA labor.  It was placed on the corner in Winslow Arizona in 1936, but then was discarded in the desert during the age of malls.

(Photo by John Bianchini) This decorative spire with 'subway' on all sides, was built by the Arizona Highway Department with WPA labor. It was placed on the corner in Winslow Arizona in 1936, but then was discarded in the desert during the age of malls.

Back in 1972, a young woman discovered an unusual object out in the high desert north east of Winslow. She told her family, the Kincaid's about it and they tried to find it several times, but could not.

Then in 1992, someone in the family came across it finally. This object was somewhat of a curiosity as it was a large and old pillar or concrete and steel with an ornate design that spelled out the word 'subway' on all four sides. Many Winslow residents that knew about it wondered because they know that Winslow used to be a bustling and prosperous town of high distinction on the old passenger line and highway, but never in Winslow was there ever an underground train. The nearest subway by the modern interpretation of the word is in Los Angeles, Calif. What was this subway pylon doing out in the desert near the Navajo Reservation?

On Dec. 15, 1936 - over 2,000 Winslow residents (half the population), gathered around Williamson and Second Street, pivoting around the northern 'subway pylon,' to witness the historic dedication of the Winslow Underpass, one of the first of its kind for the nation.

The reason this underpass was built was due to the increase in automobile traffic in relation to the railroad. Winslow Mail archives reported many deaths on a weekly basis during the 20s and 30s, some due to poor drivers' judgement at railroad crossings, and this was common across the nation.

In 1935, the federal government set aside several million dollars to build overpasses and underpasses across the nation. The Winslow Chamber of Commerce had then heavily worked with the state had board members that and sat on state road development commissions, where they made sure Winslow received a portion. The men primarily responsible for bringing this project to Winslow in 1936 was, City of Winslow Engineer Frank Goodman, Winslow Chamber of Commerce President J.A. Greaves, and Chamber Secretary Walter Lindblom. Lindblom was also instrumental as the Winslow Golf Club president in initiating the building of the golf club house on Airport Access Road, now being leased by Head Start for $1 a year.

The golf club house was being built around the same time as the underpass by Works Progress Administration (WPA) labor. The WPA was a federal program that provided income to the many Americans left in ruin by the Great Depression. From 1935 - 1943, the WPA built bridges, highways, airports, dams, parks, libraries, concert halls, National parks and other facilities to be of benefit to the public. Even seven percent of the overall WPA budget went towards arts as many of its projects nationally reflected the local culture and design. The WPA also hired a large number of African Americans.

Winslow Mail archives from 1935 and 1936 describe the style for the Winslow WPA projects at the club house and underpass in kind to La Posada that open six years before. Columbus Giragi, the former editor, publisher and reporter for the Winslow Mail described in '36, the Winslow Underpass as having Spanish-style architecture with painted tan concrete to look like adobe, a Spanish tiled roof tower, and parapet walls and guardrails. The subway pylon was the finishing touch to identify this important corner in Winslow, where train passengers, Harvey Girls, military troops, Southside/Coopertown residents and railroad works could then safely cross to downtown Winslow. Travelers and commerce were connected from Route 66 in northern Arizona to the new Highway 87 south to the forest and eventually Phoenix, Ariz.

The Winslow Underpass cost $150,000 to complete. The RC Tanner Construction Company of Phoenix managed its construction. WPA labor provided about 70,000 man-hours. The Arizona Department of Transportation has since taken inventory of the Winslow Underpass, and have it recorded as being in "good condition."

Back on Dec. 15, 1945, Winslow planned to have a dedication at the underpass and parade to the golf club house. The whole town was told to shut down at 2pm and attend.

The golf club house was not quite done, so the underpass dedication went on with many state, local and railroad officials in attendance.

"Not since the National Rifle Association parade has such a large crowd turned out to a program in Winslow," Giragi wrote. "This being due to the fact that it was a 'California Sunday' and many of the railroad men were at home."

Next to the subway pylon, S.G. Dowell, chairman of the Arizona Highway commission said the following in his dedication speech:

"I feel particularly honored because it has been erected by the City of Winslow, that gateway to those natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon and the Petrified National Forest," he said. "I also feel that your city is destined to become a Mecca for the tourist in their exploration of the virgin country to the north."

Dowell talked of how the Mormon settlers came through the area and planted roots at Brigham City, one mile north of downtown Winslow in 1876.

"They traveled over this very location (Williamson and Second St.) on their way to Rock Station, where they picked up the Santa Fe Trail to pine and timber country for the lumber in their dwellings. The Santa Fe Trail was used from the 1860s until the completion of the Atlantic and Pacific Railway.

All transportation was laboriously carried on by ox teams and horses. The Long Valley Road (now Highway 87) follows the general direction of the very route used by those early pioneers."

Dowell said that the U.S. Forest Service just spent a few million dollars in improving the road south into the Coconino National Forest.

"The early day tourist with his team of oxen would wait all day long at the tracks if necessary. We find today with our own bustle and hurry that time is agolden things, not to be wasted in waiting at crossings."

Dowell continued: "From 1914 -- 1918, the countries of the world engaged in a bloody and inhuman war to make the world safe for democracy. Perhaps the succeeded, perhaps they failed. But we at the highway department of Arizona, wage eternal and silent warfare to make the highways safe for humanity...The highway fatalities up to date which already exceed those of all wars the U.S. has ever engaged in, show a decrease this year. This is the first time such a thing has happened since advent of automobiles. But, the record in Arizona is a far different thing."

"We in Arizona have shown an increase in fatalities for another year," he said. "Perhaps it is because we are a baby state with a steadily increasing population with a hangover from the old 'devil-may-care' attitude of our early settlers."

"To the Barney Oldfields, who race with a train to the crossings, we apologize for having built this edifice and taken away half the pleasures of life away from them," Dowell said.

It was something that people of time said had to be done for safety's sake.

Ironically, Winslow resident Jim Weldon remembers when he was a boy in downtown Winslow that a train pulled up to La Posada and dropped off some troops on leave or en route. A soldier came running towards downtown Winslow, perhaps towards the many bars then. It was speculated he did not know of the remarkable new underpass and must have though of it as the old ground level crossing. Weldon said the underpass was between the man and downtown and the man all of a sudden jumped the small concrete barrier and fell to his death on the new road below. Many people in downtown ran to see the commotion and Weldon recalled standing near the subway pylon during that time.

Few Winslow elders spoken to, remember anything about the underpass or subway pylon. It is not yet known when and why these pylons were taken out and dumped.

George Stegmeir, of Winslow but now living out of state, a few years back when he lived in Winslow had talked with his friend about the subway pylon. Both men did remember it and a few people had known of its whereabouts in the desert. Stegmeir and Kenny Wetzel had gone out to the desert location with a large truck and crane to lift the historic object. They loaded it up and Stegmeir dropped it off at an out-of-the-way location in Winslow, where it sat until he transferred ownership of it to the Old Trails Museum.

"My idea was to get the subway pylon restored, put back and looking the way it used to," Stegmeir said.

The museum staff, knowing its historical significance, gave it the City of Winslow last week with the hope that the city will return the subway pylon to its original location. City staff said they would try to look into what ADOT has planned for the road and would then try to see if they can do something with it there.


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