Magma to Superior

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The Magma Arizona Railroad

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Note: Greg Baxter would like to acknowledge the outstanding book written by Gordon Chappell entitled Rails To Carry Copper: A History Of The Magma Railroad.

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"Homemade" crossbucks protect the Judd Road grade crossing. View is looking generally northeast. Photo by Mike Palmer, February 2009.

Along the southern limits of the Superstition Wilderness Area lies the tracks of the Magma Arizona Railroad. These tracks have hauled copper and cattle to market.

Between 1920—1943, this short line hauled cattle for ranchers who grazed cattle in the Superstition area and other surrounding regions. One large cattle loading chute was located near Hewitt Station on the line. This loading chute was used until 1943, after that date it became more profitable for the cattlemen to ship their stock by truck. Trucks were more economical and required less time.

The primary purpose of this short line was to haul copper concentrates to the smelter at Hayden, not the hauling of cattle. The development and construction of the Magma Arizona Railroad was an interesting and great economic boom for Pinal County and Arizona.

Early in 1914 the Magma Company at Superior was studying several alternative methods of transporting copper concentrates to the smelter in Hayden in order to reduce the cost. At the time it cost the company $10 per ton to haul the concentrates from Superior to Webster. Webster was located on the Southern Pacific Line. The distance was 31 miles. The transportation of concentrates required 20—32 mules harnessed to three ore wagons.

Several ideas were suggested that would reduce the cost of transportation. One plan included the use of gasoline trucks; however, this idea was shelved because trucks at the time were not dependable. Another suggestion was to construct an aerial tram between Miami and Superior, but this idea was soon abandoned because of costly maintenance.

The third alternative was to build a railroad from Superior to Webster on the Southern Pacific line north of Florence. The road distance was about thirty-five miles.

A young Pennsylvania engineer, Edward G. Dentzer, convinced the Magma Copper Company that a railroad would be the most economical way to solve their transportation problem. In the beginning there were many problems to solve associated with building a railroad across virgin desert-mountainous land. First there would be little water and the terrain was not flat.

The company had difficulty in deciding whether to use narrow or standard gauge track. Then came the decision of whether to use gasoline or steam engines to work the line. Even the size of rail to be used required considerable debate. Cost of construction was ultimately the deciding factor on what type of equipment would be used. In the final decision, the engine power chosen was steam, which was used on the Magma-Arizona short line until 1971.

It was August 20, 1914, when Dentzer completed his detailed survey and a mile by mile cost estimate for the construction of a narrow gauge railroad across flat desert land. The cost per mile across the desert flatlands between Comet Peak and Webster would run about $4,600. By the time Dentzer completed his survey of the Pinal foothill, which involved crossing many intermittent streams, the cost soared to $7,700 per mile.

Dentzer figured the cost of building the narrow gauge railroad, to grade and lay 30.19 miles of track, would cost $197,281. His figures were $9,000 less than the cost to build 15 miles of standard gauge railroad across flat desert land.

The original survey of the Magma-Arizona line had been initiated in 1912 by the Southern Pacific Railroad long before the Magma Copper Company had considered the construction of a line. Southern Pacific rejected the project because S.P. officials considered Magma not capable of producing sufficient quantities of copper concentrate to warrant such a trunk line.

The Magma-Arizona Railroad Company was officially organized on October 10, 1914. Construction crews moved into Webster on November 27, 1914, and the Webster Siding Camp was completed on December 1, 1914.

By February 6, 1915, the prime contractor had completed some 17.5 miles of track from Webster to a point two miles south of Hewitt Station on Queen Creek. On April 29, 1915, the narrow gauge track reached the concentrator near Superior, the end of the line. The construction of the 30.19 miles of narrow gauge track required just over five months to complete.

May 1, 1915, copper concentrates were rolling down the Magma-Arizona Railroad to Webster. At Webster the concentrates were transferred to the Southern Pacific's standard gauge cars, then hauled to the smelter at Hayden for processing. There was one major wreck in the history of the narrow gauge, which occurred on July 25, 1918, near the Silver King siding. The narrow gauge had served the Magma Company well, but by the 1920s the line was obsolete and unable to keep up with the increasing demands of the expanding operation at the Magma Mine.

On April 20, 1922, the construction of a new standard gauge railroad was approved by the Magma Railroad Company. At the time of construction it was decided to let the narrow gauge remain parallel to the standard gauge until the latter was completed. The old narrow gauge continued to carry mail, passengers and freight until April 1, 1923. The standard gauge cars were unloading copper concentrates by April 6, 1923, at Hayden and had eliminated the transfer at Webster. The old narrow gauge rolling stock and equipment had been taken out of service or sold by mid October 1924. The era of modern steam engines had been ushered in on the Magma-Arizona line.

The Magma-Arizona short line railroad began at Webster (Magma), a point some distance north of Florence, Arizona on the Southern Pacific line. The line ran northeast across the flat desert to Desert Wells near Florence Junction. Just to the east of Comet Peak, the railroad began to negotiate a series of deep washes requiring large cuts and fills so that grade could be maintained. Nineteen miles from Webster was Hewitt Station, an important source of water for the steam engines. From this point the line followed the general course of Queen Creek until arriving at Thompson Siding. At Thompson Siding the line then left the course of Queen Creek and began the climb to the depot in Superior.

When diesel powered engines arrived on the Magma line, steam engines began to retire. The arrival of the diesel powered locomotives ended the era of steam engines in the Southwest because the Magma-Arizona line was the last line to use steam for commercial revenue runs in the continental United States.

The first revenue run made by a diesel locomotive occurred on August 22, 1958. The first steam engine to retire was the "Little Mogul" Engine No. 6 on January 7, 1961. Steam engine No. 7 retired on June 10, 1967. On September 5, 1967, Engine No. 5 made its last revenue run and was reverted to standby status. The diesel locomotive had arrived and ended forever the era of steam power in the United States.

As a standby, Engine No.5 occasionally saw service. Old No. 5 made its last run performing for the cameras of Twentieth Century Fox on December 8th and 9th, 1971 in the filming of "How the West Was Won."

The Magma-Arizona Railroad was the last industrial short line in the United States to use steam power. The era of steam power had come to an end, but its rich history still remains with us. Those fantastic steam engines running along Queen Creek were part of the Superstition Mountain legacy.

Thanks to Greg Baxter for contributing information about this route.

actually it wasn't the last staem operation in america....the Readerin southwestern Arkansas used steam exclusively until 1971 on their line and another line in the east...i can't remember which one used steam until 1982 and the crab orchard and egyptian used stem in the 80's

jud powell
texarkana, TX
9/16/2009

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Concentrate was never taken to Hayden. Superior had it's own smelter until approximately 1968. After that, the concentrate was railed to Magma's smelter in San Manuel.

How The West Was Won was filmed in 1962. Magma's steam locomotive was also used in filming Great White Hope with James Earl Jones. Filming with the locomotive was in Globe, Arizona.

Thomas Jackson
Superior, AZ
9/27/2010

[Thanks for the info, Thomas!  —Greg Harrison]

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I am the Great Grandson of Henry G. Dentzer and on July 4 1976 AT High Noon in Greer Arizona, I rang his old number 5 Steam Train bell 200 times to mark the United States Bi-Centennial. I was 14 at the time but I still knew how Patriotic of an Act that was.

You can see that Picture on Facebook group Amberian Point lodge.

Michael Anthony Dentzer
Phoenix Arizona, AZ
11/12/2012

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After reading these posts I figure I'd add Magma Arizona steamer #5 also appeared in the Robert Mitchum movie "Young Billy Young". Released in 1969. #6 & #7 still exist, what happened to #5?

Wayne Hudak
Portage , IN
1/10/2015

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It now resides at The Center for Transportation and Commerce as Engine #555 in Galveston, Texas- this engine is an oil-fired Consolidation-type (2-8-0) built by the American Locomotive Company in 1922.

Chris Poole
Tucson, AZ
1/14/2015

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As an interesting aside, if the Resolution Copper Mine goes forward near Superior, there is a very good chance that the Magma Arizona Railroad will be rehabilitated and ship copper through Mexico via Union Pacific. This will be simular to the revival of the San Manuel Arizona Railroad which was revived to ship concentrate from the Pinto Valley Mine to a transload facility in San Manuel, AZ to ship via rail to Guaymas, Mexico for processing overseas.

Chris Poole
Tucson, AZ
1/19/2015

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It was actually not Henry G. Dentzer, but Henry's son, Edward G. Dentzer, who engineered the original Magma-Arizona railroad. He was my grandfather.

Carolyn Roberts
Gilbert, AZ
2/14/2015

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