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Posted by on June 11, 2007

Coincidentally, the same year that I discovered the historic Beale Wagon Road also happens to be the Beale Wagon Road’s 150th Anniversary! I was excited to see that historian Jerry Snow, a docent at the Museum of Northern Arizona, was going to be presenting a free lecture and slide show about the Beale Wagon Road at 7:00 pm on June 9, at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. The park grounds closed at 5:00 pm, but the gates re-opened at 6:30 for guests to attend the presentation.

I was surprised at how many visitors turned out for this topic – the audience contained at least 40 people. However, most of them were older retirees. Don’t young people care about history? There was only one other child there besides our three, and she appeared to be the park ranger’s daughter. We ended up way in the back which made it a little difficult to hear the speaker (no microphone) and see the slides (especially those with words), but that was okay because we were right next to a side door where Jon, Josh, and the little girl could go out into a courtyard and walk around when they got bored.

There were two previous federal expeditions through this area (Sitgreaves in 1851 and Whipple in 1853-54). Nevertheless, the story of Beale and his unique expedition is a most fascinating one, with long-lasting historical significance. Here is a brief overview:

In 1857, the War Department decided to look for an alternative route to California. This was partly because of the mounting pressure to subdue the Mormons in Utah, and also because the lengthy Gila Trail to the south ran through the middle of dangerous Apache country. Congress commissioned Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a retired Navy Lieutenant, to survey a wagon road along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, to the Colorado River crossing on the California-Arizona border.

A secondary objective of Beale’s mission was to test the feasibility of using camels in the American Southwest as pack animals. Camels were well suited to the arid desert, they were capable of traveling for days without water, carried much heavier loads than mules, and could thrive on coarse forage that other animals wouldn’t touch. Beale’s camel driver Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly) later lived in western Arizona and is buried at Quartzite. Camels might have become a success in the Old West except that horses were afraid of them and mules didn’t like them. When the Civil War broke out, the camel experiment was dropped and the camels were auctioned off or abandoned. Wild camels could be seen roaming around the desert through the early 1900’s. (See: Camels for Uncle Sam, by Diane Yancey, Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., Dallas TX, 1995.)

As for the Beale survey party, in September of 1857 they passed through what is now Flagstaff with 50 men, 100 mules, 10 wagons, 22 Egyptian camels, over 300 sheep, plus lots of supplies and equipment. Each morning, Beale would have everyone get up and travel ten miles before breakfast. The front page of The Weekly Arizonian newspaper reported: “[Beale] intends to make a good road and construct bridges wherever they are needed. He has a strong force of men and animals and being an officer of great skill and energy will doubtless make a fine route to California.”

Beale’s Wagon Road was the first federally funded interstate highway to traverse the rugged southwest desert, canyons, and rocky terrain obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War. This road was to save an estimated 200 miles and thirteen days of travel. However, an unfortunate tragedy befell the first group of pioneers who attempted to follow the Beale Wagon Road in 1858. The Rose-Baley wagon train, comprised of a group of Missouri and Iowa emigrants that met in Albuquerque, encountered a deadly reception at the Colorado River crossing, instigated by Mojave Indians who turned out to be more hostile than anyone expected. The disaster was so notorious that as a consequence, the Beale Wagon Road was avoided by most emigrant parties. (See Disaster at the Colorado: Beale’s Wagon Road and the First Emigrant Party, by Charles W. Baley, Utah State University Press, June 2002.)

Some homesteaders did come to the Flagstaff area from California on Beale Wagon Road in the 1870’s. However, it wasn’t until the opening of a railroad along the route, followed by the development of the automobile, that this historic road finally became widely used. In fact, Beale’s Wagon Road was the route that was later to become the famous Route 66 across the Southwest (generally followed now by Interstate 40).

If you can afford $265 per person, you can join Jerry Snow for a series of three day-long guided field trips to visit remaining sections of the original Beale Wagon Road that are still visible between Leupp and Seligman, AZ. (The next trip is scheduled for October 2007; see Otherwise, you can do a little research and exploring on your own to discover Beale’s trail, some portions of which are travelable by car and others which are only accessible by foot. The following references will provide a good start:

A Guide to the Beale Wagon Road Through Flagstaff, Arizona by Jack Beale Smith. (Flagstaff: Tales of the Beale Road Publishing Company, 1984.) (Beale Wagon Road Historic Trail #31, printable handout and trail guide from the Williams Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest.)

P.S. Another clue as to the whereabouts of the old Beale Trail is the El Paso Natural Gas pipeline. Mr. Snow mentioned that whenever he’s out searching for the Beal Trail, he often comes across a natural gas line. We noticed that, too, on our scouting expeditions!

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