Most recently updated on June 10, 2021
Originally posted on March 21, 2021
Ever heard of Fred Harvey?
Probably not, but his work is on display at three hotels we will visit today before settling at another hotel famous for its ghost stories.
In between is a stop at one of the country’s most amazing natural wonders as well as a trip down memory lane along one of the nation’s first famous highways.
The El Garces reopened a few years ago as a rental space for events inside what was once a historic former Harvey House hotel.
Fred Harvey made his fortune in the late 1800s building a chain of restaurants and hotels along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad lines.
In coordination with the railroad, Harvey eventually opened 84 restaurants that catered to people riding the rails between Kansas and California. His theory was that travelers would enjoy a nice place to eat during stops on their trips.
His restaurants were known for fresh food and good service. He hired young woman he called “Harvey Girls” as waitresses. The female employees were paid well and provided with room and board. However, they had to agreed not to marry while they worked at the restaurants. The waitresses were so popular that a movie called “The Harvey Girls” starring Judy Garland was made in 1946.
After Harvey died in 1901, his sons took over the business operations.
When the railroads began to fade, the restaurants and hotels focused on motorists who were zipping along Route 66 and other new roadways.
The El Garces originally opened in 1908 as a hotel and restaurant. It was a considered a “crown jewel” in the Harvey chain due to its linen, silver, china and fresh flowers.
The hotel closed in 1949. Santa Fe Railroad used it for offices until 1988 before abandoning it.
Since then, the city has refurbished the complex as a “Harvey House Hotel.”
We head north out of town along the Needles Highway.
The road provides us with a nice view of the hard-working Colorado River.
The Colorado is the fifth longest river in the United States. It starts at 10,000 feet elevation in the mountains of Colorado and flows 1,450 miles through seven states as well as 23 Native American tribal lands and Mexico.
The river provides drinking water for more than 35 million people, including residents in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The Colorado is in big demand. More water is exported from this waterway than any other river basin in the United States.
That’s become a problem. The demands of its users now outstrip the river basin’s annual output of 15 million acre-feet. That means in most years almost every drop of water in the river is used. In fact, the Colorado no longer makes it all the way to the sea. The river dries out in Mexico a few miles short of the Gulf of California.
The situation may get worse, too.
With that in mind, Mexico and seven states that use Colorado River water reached an agreement in 2019 to voluntary cut back their allotments. That pact lasts until 2026.
However, a battle erupted in 2020 over Utah’s plans to build an underground pipeline that would divert billions of gallons of water from Lake Powell to the growing community of St. George. The six other western states asked the federal government to halt the approval process for the project.
Federal officials are still reviewing the situation, but in March 2021 Utah legislators approved a bill that moves the pipeline project forward.
In late May 2021, officials in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico began discussing ways to compensate for the declining water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs. Lake Powell is expected to be at 29 percent capacity by September, its lowest level since water began flowing into the reservoir in 1963 and in June 2021 it was reported that Lake Mead had hit its lowest record level ever.
In addition, ecologists have identified five water conservation efforts they say could save 4.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water every year.
About 20 minutes from Needles, we bend east and cross into Nevada.
This part of Nevada is the southern point that sticks down as the state narrows between California and Arizona. The border is formed on the east by the Colorado River and on the west by California’s diagonal border from Lake Tahoe to the Colorado River.
Nevada and Arizona disputed this land in the 1860s. Nevada was awarded the 12,000-square-mile region by Congress in 1867, just a few years after the Civil War. The main reason for the congressional gift was that Nevada supported the Union side during the war and Arizona supported the Confederacy.
Twenty more minutes along desert roadways and we glide into the town of Laughlin.
Nothing much was on this land once inhabited by the Anasazi tribe until the 1940s when a town with a motel and bar sprung up that catered to gold and silver miners as well as construction workers building the nearby Davis Dam.
The settlement had almost disappeared when Laughlin first arrived in 1964. He had just sold his 101 Club in Las Vegas for $165,000 and could see a financial opportunity in this South Pointe region of Nevada.
Since this geographical corner sits near the California and Arizona borders, Laughlin envisioned a development that could take advantage of Nevada’s legalized gambling and lure people from those nearby states where gambling isn’t allowed.
Laughlin purchased six acres of riverfront property as well as the boarded-up motel/bar. He remodeled the facility into the Riverside Resort, which opened in 1966 offering customers all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents as well as 12 slot machines and two gaming tables. Laughlin rented out four of the new hotel’s eight rooms while his family lived in the other four.
The new town was christened Laughlin when a postal inspector insisted on a name so mail could be delivered.
Others quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
In 1967, the doors were opened at the Bobcat Club, which is now the Golden Nugget Laughlin. In 1968, the Monte Carlo casino debuted.
By the early 1980s, other investors had seen the potential and built their own hotel casinos.
From 1983 to 1986, the town grew from 450 to 1,600 hotel rooms. It also expanded from 2,000 to 6,000 employees. By that time, Laughlin’s original Riverside Resort consisted of two 14-story towers with 560 rooms.
The town has eight casino/hotels as well as a motel with a total of more than 9,000 rooms. There are also 50 restaurants to choose from.
Laughlin himself is still alive. He’s almost 90 years old and still lives in the town he created and still oversees operations at his hotel as well as a bowling center and a sports gambling facility.
His Riverside Resort now has a third tower that’s 30 stories high. The complex boasts more than 1,400 rooms as well as 1,700 slot machines, 50 gaming tables and 2,000 employees.
The casino is open with limited capacity and physical distancing measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our stay in Nevada is brief. Laughlin is the only town on the route, so the Silver State is getting a bit cheated on this itinerary.
However, we’ll take a few moments to give the state its due.
Besides being the driest state, Nevada is also the seventh largest in area. In fact, size is a predominant feature in the western portion of the country. If you count Texas and Alaska as western states, then this region of the country has the top 10 largest states in the union. That streak isn’t broken until Michigan clocks in at number 11.
Despite its 110,572 square miles, Nevada is 32nd in population with slightly more than 3 million residents. That’s better than in 1940 when the state had 110,000 residents and was ranked last in population.
Nevada was pushed up the population charts after gambling legalized in 1931 and lenient divorce and marriage laws were approved in addition to some reasonably priced housing. From 1940 to 2003, it was the fastest growing state on a percentage basis.
Nevada is also a high-altitude state. It has a mean elevation of 5,500 feet, placing it fifth among all states. Las Vegas is 2,000 feet above sea level. The central portion of the state sits at 6,000 feet. Cities in its northern half are also nestled at high altitude. Reno’s elevation is 4,500 feet while Winnemucca is at 4,200 feet and Elko registers at 5,000 feet.
The elevated status is due to the fact that Nevada is the second most mountainous state in the country, behind only Alaska. It has 172 peaks above 2,000 feet. Of those, 42 top out at more than 11,000 feet.
Not surprisingly, Nevada’s number one industry is tourism with Las Vegas leading the way. The Silver State has the third most tourists of any state, behind only California and Florida.
Mining is also a big commodity. Nevada is responsible for 75 percent of the gold produced in the United States. It’s also number one in silver, hence the state nickname.
The sparse population was one reason Nevada was chosen in 1951 as the place for the U.S. government to test nuclear devices.
The Nevada Test Site was on 1,360 square miles in a remote corner of Nye County about 65 miles north of Las Vegas. The facility was in operation from 1951 to 1992. Overall, it conducted 1,021 nuclear tests. Of those, 921 were underground and 100 were in the atmosphere.
In the 1950s, the seismic jolts from those tests could be felt in Las Vegas. Mushroom clouds could be seen in the distance from the gambling mecca. It even became a bit of a tourist attraction with hotels hosting viewing parties.
The radioactive fallout from those explosions drifted eastward, much of it reaching St. George, Utah. That region reported an increase in cancer cases from 1950 to 1980. In 1990, the federal government approved a compensation package for the so-called “downwinders.”
Angling Across Arizona
We quickly leave all this behind by crossing the afore-mentioned Laughlin Bridge and entering Arizona, headed east on Highway 68.
We also switch from Pacific Time Zone to Mountain Time Zone, although we don’t adjust our clocks because Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time, so during spring and summer it’s on the same time as California and Nevada.
It too is a surprisingly high-altitude state with a mean elevation of 4,100 feet, ranking it seventh.
Unlike Nevada, Arizona does have some population. Its 7.5 million residents make it a respectable 14th among states. A big reason is Phoenix with its 1.7 million citizens. That positions the desert metropolis as the 5th most populous city in the country as well as the most populated state capital.
We don’t see much of the state’s population as we zip along the two lanes of Highway 68.
In a half-hour, we hit the city of Kingman.
The community began in 1857 when Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a U.S. Navy officer, was sent to the area to build a federal wagon road across the 35th parallel.
His excursion led to the construction of the Beale Wagon Road that eventually extended from Arkansas to Southern California.
The town grew up along the route. It was founded in 1882 after the railroad arrived. It was named after Lewis Kingman, a railroad surveyor.
In the 1930s, Kingman became a major stop on Route 66.
During World War Two, the community was the site of the 4,000-acre Kingman Army Airfield, where 36,000 aerial gunners were trained. After the war, the field was used as a reclamation site for more than 5,000 obsolete military aircraft.
The complex eventually became Kingman Municipal Airport.
In 1955, Kingman got another boost when the Ford Motor Company opened a proving ground in nearby Yucca, Arizona, to test its new vehicles. Homes were built in Kingman to house the workers. The 3,800-acre complex is now Chrysler’s Arizona Proving Grounds with 50 miles of paved and dirt roads that test more than 2,000 vehicles a year.
The economy is getting a little extra boost this year, too. In March, it was announced that Progressive Pipe Fabricators plans to bring 60 new jobs to the city. The new facility is expected to open this fall.
In 2019, Kingman received some notoriety for dealing with a problem that plagues big cities and small towns alike.
A homeless man who went by the name James Zyla started wandering the streets of town. The British native always wore a red Santa Claus outfit. He carried with him a keyboard that he sometimes played.
People in this blue-collar, retiree town began to talk to the 68-year-old gentleman and found him quite pleasant. He never asked for handouts or caused trouble, so the community adopted him and dubbed him “Santa James.” They found a van for him to sleep in. They gave him gift cards to places like Starbucks.
The residents of Kingman eventually learned Santa James was a pretty good musician in England back in the day. So, they began driving him to Laughlin, where he could play the piano at casinos for tips.
Santa James eventually built an online presence with more than 10,000 followers, broadcasting his music regularly on Facebook and YouTube.
Santa James died in late April 2021, but he enjoyed the final two years of his life thanks to the help he received.
It’s estimated there are more than 560,000 people in the United States who are homeless. About 30 percent are people who are part of a family with children. Almost 70 percent are people like Santa James who live on their own.
In Kingman, Arizona, the citizens made a difference for one of those individuals.
Interstate 40 is right there as we prepare to leave Kingman.
Instead, we take a detour in a northeasterly direction onto Arizona State Route 66.
The side trip will add a half-hour to your drive time, but it’s worth it to see what this historic highway was like back in its heyday.
Route 66 officially opened in 1926. Like Highway 99 in California, it was one of the original U.S. highways and utilized a lot of existing roads.
The route skirted the Rocky Mountains so it was relatively flat. That was a key selling point for long-haul truckers. The road was also convenient for people in the Midwest heading to California on vacation.
Among the highway’s nicknames were the Main Street of America and the Mother Road.
Motels, diners, gas stations and tourist attractions popped up as the route gained in popularity.
In one of his travel blogs, San Diego-based writer Jamie Reno says “it’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact Route 66 has had on American popular culture.”
There was television show in the early 1960s called “Route 66” and Nat King Cole had a hit song with “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” a tune that songwriter Bobby Troup came up with while driving on the road with his wife on their way to Los Angeles.
The highway faded as interstate freeways were built in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, most of the road had been overshadowed by the new expressways. Route 66 was officially removed as part of the U.S. highway system in 1985.
The towns in northern Arizona take particular pride in being part of this automotive history.
Kingman has an Arizona Route 66 Museum. Other towns in this part of the state have their own dedications.
There are plenty of places on this stretch of Route 66 that once thrived but have become almost non-existent since Interstate 40 was completed and bypassed their community.
We finally reach Seligman, a former railroad encampment that proclaims itself as the “Birthplace of Historic Route 66” because some of its residents convinced Arizona legislators to dedicate Route 66 as a historic highway. Seligman is also one of a number of towns along Route 66 that claim to be the inspiration for the Pixar movie, “Cars.” The producers of that film did travel on the Route 66 corridor for research before the made their animated classic.
Just past Seligman, it’s time to get back on Interstate 40.
The vastness that is Arizona really stretches out before us as we motor down I-40.
South of us is Yavapai County, one of the numerous regions in Arizona that producer copper.
Copper is one of the five “C’s” on the state seal representing Arizona’s leading industries. The others are cattle, cotton, citrus and climate.
Most of the copper mining occurs in the southeastern part of the state between Phoenix and Tucson as well as between Tucson and the Mexico border.
However, Yavapai County is the home of Arizona’s biggest copper mine. The Morenci Mine is in Bagdad, a settlement west of Prescott. It’s the largest copper mine in North America, producing more than 700 million pounds of copper a year.
Copper has been mined there since 1872. Bagdad, in fact, was built as a company town for the workers of the mine.
The demand for copper doesn’t appear to be slowing down. In fact, as long as we have electrical wires, we’ll need copper.
With that in mind, the state has approved a new copper operation east of Phoenix. The Resolution mine is expected to surpass Morenci as North America’s largest copper mine once it’s fully operational in a decade or so. In early March 2021, the Biden administration withdrew support for a land swap involving the mine, a move that could delay the project’s opening.
As we drive through, there’s more evidence of Route 66 historical pride. There’s the Route 66 Zipline as well as Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum, which is a tribute to the highway as well as old gas stations.
However, Williams is better known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”
The national park is one hour north of the city and it’s a big part of the local economy that is based on tourism as well as outdoor recreation with nearby locales for fishing and skiing.
Williams was first settled by shepherds in 1874 and founded in 1881.
The town really started to grow in 1901 after a 60-mile Santa Fe Railway spur was built to the Grand Canyon.
In 1908, the Frey Marcos Hotel opened next to the railroad depot. It was one of the Harvey House establishments like the El Garces Hotel back in Needles.
The hotel closed in 1954, but it’s still standing as a historical landmark.
In 2004, Amy and Oscar Frederickson purchased the property, spent a year refurbishing it and then reopened it as a 24-room hotel.
The Site You Simply Have to See
Since we’re so close to the Grand Canyon, we might as well take a side tour to the natural wonder.
To get there, we head north on Highway 64. The only town between us and the Grand Canyon is Valle, a community of about 250 people that features a Planes of Fame Air Museum as well as the Raptor Ranch Campground where birds of prey are on display. The ranch is built on the property that used to house the Flintstones Bedrock City tourist attraction that closed in 2019 after 50 years in business.
After an hour, we roll into the Grand Canyon National Park parking lot on the landmark’s South Rim.
You simply cannot capture the immensity or beauty of the Grand Canyon in a photograph or video. You have to be here.
The first European visitors were Spanish explorers who arrived about 1540. There was also a lot of exploration during the 1800s.
The millions of years of Colorado River etching has created a river canyon that is 277 miles long and is as wide as 18 miles in some places and as deep as one mile. The floor of the Grand Canyon is actually 2,600 feet above sea level with the South Rim at 7,000 elevation and the North Rim at 8,000 feet.
One-fifth of the Colorado River’s entire length can be found inside the Grand Canyon. The river’s average depth here is 40 feet and its average width is 300 feet.
The region is considered to have some of the cleanest air in the United States.
However, the Grand Canyon’s beauty may belie some of the danger here.
There’s been a total of about 770 deaths in the park since the mid-1800s.
More than 270 of the fatalities have been from plane and helicopter crashes, including a 1956 midair collision that killed 128 people. That crash was one of the reasons the Federal Aviation Administration was formed in 1958.
The deaths also include at least 125 from falls, at least 100 from drownings, at least 25 homicides and dozens of health-related fatalities from incidents such as heart attacks, strokes and hypothermia.
The Grand Canyon has its share of environmental issues, too.
Forest fire management is a constant concern and restrictions on fires are in place most of the year.
A 20-year moratorium on uranium mining on 1 million acres of the park was instituted in 2012. Uranium mining began here in the 1950s during the atomic age. Interest spiked again after 2000 when the price for uranium rose. Scientists estimate that millions of tons of the ore have been dug up on tribal and public lands, leaving behind toxic pollution. In April 2020, the Trump administration unveiled a plan that environmentalists fear would allow uranium mining again in the region. President Joe Biden, however, has promised to close the door on any such proposals.
Finally, the bison herd on the North Rim is being reduced from the nearly 600 reported a few years ago to less than 200 by 2022 to protect the environment. A preliminary plan would allow sharpshooters to kill some of the large animals, starting this fall.
Before we leave this natural wonder, there are two places we should quickly highlight.
The first is the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim right next to the main parking lot. This is our third former Harvey House establishment of the day.
The El Tovar opened its doors in 1905. In 1987, it was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Fans of the 1983 movie, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” may remember the hotel lobby for a different reason. The El Tovar is the place where Chevy Chase’s character Clark Griswold tries to cash a check during his family’s cross-country drive.
The second place is Matrimony Rock not too far from the hotel. The name comes from a heart-shaped rock in the middle of the stone wall that runs along the edge of the canyon.
The story goes that in 1934 a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps who was helping build the wall fell in love with one of the Harvey Girls at the El Tovar. Since the waitresses had to stay single under their contract, the construction crew member placed the heart-shaped stone in the wall where his love could see it from her room in Colter Hall.
Rumor has it that the couple eventually did get married. Whether that’s true or not, it hasn’t stopped the romanticism behind the “heart rock.”
Dark Skies and Ghost Stories
We head back down Highway 64 to reach our final destination of the day.
At Valle, however, we make a left to take the scenic route.
Highway 180 takes us up and over the highest natural point in Arizona.
That would be Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet. On a clear day, they say you can see the Grand Canyon from here.
The peak is named after Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, a Union leader in the Civil War who later became chief of engineers at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After we crest the hill and head down, we soon arrive at Flagstaff, Arizona.
This city of 75,000 people doesn’t look like most towns you see in Arizona. It’s high mountain terrain with loads of pine trees due to its elevation of 6,910 feet. In fact, the city is situated in the midst of the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.
Flagstaff also gets an average of 108 inches of snow every year, making it one of the snowiest incorporated cities in the country. On the other extreme, it receives 266 days of sunshine per year. Temperatures can range from sub-zero in the winter to the mid-90s in the summer, although the city has never recorded a temperature of 100 degrees or above. The record high is 97, reached in 1973. You can see all that mix in today’s weather forecast. It calls for most sunny skies over Flagstaff with high temperatures in the low 50s with, yes, snow predicted for Tuesday.
The city got its name when a scouting party from Boston nailed a flag on a ponderosa pine on July 4, 1876 to celebrate the nation’s 100th birthday.
The city’s early economy was based on lumber, the railroad and ranching. Now, it also relies on tourism. There is some manufacturing. In fact, W. L. Gore and Associates has 11 factories in town with 2,000 employees producing medical devices, cables, electronic components and other products.
The local economy has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. The eastern entrance to the Grand Canyon had been closed since last spring as a courtesy to the Navajo Nation, which was devastated early on by the disease. City officials say the closure took a chunk out of their tourism traffic. That eastern entrance was reopened in early April 2021.
Another big employer in Flagstaff is Northern Arizona University.
The Lowell Observatory is also here. It was established in 1894 under the direction of astronomer Percival Lowell. The observatory on Mars Hill began its work with a 24-inch Clark refractor telescope. Pluto was discovered here in 1930. The observatory was also used to help map the moon in the 1960s. It was recognized as a national historic landmark in 1964.
Flagstaff is an excellent place for an observatory. In 2001, it was named as the first official International Dark Sky City. The International Dark Sky Association bestowed the honor because of Flagstaff’s minimal light pollution and dark sky environment protection. In 1958, the city adopted the world’s first lighting ordinance to preserve astronomy. It also has strict standards for outdoor lighting, including searchlights.
Under these starry skies sits the Hotel Monte Vista.
The hotel has quite a history itself.
It was built in 1926 after a community fundraising event that included a donation from the author Zane Grey.
In 1927, the hotel was the host site for the radio show of Mary Costigan, the first women in the United States to be granted a radio broadcasting license.
The hotel has seen its share of Hollywood guests due to the numerous Western films shot in the region, in particular in the Sedona area about an hour to the south. The list of famous actors who’ve stayed here include Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Michael J. Fox as well as Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy.
The hotel also has a plethora of ghost stories.
There’s the tale of the “meat man” who haunts room 220 after he died there in the 1980s.
There’s also reported sightings of an old woman in a rocking chair in room 305.
In addition, there’s a supposed phantom bell boy who knocks on doors and softly announces “room service.” Actor John Wayne reportedly told people he saw this particular ghost in the 1950s.
In late March, Flagstaff got another dose of spooky. Jeff Kinney, the author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” brought his eerie drive-through tour to town to promote his third book in his “Awesome Friendly” series. This one is titled “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories.” The tour stop included fog machines, gnarled trees and giants spiders in a bat cave.
We can rest comfortably tonight, though. On a virtual journey, ghosts are not an issue.
Tomorrow, we’ve got craters and corners to see before we enter the fourth state on this trip.