Mountain Passes: Sitgreaves Pass

Sitgreaves Pass was named after Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the US Army. Prior to being given the assignment that led him through Sitgreaves Pass, he had worked on a wide variety of civil engineering duties. Among them: constructing roads in Wisconsin; surveying Sault St. Marie; surveying the US-Texas border (when Texas was a republic); improving the Hudson River; and surveying the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Sitgreaves’ 1851 expedition was the first to survey the area that today comprises northern New Mexico. He explored the Zuni River and the Colorado, but his main task on this expedition was to find an overland route to California. In doing so, Sitgreaves crossed through the Black Mountains, a 75-mile long, 15-mile wide chain of mountains in western Arizona. After the expedition ended Sitgreaves wrote a detailed report of its findings. 

In 1857 President James Buchanan asked General Edward F. Beale (see Beale’s Cut) to help create a road from New Mexico to California. Under the command of Beale, soldiers built that road along the route that Sitgreaves had surveyed, through several mountain passes, one of them being Sitgreaves Pass. And, because the Army’s experiment with camels in the Texas deserts wasn’t working out, Beale took the camels with his troops as he marched west through Sitgreaves Pass.

Sitgreaves Pass could be traversed by people on foot and by people riding horses or mules, but it was impassable for wagons. In order to allow wagons through, Beale ordered his soldiers to cut a narrow road into the side of the pass. The Old Beale Road, as it was called, was the chief means of transportation between the Southwest and California for decades. The Butterfield Stage jostled many a south-California-bound passenger through Sitgreaves Pass, just as the Overland Stage bounced north-California-bound passengers up, down, and sideways through Bridger Pass (far to the north, in Wyoming).

Sitgreaves Pass

Mountain Range: Black Mountains
Elevation: 3,652 feet

Grade: 12%
Location: In northwestern Arizona, near the California-Nevada-Arizona border; also near Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

After coach travel was replaced by rail travel in 1867, Sitgreaves Pass was used much less. 

And then came the automobile.

For most of the US’s development, from the colonial 1700s through the early 1900s, California and the West were isolated from the East and Midwest — this was because of the wide desserts and high mountains that lay west of the Mississippi River. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1867 connected the two ends of the country.

After the invention of the automobile and the mass-production of the Model T by Henry Ford in the 1920s, families began to take road vacations. Once again, California and the West were isolated from the rest of the country because so many roads were unkept and unmarked and, most importantly, stopped at the foot of the mountains. Most people could not drive to the West Coast because they couldn’t find roads through the mighty mountains.

During the 1920s Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff, entrepreneurs, set out to change this by persuading Congress to build a national paved road from Chicago to Los Angeles. The road, labeled Route 66, was completed in 1926.

Route 66 traveled through eight states, heading southwest from Chicago. Logically, in order to avoid the high mountains, Route 66 should have veered to the south in Arizona, as do today’s Interstates, Routes I-40 and I-10. But the town of Oatman, Arizona, was a thriving gold-mining community during the 1920s, home to more than 15,000 people, and the business owners of Oatman wanted Route 66 to pass through their town. They persuaded the builders to do so.

This meant that the road had to be built through Sitgreaves Pass. While Sitgreaves is not all that high, it’s very steep — the westbound grade approaches 12%. Route 66 as it was built through Sitgreaves Pass was full of very tight hairpin curves, steep rocks lining the edge of the road, narrow lanes, and blind curves that drivers couldn’t see around until it was, perhaps, too late to avoid an accident. 

Sitgreaves was so steep that Model T’s couldn’t make it up the pass. That’s because the Ford engine was gravity fed: gas flowed downward from the higher-placed tank into the lower-placed combustion engine. As the Model T’s chugged up steep Sitgreaves, the gas no longer flowed forward to the engine — the direction of flow was reversed and the cars stalled.

Bold drivers solved this problem by driving up the steep, winding pass in reverse. That way, the back end of the car was above the engine-end, and gas flowed from the tank to the engine. Some drivers, however, were too shocked  and hesitant to drive Sitgreaves frontwards or backwards, so they hired local Arizonians to pull their cars up the pass with oxen, mules, or horses.

For nearly fifty years Route 66 was the most famous road in the US. By the late 1950s, though, big Interstate highways began to replace it. When I-40 was being built from North Carolina to California, it took traffic through northern Arizona — but the engineers of I-40 directed traffic south of Sitgreaves Pass, as Route 66 itself would have gone had not the town of Oatman had such influence. 

Today Route 66 is no longer on the maps, though parts of the original road remain in different states. And the town of Oatman is almost a ghost town, home to 200 people.

When the mines of Oatman and the surrounding areas were closed, mining families and businesses moved out almost overnight. They left behind their ladders, tables, and other mining supplies — which are still there to be seen. And the miners released the burros that had been used to pull the mine cars.

The burros took to the desert and became semi-wild. They also populated the town of Oatman, where today they walk on the streets and into abandoned buildings. The also thrust their heads into tourists’ cars, looking for a handout of carrots or other goodies.

The occasional tourist who takes Old Route 66 through Sitgreaves Pass can hear the burros braying in the dessert. She might even encounter one around a blind curve.

Sitgreaves Pass

Through this gap
mules pulled,
camels shambled,
Model T’s squeezed
their way west.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Avalanche Pass.