Last revised: January 5, 2023
By: Adam Burns
You would be hard pressed to find a more thorough history of an active tourist train than "Tracking Down The Past," which highlights the Verde Canyon Railway. In fact, most such organizations have never been publicized in such detail.
Written by Linda Durbano, the book's 500+ pages are packed with information and photographs, covering everything from the railroad's original opening in 1912 to its transformation into a popular tourist attraction in 1991.
It is difficult to truly articulate just how much information Ms. Durbano has included in this volume. It is a great deal more than just a history of the Verde Canyon Railway; there is a general history of Arizona, considerable coverage on the Santa Fe, the Transcontinental Railroad's completion, and a presentation of American railroad industry overall.
While no one knew it at the time, the railroad built to haul copper was laid down in the one of the most gorgeous locations in the southwest, Arizona's Verde Valley. Today, the Verde Canyon Railway enjoys roughly 100,000 riders annually.
The Verde Canyon Railway is a tourist attraction operating over ex-Santa Fe trackage in central Arizona, near the very popular tourist destination of Sedona.
And like Sedona, the Verde Canyon has blossomed into a popular destination in its own right where vacationers can enjoy a combination of spectacular scenery and first class accommodation.
Today, the railroad offers several different excursions and special trains. Although prices average a little higher than what you might expect on other tourist railroads the scenery afforded in climate-controlled, comfortable coaches is well worth the cost!
So, if you are visiting Sedona, or Arizona in general I would very much recommend a visit to the Verde Canyon Railway, especially since you can often witness Bald Eagles on the journey and it is the only way to see Arizona's breathtaking Verde Canyon.
Linda Durbano's "Tracking Down The Past: 150 Years, Vision and Horsepower that Shaped Verde Canyon Railroad," is a book published in 2021 by Walsworth Publishing Company of Marceline, Missouri.
It highlights, in complete detail, the tourist railroad's history that began in 1988 when Dave Durbano acquired the 38.5 mile line from the Santa Fe to prevent what would have surely otherwise been a complete abandonment of the property.
Durbano was already a successful businessman in other ventures and also wasn't new to railroading. He had been operating Union Pacific's former Coalmont Branch and Encampment Branch, situated in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado, since November, 1987.
Durbano operated both corridors under the name Wyoming & Colorado Railroad (reporting mark, WYCO).
A year later, in 1988, the Coalmont Branch hosted an excursion for the University of Wyoming's Cowboy Joe Club, an alumni group that helped fundraising efforts for the institution.
The success of this event was essentially the genesis of what later became the Verde Canyon Railway. On May 31, 1991 the branch began hosting regular excursions utilizing Budd Company stainless steel passenger cars, pulled by a pair of handsome FP7's (#1510 and #1512; built in 1953 for the Alaska Railroad they had carried the same numbers).
The trips over this stretch would end in 1995 when it was determined the Coalmont Branch was no longer a viable business operation. Its freight had dried up and the only thing keeping it afloat was public train rides.
The equipment was subsequently moved to Durbano's latest operation, the Verde Canyon Railway, which had launched public excursions in July, 1991.
The railroad was actually in name-only as it utilized the trackage of Durbano's short line freight carrier, the Clarkdale Arizona Central Railroad (reporting mark, AZCR), or simply the Arizona Central Railroad.
By the 1980s, the Santa Fe was siphoning off much of its secondary trackage in southwestern Arizona. This infrastructure had once been quite lucrative in serving the copper industry since the late 19th century.
However, much of this business had long since dried up and the with the Staggers Act of 1980, the AT&SF was quick to jettison this trackage and similar secondary corridors that were no longer profitable.
The Santa Fe was a legend in its own time. It was once the world's most famous transportation company. In 1948 Fortune magazine named it the Nation's "Number One Railroad."
The Santa Fe attained stardom by introducing the acclaimed Super Chief during the Art Deco era, a streamliner which not only offered first-class accommodations but also paid tribute to the Southwest's Native American tribes.
After 137 years of phenomenal prosperity, the AT&SF joined Burlington Northern in 1996 to create the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway. Today, BNSF Railway grosses more than $20 billion annually, ranking it behind only Union Pacific as the country's most powerful railroad.
At the time of the AT&SF's cutbacks, Durbano saw potential in its Verde Valley Branch and worked fast to hash out an agreement to purchase it in late 1988. By March of 1989 the new short line was in operation and has continued to thrive ever since.
Its traffic currently consists of inbound coal to the Phoenix Cement Company and outbound cement shipments.
Had he not done so the branch would almost assuredly been abandoned and the public could not enjoy this scenic wonder of the Southwest.
This could also be said for many other areas of the country that were only accessible by train and are now either abandoned or the rights-of-way obliterated entirely.
To give you an idea of the enormity of the book, "Tracking Down The Past" features 36 chapters, in addition to an introduction and postscript.
I would highly recommend Ms. Durbano's volume if you are interested in not only a complete history of the Verde Canyon Railway but also a general history of the railroad industry as well.
You can also read all about the state of Arizona's copper trade, the Durbanos' entrepreneurial background, how he originally became involved in the railroad industry, and the present-day status of the Verde Canyon Railway.
The attraction is certainly one of the Top 10 scenic train rides in the country, offering a wide range of on-board amenities, special excursions, fabulous scenery, and glimpses of wildlife (like the bald eagle).