Memories of the Old Christmas Road

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By Bill Kishbaugh

Special to Copper Area News

   There once was an old winding dirt road which ran between Globe, Arizona and Hayden, Arizona. Most of the time a Gila County road grader kept it in fairly good condition.There was one particularly treacherous stretch however!

It ran for about 8 miles alongside of the Gila River, between the towns of Christmas and Winkelman. It was narrow and in places, barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. There are still portions of that old road visible today, even though it was replaced with a modern paved highway.

This old road holds many memories in the minds of motorists that were brave enough to travel over it. I think it was built in about 1920, as a more direct route from Globe to the mining towns of Hayden and Winkelman. Portions ran along the steep rock embankments adjacent to the Gila River, so steep that in order to make a roadbed, it required that rocks be carried and stacked along the outer edge, to make a retaining wall for the roadbed. Those retaining walls are still visible today.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, all of the roads both in and out of the area were dirt roads. Traffic accidents on these treacherous roads were not unusual.

I remember one accident well, as it involved my cousins. On Christmas morning, in about 1947, Bill & Genevieve Matthews and their young daughter Genny were approaching Winkelman on the old Christmas Road and were only about a mile out of town when the accident occurred.

Bill Matthews, the driver, was hugging the right side of the road as much as possible, as he approached a blind curve to the right. Suddenly a northbound car full of people came around the curve on the wrong side of the road.

The driver over corrected and the car went hurdling off the side of the road, rolling and tumbling down the steep rocky embankment. As I recall, a couple of the people were killed and one man lost part of his leg.

I don’t remember all of the details, but someone had to drive into Winkelman to get help. There were no radios or cellular phones in those days.

I remember as a teenager driving my stripped down 1928 Chevrolet Coupe over that road and trying to drive over the steep Christmas Hill without shifting. This required getting up a lot of speed before approaching the steep grade. In those younger days, I thought I was invincible!

In 1954, I had a job driving a ten-wheel white dump truck over that road for George Luman. My job entailed moving mine tailings from the old mine and mill dump at Christmas, to the railroad spur down along the Gila River.

The railroad spur ran from Christmas to Winkelman. Its former track bed now makes up part of today’s Highway 77 roadbed.

A couple of days a week, I would have to go haul silica ore from Sy Bobbitt’s Mine to the AS&R smelter in Hayden. The silica mine was located in the mountains on the west side of the Gila River near Hayden.

When I was relocating between the two work sites, I would sometimes meet unsuspecting motorists on the old Christmas Road. If they were on the outside, overlooking the drop to the river, their eyes would often be wide and they would be looking straight ahead, their hands strongly gripping the steering wheel.

Now I drive 50 to 60 miles per hour down the paved highway that once was the old Christmas Road and I reminisce about the old days, when you actually had to “drive” an automobile.

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