About equal distances north from Tucson and east from Phoenix lies an area rich with copper mining history, and with it, copper mining railroads. It's in this basin, centered around Hayden, AZ, that one of the most interesting little short lines in the Southwest exists - the Copper Basin Railway. Connecting with two other copper roads that are mostly shut down, it has weathered the depression of copper prices far better. It acts as both a common carrier and mine-to-smelter plant railroad for ASARCO, and all very much alive on a daily basis. Since it forms a vital link between the mine at Ray and the smelter at Hayden, the eastern part of the system sees a virtually continuous heavy ore shuttle operate back and forth. It's also railfan-friendly, powered exclusively by either first generation diesels or GP39s, bears a unique grey and metallic copper paint scheme, and is one of the dynamic success stories of US shortline railroading.
Brief History of the Ray Complex and Copper Basin Rwy
Obviously any mining endeavor of this scale requires railroad support, and the Ray/Hayden area is no exception. The Phoenix and Eastern Railroad arrived on the scene in 1903, having completed its line to Winkelman, just south of modern day Hayden. The P&E eventually folded into the Southern Pacific by the 1920s. The mine lead from Ray Junction up to the Ray Mine, as well as the plant railway leading from Hayden Junction to Hayden, were all built by the copper companies to support their operations and were privately owned during the SP era. The Copper Basin came on the scene in 1986, in parallel with the ASARCO purchase of the mining works and smelter. The CBRY assumed operations of the SP branch from the mainline at Magma Junction to the end of track at Winkelman, as well as the two ex-Kennecott Copper lines (Ray and Hayden). Thus, the CBRY became not only a common carrier, but also one that operates an essentially inter-plant mining railroad.
The Copper Basin operations focus around a unit train that runs between the concentrator loadout at the Ray Mine and the dumper at Hayden. The loadout is deep within the mining works, but can be seen from the visitor's overlook on the west side, high above. This unit train, usually having roughly 60 100-ton ore hoppers, operates five complete trips a day between the two points, some thirty miles each way. The train bears the symbol OT-1 (presumably Ore Train 1) on its southbound / loaded trip, and OT-2 on its empty return voyage. These trains are regular as clockwork, and make for some very easy railfanning (aside from the fact that they move right along, wasting no time). The railroad also hauls other products for the operation on various locals to and from the UP interchange, but I wasn't able to nail down the schedule on those.
If you come on CBRY territory, there's at least one name you should know - Lowell "Jake" Jacobson, an ex-UP man that retired from the class 1 in the early 1980s. Jake is now COO of the Copper Basin, and, by every account I've read, runs a tight ship with a very dedicated group of employees, loyal because of his unique personality, his devotion to the company and employees, and his excellent management style. Almost certainly in part because of him, the CBRY has the distinction of being very friendly towards safe, responsible fans. Apparently if you stop by the office, they're usually happy to give you a couple spare minutes to have you sign a release and give you an idea of what will be moving about the system. For those wanting to know more, and there is a great deal more than I can fit in here, I'd suggest Steve Schmollinger's articles in both the October 2001 issue of Trains (Who is Jake Jacobson..., pp. 51-57) and the August 2002 issue of Railfan & Railroad (Railfanning the Copper Basin Railway, pp. 39-43).
Monday on the Copper Basin
Having spent Saturday night and Sunday with my family in Tucson, Monday meant starting the return trip to Colorado Springs, CO. It wasn't a terribly long drive, done directly (only about 12 hours), but top on my agenda for the day was to explore the San Manuel Arizona (if it was running), the Copper Basin Railway, and possibly what remained of the Magma Arizona if I had time. After waking up late and taking nearly an hour to pick my way from near the Tucson airport up to clear running on AZ Hwy 77 north (heavy morning traffic), I showed up in San Manuel around 1130h on the wayup to the Copper Basin.
San Manuel used to be the site of a large BHP copper mining and smelting operation. It had two pieces to its rail system - the common carrier San Manuel Arizona line that operated between the junction with the Copper Basin near Winkelman and the smelter at San Manuel, and the mine railroad that ran from the smelter up the hill to the mine itself. However, in June of 1999, the railway was shut down due to both the mine and the smelter being closed on account of low copper prices. Today I believe it's operated as the BHP Arizona railroad, carrying a few cars in an out every week on what is, by all accounts, a rather erratic schedule. The upside, however, is that the line travels over several spectacular trestles near the south end, as well as a large steel trestle over the Gila River near the CBRY interchange. With the road being on the east side, morning is the right time to shoot the SMA.
With my arrival in San Manuel, I stopped to take the top off the car, get something to drink, and pick up new batteries for the scanner, since mine had died the previous night. I found the rails up to the mine well rusted over, as one would expect after five years of shutdown. I also spotted three geeps in SMA paint sitting deep inside the smelter complex. Being too far away to shoot the power, and seeing no sign of anything moving any time soon, I wrote off the SMA and headed up towards Hayden and the Copper Basin Railway.
It's rather funny how things work out. The first thing that caught my eye coming into Hayden was a Copper Basin ore train unloading beside the highway. I pulled over to have a look at it, and when I was walking back to the car I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. As I looked over towards the high bridge across the Gila, I noticed a small blue and yellow geep dragging a small handful of cars behind it. By the time I got a longer telephoto slapped on the camera and targetting on our new-found train, it was unfortunately off the bridge. Still, the shot of SMA GP38-2 18 was better than I expected, given that I thought they only had three motors, and I'd seen three at San Manuel. (Photo #32)
My initial plan was to follow one of the empty ore trains up to the Ray mine, and then continue onward towards home. Based on that, I thought it best to drive up through Hayden proper while the ore train was still unloading, just to see the town and look around for anything moving near the smelter. Unlike the other smelting operations we've seen from this trip, ASARCO's plant in Hayden is still fully operational. Copper prices have been rising again lately after the massive drop from 1998-2002. Since ASARCO never shut down the Ray operation, there's not the cost barrier of bringing an idled mine / smelter back on line. A good part of the plant is on the backside of this small hill, and thus can't be seen, but the concentrator and the stack are both clearly visible from the town. (Photo #33) One interesting piece of the railroad's heritage can be seen from the town streets, however - back within the Hayden complex's yard, a 2-axle GE industrial critter motor can be seen. (Photo #34) I don't think it's been used any time recently, but it's an interesting locomotive type you don't see very often.
Concentrated ore is unloaded by the southbound OT-1 trains down along AZ Highway 177. The unloader is hard to miss, and as I mentioned, there was one in the unloader when I arrived. The crew dumps about half the train (30 cars, for 60 ore hoppers total), cuts off the power (Photo #35), runs around and pushes the rest of the train through the dumper. This is done because the dumper siding is actually too short, and after about 30 cars the crew has the power on the switch needed for the runaround. The ore is carried up to the smelting plant via a conveyer that runs from the dumper, over the road, and up to the plant high above. The train, meanwhile, once unloaded becomes OT-2 and is ready to proceed north to the mine. Thus, the whole process starts over, for a loop that repeats about five times a day, I'm told. When times were better, I've read that two unit ore trains ran continuously, each with around 48 cars.
I'd planned to stop in the office (located at Hayden Jct - Photo #36) while waiting for the unload to finish, but after my trip through Hayden, I found that the ore train was nowhere to be seen. A note to other visitors: the unload process is darn quick, so if you see one unloading, wandering off probably isn't a good idea. That sudden sinking feeling that my scenic sidetrip had made me miss yet another train was starting to set in, but as I rounded the curve northbound into Hayden Junction, I saw the last few ore jennies of OT-2 disappear around the curve ahead. That saved the day, since I wouldn't have time to wait for another full cycle - I still had nearly a thousand miles to get home.
From Hayden to nearly Kearny, the line runs on the west side of Hwy 177, with very few grade crossings. The only public one seems to be Tristan Road, about a mile or so south of Kearny. There's also, of course, the Tilbury Road crossing in the town of Kearny, if Tristan doesn't work out. However, by the time I'd reached Tristan, I was a minute or so ahead of the OT-2 (aka CBRY 401 north). With the sun overhead and slightly off to the west, I pulled off on the west side of the crossing onto a small dirt area and got out to set up the shot. Within minutes, CBRY 401, one of the few GP39s with a nose Gyralight, came around the corner, nose light on. (Photo #37) For those interested in unique freight cars, like myself, I've also included a photo of one of the CBRY's unique ore jennies passing by as Photo #38.
The CBRY's roster, as mentioned earlier, largely consists of GP39/GP39-2s. CBRY 401, 402, and 403 are natives of this operation, having been purchased for the Ray Mine operation as GP39s Kennecott 1, 2 in June of 1970 and GP39-2 Kennecott 3 in December 1980. CBRY 501 and 502 are ex-Kennecott GP39-2s from Utah (KCRR 591 and 596, respectively), and have rather strange looks due to originally having the high Kennecott cabs, now cut down to normal size. The other three GP39s - CBRY 503, 504, and 505 - are ex-C&O units (3912, 3901, and 3916, respectively), built in July of 1969 and rebuilt by Paducah before coming to the CBRY. The roster is rounded off by an equal number (8) of chop-nosed first generation geeps. CBRY 201 and 202 are GP18m units of Rock Island heritage (1239 and 1238); 203 is also Rock Island but a GP9 (1329). The other five (CBRY 204-208) are all GP9s from BN predecessor roads (BN 1704 / NP 204, BN 1822 / GN 670, BN 1867 / NP 244, BN 1893 / NP 276, and BN 1959 / CBQ 274). (Thanks to the Loconotes mailing list, Bob Lehmuth, and Jake Jacobson for those bits.) While I was there, the GP39s were most all on the job, while the first generation power was mostly stored at the road's shops at Hayden Jct.
Kearny, the next town north along the route, is the result of the Ray Mine pit growth. The miners used to mostly live at a town called Sonora, but as the Ray pit expanded, Kearny was constructed in 1958 to relocate them. Eventually, as the pit grew, the townsite of Sonora was swallowed up and no longer exists. As a note for fans, it's simply impossible to make it from Tristan Road, after waiting for the whole train to go by, to the Tilbury crossing in downtown Kearny ahead of the train. They just move too darn fast, and it's not enough distance. Save your Kearny shots for the southbounds - it'll work better anway.
Ray Junction can be accessed in two ways - one from the south, one from the north. As a fan, you're actually looking for signs pointing to Kelvin, the actual town that exists to the northwest of the junction. Coming down from the north, the road is right on the northeast side of where the Ray Branch grade crosses AZ 177 at grade. It's paved down just beyond Kelvin. Ray Junction can be found by following the dirt road that turns left over the Ray Branch at the south end of Kelvin. Coming up 177 from the south, there will be a sign pointing left to Kelvin approximately 3.2 miles north of Kearny. It's a dirt road that will wander down towards Tunnels 2 and 3 (though you can't directly see either of them). Eventually you'll wander out at the same place - Kelvin.
Don't waste too much time, though. Following the speed limit (and in a low-clearance car like my Del Sol, that's usually advisable on dirt backroads), you won't make it into Ray Jct. much ahead of the train - a few minutes at most. Just before the junction yard, you'll find a curve with a very nice trestle shot, which is just north of Tunnel 2. (Photo #39) From there, it's only a mile or two west to Kelvin and the curve that brings the Ray branch up and out of the Ray Jct. yard. The mainline is following the water-level Gila River grade at this point, whereas the Ray Mine is high above and to the north. The branch has quite a grade to it in order to make the connection, but fortunately it's all downhill for OT-1, the loaded ore trains. Only the empties have to work their way uphill, at the Ray Block speed limit of 10 mph. Because of the low speed through the yard as well, you'll have no trouble getting ahead of an OT-2 for another shot. With the sun nearly overhead still, I chose to be on the west side of the branch, actually in the town of Kelvin. There's a good paved road on the west side of the line, allowing for shots of trains coming up through the curve. (Photo #40)
Past Kelvin, the paved road follows the branch back as far as the Hwy 177 grade crossing. With the trains only moving at 10, there are a couple of breaks in the embankments and desert scrub that allow another shot or two. As a last look at an OT-2 before it enters mine property (the other side of the 177 grade crossing), we see CBRY 401 beneath the signature saguaro cacti of Arizona, just a mile or so north of Kelvin. From there, the OT-2 will cross Hwy 177 and disappear into the mine for about an hour to load up on concentrated ore. After that, it's back to Hayden as OT-1.
|[<< Previous] Chapter 3 [Next >>]|
This work is copyright 2004 by Nathan D. Holmes (firstname.lastname@example.org), but licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This allows and encourages others to copy, modify, use, and distribute my work, without the hassle of asking me for explicit permission or fear of copyright violation.
I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D with a Canon 28-105mm USM, a Canon 100-300mm USM, or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.