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2019 - Trip Reports - Arrowhead Trails Highway

Arrowhead Trails Highway

By Bob Jaussaud

Over 50 years ago, when Sue and I were first getting acquainted with water skiing on the Colorado River, we frequently traveled Old Route 66 between Needles and Los Angeles. East of Goffs, in the vicinity of Ibis, Route 66 junctions with the road to Las Vegas (US 95 in California) at a railroad crossing that is known as Arrowhead Junction. In the 1960’s there was still a man living there who, we were told, had a relationship going with a woman who lived in Goffs. Now there are only foundations at the crossing, but we still wondered where the name Arrowhead Junction came from. So, doing a bit of research, we came upon the Arrowhead Trails Highway story.

In 1914 the Auto Club of Southern California began their road signing project and erected approximately 4000 signs to designate National Old Trails between Los Angeles and Kansas City. It is human nature that the businessmen of newly incorporated Las Vegas wanted a highway through their town too. Enter Charles H. Bigelow, a famed race car driver, travel writer and “desert pilot” who promoted a faster route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City going through Las Vegas. Starting in 1915, Bigelow drove the entire route at least 3 times. His efforts gained the support of Salt Lake City and California businessmen including some representing the Studebaker Corporation, Goodrich Rubber Company and the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad. Bigelow was thus able to form the Arrowhead Trails Association sometime around 1915. So why Arrowhead Trails? Historian Leo Lyman claims the name came from the giant natural Arrowhead visible on the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, not far from where Bigelow lived in Redlands. The Arrowhead was (and still is) one of the most famous landmarks in the Inland Empire.

At the urging of Fritz Fisher, president of the Redlands Chamber of Commerce, a group of Californians embarked on an auto trip over the Arrowhead Trails Highway route in 1916. Members of the group included Charles Bigelow, Los Angeles Times reporter F. V. Owens, railroad representative Douglas White, and Nevada State Senator Levi Syphus. The southern half of their journey required two days to cross the Mojave Desert before reaching Las Vegas. Continuing north they traveled through the Valley of Fire to arrive at the town of Saint Thomas,a Mormon farming community founded in 1865 as part of the then Arizona Territory. For a while it was actually the county seat of Pah-Ute County. But, a 1871 land survey placed Saint Thomas in Nevada instead of Arizona and when the state of Nevada tried to collect back taxes the Mormons moved rather than pay. Pah-Ute County also ceased to exist, being absorbed mostly by Nevada’s Clark County. Saint Thomas was eventually resettled only to be abandoned again for good when the Colorado River waters backed up behind the newly constructed Hoover Dam and completely submerged it in 1938.

In 1916, though, the members of Fritz’s California group were able to cross the Muddy and Virgin Rivers at Saint Thomas and continue on to Bunkerville, where the group halted to rest and to feast on locally grown melons. Bunkerville was settled in 1877 and there’s not much of a town there today. Maybe that’s because in the 1950’s it was downwind of the fallout from nuclear tests which residents recalled playing in as if it were snow. This evidentially caused a spike in cancers, especially childhood leukemia, so folks there developed a real distrust of the government. In fact, in 2014 Bunkerville was the scene of the “Bundy Standoff”, an armed confrontation between local ranchers and the government over grazing fees.

From Bunkerville, the Arrowhead Trails Highway paralleled the Virgin River (on the south side) to Mesquite Flat a small Mormon farming community settled in 1880. The name was shortened and Mesquite has gone on to become one of the fastest growing towns in the United States, perhaps due to the proliferation of casinos and golf courses. From Mesquite and remaining on the south side of the river, the Arrowhead Trails Highway moved into what is still Arizona and arrived at Littlefield, another small Mormon farming community established in 1865. Littlefield is at the mouth of the Virgin River Gorge and is where the Arrowhead Trails Highway finally crossed to the north side of the river. The Virgin River was given the name Virgen River by Jedediah Smith in honor of one of his men, Thomas Virgen, who was killed by Indians. It’s the Virgin River today, so somehow the “e” became an “i.” Littlefield is on the south side of the river and the town of Beaver Dam is on the north side. Beaver Dam was originally known as Cottonwood Creek recognizing the creek nearby used to irrigate crops. Beavers caused problems building dams in the irrigation ditches so the place naturally became known as Beaver Dam. Although they touched in Las Vegas, The Arrowhead Trails Highway essentially joins the Old Spanish Trail and the Mormon Road in Beaver Dam. To continue north, the most popular route was over the Beaver Dam Mountains via Utah Hill,essentially following what was to become US Highway 466/91. US Highway 466/91 was not bypassed by Interstate 15 (which goes through the Virgin River Gorge) until 1973. After finally reaching Saint George, Fritz’s 1916 Arrowhead Trails Association group enjoyed relatively good roads on into Salt Lake City.

So, how does Arrowhead Junction near Needles, California figure into all junction for the auto route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It was certainly much easier and faster to travel on the improved, signed and all-weather Old National Trails across the desert to Arrowhead Junction and north through Searchlight to Las Vegas, than it was to follow the unimproved route of the Old Spanish Trail. In 1916, Searchlight was a viable town with supplies and help if needed. From Searchlight there were So, until the Silver Lake Cutoff, an oiled road basically following the Old Spanish Trail was completed in 1925 (along what is roughly now the Interstate 15 corridor), Arrowhead Junction was the best way to go and a very important junction indeed. Sue and I plan to lead a trip exploring what remains of the Arrowhead Trails Highway, probably next Fall, or maybe Spring. If you are interested in joining.