A Taste of the ‘Golden Age of Railroading’ – The Verde Canyon Railway and La Posada in Winslow, AZ

Posted on December 3, 2014


download (2)A few weeks ago we climbed aboard the Verde Canyon Railway in Clarksdale, Arizona to experience the beauty of the great northern Arizona landscape.

It was a four-hour ride through a wild and winding river-carved canyon, while lounging in comfortable luxury complete with appetizers and a full bar. It was fun.

Nearly 90,000 people a year ride the rails of the Verde Canyon line. While the star of the trip is the scenery, there’s an underlying reason for many of us to be on board – any train ride is a symbolic connection of the present with the past.

Those of us of a certain age experienced the tail-end of the ‘Golden Age of Railroading’, a period when America depended on trains to move both goods and people, and a time when rail lines actively courted passenger service. Pullman cars, gourmet-class dining cars, lounges and dome cars made travel relaxing and stress-free.

images (1)And no one provided luxury passenger service better than the Santa Fe Railway.

To further promote their reputation for first-class service, the Santa Fe built world-class railroad hotels along the company’s lines, intended both as ‘destination resorts’ for the vacationer and as a comfortable ‘home away from home’ for the business traveler.

Like many of the grand old train stations built in cities  both large and small  during the ‘Golden Age’, many of these hotel/resorts are gone – or turned into other uses and now exist outside the context of rail travel.

But not La Posada in Winslow, Arizona.

La Posada Harvey House Hotel in Winslow, Arizona.

La Posada Harvey House Hotel in Winslow, Arizona.

The Santa Fe Railway opened the Fred Harvey-operated La Posada in 1930, the last in a string of large, luxurious railroad hotels.

download (1)It was designed by Harvey employee Mary Colter, her inspiration being the great haciendas of the Southwest.

She chose a typical Spanish pueblo architectural style, but also filled the inside with Mexican and local design influences. The best area artisans were hired to create furniture and fixtures in the Southwestern style, and Colter’s unique sense of color and design could be detected in even the smallest details of the interior.

The project was said to have been Colter’s favorite, because she was allowed to design everything – the hotel and restaurant, the depot and the gardens surrounding both.

Of course, the timing was terrible.

La Posada never really prospered, and was closed to the public in 1957. In 1959 its museum-quality furnishings were auctioned off, and the interior gutted the by the Santa Fe and ‘re-purposed’ as office space, complete with dropped ceilings, vinyl tile and glass-partitioned office cubicles.

Painted leather and gilded paneled doors?  Sold.  Colter-designed chairs and cabinets?  Burned.  Floral murals by noted New Mexico artist Earl Altaire?  Painted over – except for three.

Fortunately, the tile over the stone floors, the boards over the windows, and the acoustical tiles over the beautifully painted ballroom ceiling preserved those details in place.

In 1993, the railroad announced plans to get rid of La Posada, and in 1994 the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the property on its Most Endangered list.

Staircase to second floor - no elevators in La Posada.

Staircase to second floor – no elevators in La Posada.

It was purchased by Allan Affeldt in 1997, and a few years – and $12 million dollars – later, La Posada re-opened to the public. The restoration isn’t totally done yet.

Ballroom features a 'Colter Blue' ceiling highlighted with gold and silver leaf.

Ballroom features a ‘Colter Blue’ ceiling highlighted with gold and silver leaf.

However, what IS completed – the main parts of the interior including the Turquoise Room Restaurant, the hotel guest rooms, gift shop, book store and common areas has been lovingly – and accurately – restored back to Mary Colter’s original design.

Photographs and documents were studied and local craftsmen employed to replicate tin work chandeliers and sconces; missing architectural details, and Colter-designed furniture.images (6)

It’s been a labor of love for Affeldt, his friends and associates, and the entire community.

It’s a must see if you are in the area. We spent the afternoon and one night there, and hated to leave in the morning.

nmlasvegasOh yes, Affeldt now owns another Santa Fe/Harvey House in Las Vegas, New Mexico – the La Castaneda.

It will take a few years before its ready for customers, but we already know what it will look like – beautiful.

Posted in: Travel - Arizona