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The Short History of the Surprise & Dismay Railroad

The Journal of Prevarication
Here lies Jim Cook, official state liar of Arizona

An apocryphal story says the city of Surprise was named because someone was surprised that anyone would build a town there. That story may be truer than you think.

The official version is that developer Homer J. Ludden founded Surprise in 1937, naming it after Surprise, Nebraska, his hometown. At one time or another, Ludden was a member of the Arizona Legislature and a Glendale city councilman.

Several years after he started selling lots in Surprise, he married Flora Mae Statler, the developer of El Mirage and Yarnell. Flora Mae Statler Ludden sold lots in Surprise for $300 apiece. It was a place where people who had little money could build a simple house, using the best means available.

She told critics, “Not everyone can afford to live on Central Avenue.” Flora Mae has been quoted as saying she’d be surprised to find a town at Surprise.

Whethe she said it or not, I’ll tell you that I’m surprised. When I was young, Surprise was a handful of modest homes on the desert between El Mirage and Beardsley. Some of our friends lived there in little frame houses.

Now the City of Surprise is estimated to have 103,000 residents. It includes Del Webb’s Sun City Grand. Population projections vary wildly, but according to some experts, the city could reach a population of 200,000 within hours.

Surprise has the biggest Wal-Mart super center in the state, baseball spring training camps, and myriad other amenities. Surprise has annexed so much land that its police and firefighters carry lunches when they go out on a call.

But let’s go back to the time when Surprise had a population optimistically estimated at forty. Another man, Weldon Dunn, saw what Ludden was doing at Surprise, and he was taken with the idea of having a town that he could parcel off.

Dunn was a successful well driller. Naturally, people called him Well Dunn.

Well Dunn bought a section of land thirty miles west-northwest of Surprise, and located a strong water well. He formed a water company, opened a gas station and store, and began selling lots. He named the place Dismay for his wife, who was a French dramatic actress.

Dunn knew that Dismay was remote, but so was his wife. He knew that some people liked llving out on the desert, away from cities.

More importantly, Dunn had always wanted to own a railroad, and he would fulfill his childhood dream. His railroad would serve the residents of Dismay, and haul ore from the little mines in the area–gold, manganese, lead.

And so the Surprise & Dismay Railroad was born. It snaked thirty-three miles across the desert, leaving the tracks of the Atchinson Topeka and Santa Fe at the Beardsley siding.

Dunn bought one used steam engine, a little 2-8-0 made by Baldwin, which also made pianos. He bought a single red boxcar from the Illinois Central to haul whatever freight there might be, and a combination baggage and passenger car from the Boston & Maine. He acquired two battered Southern Pacific gondolas to haul ore.

Business was not brisk, but Dunn was happy. He owned a real railroad, and the well-drilling business was good. Sometimes he got to drive the train, which he called the Hassayampa Zephyr.

However, Dunn had not taken into account the machinations of a man named Burntwick, who worked for the agency that regulated common carriers. I won’t name that agency–so far as I know, it’s clean today–but for many decades, it ran by its own rules.

Dunn had filed all the proper paperwork. In those days, though, dealing with state agencies often required a little more consideration, like financing the education of the children of some officials.

Burntwick said the Surprise & Dismay Railroad had too much track for the amount of traffic it carried. Trains only ran every other day, if that.

Burntwick came up with a complicated formula showing that other railroads used their tracks more efficiently, having X number of trains on Y miles of track over any given period. Plainly, the tracks of the Surprise & Dismay were empty nearly all the time, and that was not efficient.

In order to conform to Burntwick’s abitrary regulation, Dunn would have to tear up seventeen miles of track. The commission did not want to be unfair, however. Burntwick said Dunn could elminate the track from either end of his railroad, or right out of the middle.

Dunn knew a shakedown when he saw it. Being a man of integrity, he did the only honorable thing. He bought another section of land adjacent to Homer Ludden’s Surprise, and named it Dismay East. He sold the original site to a sheep company.

The Surprise & Dismay R.R. joined a long list of railroads that vanished in the latter half of the twentieth century.

During its short life, it had carried sixty-one passengers and eight tons of assorted freight, not counting five carloads of low-grade manganese ore. Two dyslexic hobos, planning to ride the Santa Fe, hopped the Zephyr by mistake and found themselves stranded at the depot in Dismay, which was a stuccoed trailer house.

Dunn sold the rails for scrap and let people haul away the ties to build low-cost houses.

To no one’s surprise, the development called Dismay East was swallowed by the growing City of Surprise, which began to spread rapidly during the 1990s.

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