Promoting Historic Arizona 80

John Donahu, a Tombstone resident and historian, talks about Historic Arizona 80 at Friday's Southeast Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting in Sierra Vista. Donahue, along with Bob Nilson of the Benson Visitor Center, recently launched the Arizona 80 Foundation to promote tourism in four towns along the old historic highway from Benson to Douglas. 

BENSON — Historic Arizona 80 and its importance to Cochise County’s tourism was the featured presentation Friday at the Southeast Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting.

Jon Donanue, tourism coordinator for the city of Tombstone, along with Bob Nilson, Benson Visitor Center tourism supervisor, have launched the Arizona 80 Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the highway’s route through Cochise County and the four towns it connects. From Exit 303 off Interstate 10 into Benson, travelers can follow Arizona 80 south to Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas for a 72-mile tour of four historic towns.

“All four of these towns have had significant roles in shaping Cochise County,” said Nilson, who has created an Historic Highway 80 display at the Benson Visitor Center, complete with maps and information about the four towns. “Take Benson for example. Its connection with the railroad dates back to 1880 when the Southern Pacific first came through here.

“Since then, Benson has been designated as Train Town USA by Union Pacific Railroad, and was the first western town to receive that designation.”

Today, between 40 and 60 trains roll through Benson daily, said Nilson, who noted the railroad is a huge draw among train fanatics.

In 2019 an estimated 7,000 people swelled into Benson for the arrival of UP’s historic Big Boy No. 4014, Nilson said. The steam locomotive’s 30-minute stop represented one of several UP made in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Tombstone’s notorious characters and Old West charm draw visitors from all over the world. The historic mining town is considered the tourist hub of Cochise County, said Donahue, who was the primary presenter at Friday’s meeting.

“If we can fill Tombstone with events, fiestas and other activities, visitors from those events spread out to every other town around here very quickly, which is something we’re trying to do,” he said.

Bisbee — with its mining history, museums, art galleries and dining opportunities — is steeped in attractions that delight tourists.

“At one time Bisbee was the biggest city between St. Louis and San Francisco because of the mining boom,” Donahue said. “It had a population of over 20,000 people until the mines closed in 1975.”

Tourists are drawn to Bisbee’s historic district where they are immersed in the town’s boomtown flavor.

“From Bisbee, we urge travelers to head south into Douglas and visit the Gadsden Hotel with its beautiful lobby and stained-glass windows,” Donahue said. “The windows were made by Henry Lewis Tiffany ... it’s a beautiful place and is being restored.

“Douglas is home to America’s first international airport. In fact, Amelia Earhart is said to have landed in the Douglas airport.:

While visiting Douglas, step across the border and experience Agua Prieta, Mexico, for its great shopping deals and local cuisine.

In an effort to determine what most tourists want when they visit Arizona, Nilson and Donahue turn to a study conducted by Northern Arizona University. They learned that nearly 71 percent of those surveyed are interested in national parks, closely followed by Old West history at 70 percent. Nearly 60 percent want to visit ghost towns and 57 percent are interested in the region’s mining history.

“Knowing that history is a big draw, we’re focusing our marketing efforts on these towns, with an emphasis on each town’s unique history,” Donahue said.

Southeast Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Regional/International Director Daniel Valle said it’s a well known fact that tourism is an important economic driver for Cochise County.

“I’m especially interested in getting more tourists into Douglas,” said Valle, who described the city as a diamond in the rough. “I believe we could do some great things there, and we should. We need to focus on helping the economy in Douglas.”

In his presentation, Donahue said it’s important for all four towns to work together to promote tourism along the 80 highway in order to benefit each city.

“In our case, tourists love history up and down our highway, based on the NAU study,” he said. “History is the one thing thing all four of our towns have in common. By working together to promote each other’s towns, we can help each other out.

“The original Highway 80 came through here in 1926, starting in Benson and heading south to Douglas, then back up to Rodeo, New Mexico,” Donahue said. “Historical tourism is us. Highway 80 is still alive ... Everywhere you go, every mile along the highway, there’s a story to be told. And tourists like to come and hear those stories. It’s like taking a step back in history.”

For information about the Arizona 80 Foundation, visit the website at www.arizona80.org.