Did You Know: Hattie B. Rail Named After Arizona First Lady

By Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Published: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 2:41pm
Updated: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 10:02am
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There are plenty of libraries, monuments and streets named after historical and political people. In Arizona, we even named a train.

Before the light rail was developed, there was another public rail line. It was created as a temporary form of transportation during the great Valley flood more than 30 years ago. Did You Know …the temporary rail line was named after Arizona’s first lady Harriet Babbitt?

“At the time, the governor was Bruce Babbitt and his wife was Hattie," said Rob Bohannan, who has been in the railway industry for years and was among a group of people who worked during the flood. 

“So that train was named the Hattie B. to kind of honor the governor’s wife and to honor the fact that the governor’s office had to get involved in order to make it all happen," Bohannan said.

Bohannan said in February 1980, there were a series of storms that washed out several bridges over the Salt River from Mesa to Buckeye. Remaining bridges were questionable. Engineers were so alarmed they decided to close most of the bridges over the river, including the I-10 crossing. Central Avenue bridge and the Mill Avenue bridge at the time were the only two crossing points in the Valley.

As we stand at Tempe Beach Park, Bohannan recalls the flood.

“Traffic was a nightmare because the Valley was divided in half," he said.

So ADOT, Amtrak and the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, which operated the track, joined forces and developed a public rail transportation line. For two weeks the Hattie B. traveled from downtown Mesa over what is now Tempe Town Lake to Union Station in downtown Phoenix.

“The trains were all packed and it seems to me it made six or seven round trips a day and they had five coaches and a locomotive at each end," Bohannan said.

Bohannan said he rode the train and although the coaches held about 70 people, they were standing room only. Bohannan said the temporary public rail line proved to be an asset. 

“The reality is the Hattie B. paid for itself, even though there weren’t any tickets sold because it kept the economy going in the Valley," he said.

So, how did Harriet Babbitt feel about a train line being named after her?

“Oh, I loved the idea," she said. "I loved the idea. It filled a hugely important need.”

That’s the former first lady. And she remembers another name the train was given.

“I mean, it was used so much that it became 'the sardine express' because the cars were absolutely packed with people who otherwise would have spent, you know, eight or 10 hours in traffic.”

Bohannan and Babbitt believe the Hattie B. helped the Valley imagine a public train line for the future. Oh, and Hattie Babbitt said she still has a T-shirt commemorating the rail line – The Sardine Express.

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