Flagstaff: The Skylight City Was On the Beaten Path

This northern Arizona city in the pines exists because it is on a convenient transportation corridor spanning the continent. Between 1857 and 1859, Army troops under the command of Lieutenant Edward F. Beale built a wagon road across the Colorado Plateau following the “middle route” between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Staying close to springs and abundant grass for animals, Beale’s road was shorter than the Old Spanish Trail through Utah and safer than the Gila Trail through the blistering desert frequented by Apache raiders. Travelers on the road would have sight of the landmark San Francisco Peaks for more than 75 miles in either direction and could water at Leroux Springs at the southwest base of the mountain.

Even before completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 plans called for two more, one to follow the Gila Trail and another taking the 35th Parallel middle route with Beale’s road. Knowing the Atlantic & Pacific railroad would build close to Leroux Springs a few sheep ranchers and two immigrant parties from Boston arrived at the base of the peaks in 1876. The second Boston party arrived in Antelope Valley on July 4th and made a pine tree into a flagpole to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Finding the clearings between the copious Leroux Springs and the meager Antelope Spring 12 miles south a disappointing location for farming the Boston parties moved on, but their patriotic flagpole was the talk of the territory. When a government surveyor arrived two years later he found one of the sheep men living at the “Flagstaff” ranch not far from Antelope Spring.

As soon as it became clear that rails would pass by Antelope Spring, very early in 1881 a Prescott merchant and his nephew established a store on the side of the hill where water trickled out of the ground. That April Atlantic and Pacific Railroad surveyors staked out curves along the hillside and a group of Mormon entrepreneurs settled close to Leroux Springs to grade roadbed and cut ties all along the line. By the time rails were laid to Canyon Diablo west of Winslow the following year, a Chicago businessman was already hauling a complete steam powered sawmill by wagon train to Antelope Spring with a contract to supply the A & P. A primitive line of tents, log cabins and board buildings soon graced the hillside with a post office named Flagstaff in the general store.

This is a small portion of the 20-30 commercial buildings that first lined the single street of Flagstaff, pictured by Albuquerque photographer Ben Wittick, probably in March 1883. There is a telegraph line and across the street out of view, railroad tracks and the spring. In the center is a sign that says “Monarch (Mercantile?), P. B. Brannen (Prop.?).” Next door is the “Arizona News Depot” with a canvas roof. Then another store, then the two-story Beal’s restaurant and Pioneer Hotel and finally John Drain’s saloon. To the left of Brannen’s store is the Log Cabin Saloon and then another saloon and dance hall. These buildings would burn 22 July 1884 and be replaced only to eventually become “Old Town” as commercial development moved east.

After struggling to bridge the devil’s canyon, the railroad arrived at Flagstaff August 1, 1882 and 18 days later the sawmill boiler was fired and its steam whistle echoed through Antelope Valley. But the silence had already been broken by more than a dozen saloons serving railroad workers 24/7. Like every other town on the railroad front, Flagstaff was a dangerous cauldron of male exuberance supported by hefty railroad paychecks. “Cattle rustling was rampant and only conquered by stringing the culprits to a limb of a tree and riddling the bodies with bullets. Many were the shootings in the town. . . . They write about Tombstone and other early settlements, but Flagstaff was as bad as any of them” (p.37, Charles C. Stemmer, A Brand From the Burning, 1959).

The railroad put a water tank for their thirsty steam locomotives and a couple box cars for a depot in a relatively flat part of the valley about a mile east of the town on the hill. The general store and the larger saloons moved to a site opposite the depot in 1883 and built substantial buildings. This was “New Town” and Antelope Spring became “Old Town Spring.” Most of the money flowed into the orderly stores and rowdy saloons, giving their owners almost total control over the community.

Another Wittick photo likely taken in late summer 1883 documents the first buildings in New Town, down in Antelope Valley about a mile east of the spring. P. B. Brannen has moved his store and the Post Office into a masonry structure on the NE corner of what would soon be Railroad Avenue and San Francisco Street. Across SF Street is the new home of Black’s Bar owned by James Vail. Both of these buildings burned in 1886 and 1888, but the masonry walls of Brannen’s store survive today, while a brick replacement for Vail’s saloon is also still standing. Like almost every other town along the A & P railroad, there are no buildings across the street, only railroad tracks and the depot.

If anyone tried to make Flagstaff a nice town, they were plagued by too much fire and too little water. Old Town burned down in 1884, then New Town burned in 1886 and 1888. The sawmill, despite a supply of water pumped from a spring, burned in 1887. Then the business district burned again in 1889, taking the railroad depot too. The town had to ban wooden structures downtown, opting instead for sandstone cut at a quarry about three miles east. Soon after it opened in 1887, the quarry was shipping rail cars of stone all over the west.

Looking northwest toward Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks around 1893, the sandstone railroad depot built in 1889 is at left, with the commercial district behind it. You can see the steeple of the Methodist-Episcopal church completed in 1888 and the Babbitt Brothers store with awnings open over its first floor windows. At the right edge of the photo, sandstone walls are going up for the new courthouse completed in 1894.

Water supply has always been a problem for Flagstaff. Beginning in 1883, the railroad and sawmill pumped water from O’Neil Springs over eight miles to the south. What Old Town Spring couldn’t provide was hauled in barrels from Leroux Springs and sold on the street at exorbitant rates until 1896. It took a lot of money and much work to finally lay a pipeline in 1898-99 from springs high on the Peaks. Surface water had to be added from upper Lake Mary reservoir in 1941, followed by an ever increasing number of deep wells beginning in 1954.

Workers are stacking rough-cut lumber for air drying at the Arizona Lumber and Timber company mill in the 1890s. Chicago lumberman Edward E. Ayer sold his sawmill established in 1882 to D. M. Riordan in 1887. Rebuilding after several fires, it continued production under a number of owners until 1954. Old Town is behind the mill on the hill seen at left, while New Town is in front of the trees in the distance at right. Behind New Town is the hazy outline of Mount Elden.

In 1886, Flagstaff got a second big sawmill built about five miles east of town by the Greenlaw family. Then a third sawmill was located in 1910 on the southeast side of town called the Flagstaff Lumber Manufacturing Company. The “City in the Pines” had become the biggest forest products manufacturer in the state by far. This postcard view from about 1912 shows the Santa Fe Railroad mainline in the foreground, successor to the old A. & P. railroad. And the dirt road along the rail line is the National Old Trails Road, a major highway across the USA that would become Route 66. Today, Flagstaff has no sawmills and the county jail has been built on the site shown here.

Five Babbitt Brothers came to Flagstaff from Cincinnati beginning in 1886 and started the CO Bar cattle ranch, and a mercantile and Indian trading business organized in 1889. The locally quarried cut sandstone building had been greatly enlarged in 1891 and then again by the time this photograph was made in the early 1900s. By the 1960s, the business had expanded to include trading posts, a supermarket chain and lumber yards in towns across northern Arizona.

Flagstaff’s livelihood expanded over the years to include more than stone, cattle, sheep and lumber. By the 1890s the small town was publicizing its sunshine, pure air and mountain spring water. It became a lodging and outfitting point for tourists going to the Grand Canyon. The local cycling club blazed a trail and stages were making the trip three times a week by 1892. Silent film production crews came in the 1910s with Zane Grey scripts. When tourists started driving automobiles in addition to taking the train, Flagstaff’s middle route became a major cross-country highway, the National Old Trails Road beginning in the 1910s which became Route 66 in 1926. Arizona Snow Bowl ski runs opened in 1939, and expanded after the war. By 1957, the Black Canyon Highway connected Phoenix with Flagstaff, bringing more visitors for winter snows or cool summers.

A large sandstone building to house a reform school was constructed on the far south side of Flagstaff with a state appropriation in 1894. Money ran out and the community had to wait until 1898 before the building could get windows and doors. By then, community objections sent the reform school to Benson, giving over the Flagstaff building to the state’s third institution of higher learning, a Normal School to train teachers. When this photo was published as a postcard about 1910, the main building (at right), had been joined by a men’s dorm (Taylor Hall, 1905, center) and a women’s dorm (Bury Hall, 1908, at left).

The Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross were assigned to teach a parochial school in Flagstaff from 1899-1966. A small building for St. Anthony’s Academy was built on Cherry Street in 1895, with a convent added in 1899. Increased enrollment led to the addition of a larger school building on the block in 1903, then an addition shown here in 1911. The 1903 building is seen attached to the rear and then farther behind is a separate building, the 1899 convent which became the rectory from 1903-1958. The parish church was also in the 1911 addition until 1930. Everything seen here was torn down in 1956, replaced by a modern school building which is still in use. It’s now called St. Mary’s School.

An early promotional nickname was “The Skylight City,” referring to the 7,000-foot elevation. In 1894 Percival Lowell, attracted to the thin air at that altitude, picked a site on the hill above Old Town Spring to point a telescope through the skylight at the planet Mars. His observatory became an important scientific institution, and the site of the discovery of Pluto in 1930. Other scientists came to Flagstaff too. Fort Valley Experimental Forest was established near Leroux Springs in 1908 and is still teaching rangers how to care for trees. The Museum of Northern Arizona was created in 1928 to study the landscape and cultures of the Colorado Plateau. US Geological Survey established an astrogeology laboratory in Flagstaff in 1963 to train astronauts how to walk on the moon. There is a US Naval observatory to the west and a couple of university telescopes to the south.

Here is the same corner of Railroad Avenue and San Francisco Street seen above in 1883, this time photographed about 1920. Prohibition had been enacted in 1914 in Arizona, forcing Black’s Bar on the corner to become a pool hall and barber shop. Next door used to be the Senate Saloon, now a restaurant, next to Bender’s All-American Café. Next is Robertson’s News Stand that sold newspapers, magazines, postcards, tobacco products, candy and soda pop. The newsstand was the last surviving wood-frame structure downtown after an 1896 ordinance required fire-proof construction. The Ford sign points to Babbitt Ford two blocks north.

Along with the rest of the state, Flagstaff experienced a growth spurt after World War II. Sawmill production increased in the 1950s and the railroad built a marshalling yard in 1957 on the east side to ship materials to the Glen Canyon Dam construction site at Page. The population of the “City in the Pines” increased 138% in the decade of the fifties, helped by the annexation of 48 square miles in 1957-59. It had become a college town with increasing enrollment at what had been the normal school. In 1966, the college became Northern Arizona University. Through the sixties and seventies, Flagstaff struggled to attract higher paying jobs as the timber industry collapsed. Nor could it accommodate the increased automobile traffic that came with growth. In the eighties it had a makeover, closing the old cowboy saloons and creating upscale neighborhoods and trendy art galleries, boutiques and bistros downtown. But racial tensions and income inequities persist.

The Beale Road was eventually replaced by an automobile highway and Flagstaff became one long strip development of filling stations, motels, restaurants and parking lots. Tourism and the hospitality industry eventually made more money for the community than manufacturing forest products. The Texaco station seen here about 1948 used to be on Santa Fe Avenue (now renamed “Route 66”) at Humphreys Street. Lane Sharber operated the motel, which is still in business as the Parkside Town House, and I think Norman G. Sharber operated the gas station.

Route 66 was two lanes of concrete when this postcard was published by the prolific Bob Petley (1912-2006) of Phoenix about 1955. This particular section survives, though overtopped with asphalt, leading from Interstate-40, Exit 204 (Walnut Canyon) to Flagstaff Mall. That’s Mount Elden on the left with the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks on the right. There are a few billboards visible (click on picture to see large size). Motorists were greeted on either side of town by dozens of billboards advertising locally-owned small businesses. After a great deal of effort most billboards were removed. Now they are back, bigger ones advertising big nationwide chains.

This agfachrome by Bob Petley shows downtown Flagstaff in the 1960s. The turquoise blue, 5-story Valley Bank building is in the center. The 1889 railroad depot has a bright white roof, while the 1927 depot is the brown building at the left edge of the photo. Route 66 is the street paralleling the railroad tracks. You can see how the city is built up in Antelope Valley (name no longer used) between Mars Hill, the site of Lowell Observatory on the left and McMillan Mesa on the right. At left, below Mars Hill is a little blue pond in the trees, close by where the 1878 Flagstaff ranch was located.

Some sources:
Platt Cline, Mountain Campus (1983)
Platt Cline, They Came To The Mountain (1976)
Marie D. Jackson, Stone Landmarks. . . (1999)
Richard & Sherry Mangum, Flagstaff Past & Present (2003)
Russell Wahmann, The Historical Geography of the Santa Fe Railroad In Northern Arizona (1971)

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3 Responses to

  1. Robert Lucas says:

    Thank you snows. I appreciate the comment.

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