(Arizona is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state this month. Author and columnist Sharlene Minshall, a resident of Arizona, takes a look at what makes the state special.)
The Arizona Territory was a kaleidoscope of mountain peaks, desert landscapes, gold and copper mining, farming, missionaries, cowboys and Indians, and a big hole in the ground called the Grand Canyon. It became the 48th state on February 14, 1912, and over the next hundred years it evolved into bustling communities and a major Snowbird, RVer, retirement and tourist destination.
Here’s a quick look at where Arizona has been and what makes it so appealing today.
From Time Immemorial
Really ancient history takes us back to when our ancestors crossed the Bering Strait between 10,000 and 16,000 B.C. and wandered south into what would become Arizona. They stalked and hunted mammoth creatures big enough to fill your freezer for a whole winter, but those nice, big walking meals eventually died off due to precipitation changes.
Archaic kin settled, developed irrigation, and grew maize (corn) as early as 1000 B.C. The Sinagua people built Montezuma’s Castle, a five-story limestone cliff dwelling near Camp Verde, around A.D. 700, but disappeared as quickly as they arrived.
Montezuma’s Castle was preserved by the federal government for future generations by passage of The Antiquities Act of 1906. Other ancient Indians ruins that have been safeguarded include the Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings near Theodore Roosevelt Lake; northeast Arizona’s remote Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and more than 2,000 sites within Grand Canyon itself.
The 16th to the 19th Centuries
The Spanish came looking for copper and silver in the 16th Century. Jesuit missionary Father Kino founded San Xavier del Bac in 1692, and other missions throughout the Sonoran desert chain. Spain built fortified Tubac in 1752 and Tucson in 1775.
The United States took possession of most of the Arizona Territory after the Mexican-American War in 1848 and got the rest in 1853 through the Gadsden Purchase. Taking advantage of the Desert Land Act of 1877, settlers received 640 acres by promising to “reclaim, irrigate, and cultivate the arid and semiarid public lands.”
When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Washington officials rewrote the Overland Mail contract, and stagecoaches no longer traveled through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Union soldiers evacuated the territory, burning anything they couldn’t carry, leaving pioneers on their own, and from 1861 to 1886, Apaches burned and destroyed property and killed countless settlers.
The westernmost battle of the Civil War was fought at Picacho Pass in 1862. Union troops recaptured the Confederate Territory of Arizona and returned it to the New Mexico Territory. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln created the Arizona Territory by dividing the New Mexico Territory along a north-south line.
President William Howard Taft signed Arizona into statehood on February 14, 1912. Early on, Arizona’s economy relied on the five big “Cs,” copper, cotton, cattle, citrus and climate. Through two world wars and the Great Depression, the economy was nearly destroyed, but the state was aided by the opening of military bases and the arrival of the technology industry. Arizona’s population exploded as the advent of air conditioning created more livable summers. Tourists flocked to dude ranches to experience the Old West, and Snowbirds escaped harsh northern winters by traveling to warm desert climes.
Today, Phoenix, the state capital, is Arizona’s largest city, followed by Tucson. Historic Route 66 travels east and west through Flagstaff, northern Arizona’s largest city, which sits at the base of San Francisco Peaks, not far from 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, the highest point in the state.
Arizona is a popular place for fishing, power boating, kayaking, water skiing, camping, hiking and exploring. Along with Utah, it borders the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. It abuts Nevada at Hoover Dam and shares Lake Mead. There are other lakes and dams along the Colorado River on the border with California. With enough feet, you could stand in the four corners of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico all at one time.
Arizona shares 372.5 miles of international border with Mexico, which has led to political controversy over how to deal with drug smuggling and an illegal immigrant population estimated in the 2010 census at 7.9 percent.
Weather for all Occasions
An average annual rainfall of 12.7 inches created by both winter and summer monsoons can produce horrendous flash floods. In 1995, Arizona invoked the Stupid Motorist Law. Tickets up to $2,000 can be issued to drivers who knowingly cross flooded washes or streets.
Early spring and late fall are comfortably mild, while lower elevation summers are devastatingly hot. Arizonans quickly learn to work outside from dawn to 9 a.m. and go from one air-conditioned place to another for the next 19 hours. While everyone jokes about it being “dry” heat, the triple digits are hot no matter how you slice it.
Hollywood often uses Arizona’s pleasant weather and magnificent red rock and mountain country backdrops for movies and television shows. Hundreds are filmed at Old Tucson Studios. Singers and musicians tout Arizona in their lyrics and music.
If you are enamored with skiing, snowboarding, cycling, running, car racing, or any other recreational activity, it lives here. Arizona’s weather brings forth golfers in huge numbers to play more than 350 public golf courses, and watch major golf tournaments.
With three state universities— University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and Arizona State University— plus many community colleges, a wide range of college sports and attractive facilities exist.
Arizona is a preferred spring training home for Major League Baseball. The University of Phoenix Stadium hosted Super Bowl XLII and is home to the Arizona Cardinals football team and the Fiesta Bowl. Close by is the Jobing.com Arena, home to the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes. The Diamondbacks play their baseball games at Chase Field Stadium, and the U. S. Airways Center hosts the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, the Phoenix Mercury women’s basketball team and the Arizona Rattlers of arena football.
Eight weekends in February and March bring the Renaissance Festival to Apache Junction. Participating audiences ascending the twelve stages become knights, rogues and royalty. Thirty acres of quaint shops, live jousting, and roaming costumed actors, dancers and musicians, provide non-stop entertainment. On top of all the medieval mayhem, you’ll have a day of unmatched feasting and drinking. (Be sure you have a designated knight to drive you home.)
Arizona’s Natural Wonders
Northern Arizona claims one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Created by the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park is widely varied in elevation, terrain, tourist numbers and weather between the north and south rims. Both provide exciting hiking, mule riding and rafting adventures.
An ancient wonder more recently revealed near Benson is Kartchner Caverns, one of the world’s ten top caves. Opened to the public in 1999, it presents elaborate soda straws, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and flowstone in a living, breathing, dripping, 95 percent alive cave.
In every direction are national parks and monuments; national forests and wilderness areas; plus state parks that highlight Arizona’s unusual landmarks and history: Vermilion Cliffs, Sunset Crater Volcano, Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, Chiricahua Mountains, etc.
Tucson’s Saguaro National Park features the largest American cactus. It takes 50 to 75 years to grow an arm. A saguaro in Yavapai County has 75-plus arms, and is believed to be over 400 years old. The Saguaro cactus blossom is Arizona’s official state flower.
Man-made interests are celebrated, too. When one of England’s “original” London Bridges from 1830 was caught sinking into the Thames River, it was shipped stone-by-stone and reassembled in Lake Havasu City.
Clear night skies and arid climate are the best conditions for watching the stars at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory and at least four observatories near Tucson. The Pima Air and Space Museum displays over 300 aircraft, including B-52 bombers, jet fighters, and a Blackbird spy plane.
Oracle’s Biosphere Two, a 6,500-pane glass scientific “mini-world” for the eight people who were sealed inside for a two-year experiment in green living, is now used for global climate change research. Arcosanti at Cordes Junction, a prototype urban design in self-sufficient, eco-friendly living based on architecture and ecology, is a forever-continuing construction. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright integrated indoor and outdoor spaces of his famous studio, “Taliesin West,” into the Phoenix desert environment.
Large cities and small towns have museums, art galleries, theaters, botanical gardens and music auditoriums. Tortilla Flats, billed as “the biggest little town in Arizona,” lives along the Apache Trail and offers the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant and unforgettable Prickly Pear Ice Cream.
Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott, across from Courthouse Plaza, once had as many as 40 saloons lining the street. Visitors now experience the “old days” in hotels or bars such as the Hotel St. Michael and The Palace. In Tombstone, a boomtown made famous by Wyatt Earp and the Clanton brothers, you’ll experience the Bird Cage Theatre, the O.K. Corral, and a shootout if you dare.
Old Trains, Mines, and Ghost Stories
On the Verde Canyon Railroad train ride at Clarkdale, you’ll see foliage, Indian ruins, wildlife, and sway across a 680-foot trestle. From Williams, the ride on a 1950s restored train includes a shootout and train robbery as it heads toward the Grand Canyon. The Christmas Polar Express is a treat for kids and adults alike.
The mother lode of silver in the Castle Dome Mountains near Yuma; Jerome’s copper, gold and silver mines; Bisbee’s copper mines; Crown King’s gold mines, and Apache Junction’s Lost Dutchman Gold Mine ghosts in the Superstition Mountains are all legendary. It is nearly impossible to throw a dart onto an Arizona map and not land on an abandoned mining site or a ghost town, all with fascinating stories.
Like clockwork every January, thousands of fancy boxes on wheels swarm into the tiny southwest burg of Quartzsite. With a usual population of 3,000, it swells to over a million and hosts curious RVers to “The World’s Largest Flea Market.” This sign tells it all, “We love Snowbirds. They taste a lot like chicken!” Daytime haggling reigns. Frosty star-filled evenings are magical with tall tales and old friends gathered around crackling campfires. Nighttime S’mores and traditions reign.
We’ve followed Arizona’s heritage from the ancient Mammoths to the current Snowbirds. What will the State of Arizona show us in the next hundred years? I’m betting it will cherish its history and forge ahead into an even bigger and better future.
Autographed copies of 2009 fourth edition RVing Alaska and Canada ($19.95) and Adventures with the Silver Gypsy ($14.95) are available through author Sharlene Minshall, Box 1040, Congress, AZ 85332-1040, or at Amazon.com. Follow Sharlene Minshall’s blog, “The Silver Gypsy,” at rvlife.com