Dorothea Lange captures Coolidge on cotton harvest day, during the Depression.
Pinal County is known for many things, mostly appalling. It's ground zero of the central Arizona real-estate debacle, a "bedroom community" to Phoenix with cheap, shoddy tract houses and miserable commutes, the place whose lack of planning or sense of decency allowed subdivisions to profane one of the most glorious mountains in the West. This lack of any respect extends to consenting to a Super Wal-Mart right next to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. Pinal boasts one of the ugliest drives in America, on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson.
And, of course, it is where Paul Babeu, for now, is sheriff. Babeu is disgraced, not because of his department's racial profiling, whoppers about beheadings, anti-immigrant hysteria or allegations that Babeu threatened to have his Mexican ex-lover deported. No, this once rising star in the Arizona Republican Party is a human political sinkhole because he was forced to admit he's gay. Bye-bye Congress hopes, Babeu. Your homies will tolerate any infringement of civil liberties, particularly of brown people, but they will not abide "the gay."
Yet these 5,365 square miles — five times the size of Rhode Island — contain so much Arizona history. Personal history, too: I attended kindergarten in Coolidge. We lived there for a year, for reasons too complicated to deserve a detour, but ultimately coming down to Arizona's fight against California for Colorado River water — what else?
My memories of Coolidge center on its elegant little Spanish revival railroad depot, which had a semaphore signal on a pole to advise whether a train should stop or not. Trains were frequent then on the Southern Pacific northern main line, including many passenger trains. My uncle taught me to put a penny on the track to see it get mashed by a passing train. (Any hint of the depot was bulldozed long ago.) The day we graduated from kindergarten, we were given cardboard caps and taken to a restaurant in the little single-story downtown. Like other towns in the county, Coolidge was compact, dusty and, on a summer's day, appeared deserted. Another day, at the Victorian court house in Florence, I met a courtly Ernest McFarland without any sense of who he was. Many years later, I spent my last months as an EMT/paramedic sometimes stationed in Apache Junction, where we often responded to calls in Pinal County, a long way from any backup.
Pinal's history is Western legend, lawlessness and outsized influence. The ruins of Casa Grande, which became the nation's first protected prehistoric site in 1892, were a reminder of the Hohokam's ancient presence. In 1848, the Peralta party may (or may not) have been massacred near the Superstitions by Apaches, an integral part of the Lost Dutchman gold tale. Without the Gadsden Purchase of 1850, most of Pinal County would have remained in Mexico (thank you, Jefferson Davis). The cotton crop brought a migration of African-Americans, and then desperate Okies during the Depression. In 1940, cowboy actor Tom Mix was killed in an auto accident near Florence. From Prohibition to the early 1960s, Eloy, Casa Grande and Coolidge were considered "the devil's triangle" for their wide-open, corrupt reputation. Sacaton was (and is) the capital of the Pima reservation (now the Gila River Indian Community). Before Interstates 8 and 10, the county was linked by railroads and two-lane highways. It was isolated and far from the exurban mess it would become. Florence was the notorious home of the state penitentiary, before the prison-industrial complex built lockups throughout the state.
The reach of Florence as county seat didn't go far in such a large land. This was especially true because the real power rested with the copper mining companies in the eastern end of the county, from Superior to Hayden, and the big ranchers and cotton farmers. Pinal was not populous — in 1960, about 63,000 people lived here, out of a total state population of 1.3 million. But especially before the Supreme Court's "one man-one vote" ruling, Pinal's legislative delegation wielded huge power at the capitol through lions such as Ben Arnold. McFarland, who began his law practice in Casa Grande and became county attorney, would prove to be the county's most important public figure. As a U.S. senator, Mac rose to be majority leader and is considered the father of the G.I. bill. After being defeated by Barry Goldwater, he ran and won as Arizona's governor. Throughout, he was a vital but now forgotten force in the water war with California.
Topography is as varied. Western and southern Pinal are desert basins prone to severe dust storms. Want to see dust devils in their purest form? Spend a few minutes here. The eastern and northern stretches are mountainous, with the showpiece being the majestic Superstitions, rightly sacred to the Apache. The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, established in 1925, remains one of the gems of the state.
Pinal induced big dreams even before the exurban ooze. One was the Francisco Grande "baseball resort," opened in the early 1960s as a spring training site for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants eventually moved to Scottsdale but the hotel and golf course remain. On the other hand, the big airport to serve Phoenix and Tucson in Eloy never happened — Sky Harbor was too convenient and Phoenix would never give it up — and now never will because of subdivision encroachment.
Water missteps have plagued the county. Coolidge Dam, built upstream in Gila County, "tamed" the storied Gila River in 1928, but at a terrible price. The Apaches opposed it, not least because it would desecrate a burial ground. For Pinal County, the river was dry except for times of flood discharge. (All this ultimately played a part in the historic water-rights settlement with the Gila Indian Community). Unlike the Salt River Project, the resulting San Carlos Irrigation District was never an adequate fit as large-scale cotton farming was begun (the Hohokam grew it on a small scale). Pinal became Arizona's biggest cotton producer (an experimental station established nearly a century ago at the tribal capital Sacaton gave the name "Pima cotton" to the fine plant created). Yet more and more water came from aquifers. Decades of this have severely depleted groundwater, leading to sinkholes, the dead look of the desert along I-10, as well as giving the lie to the notion that farmland can be replaced with massive, single-family developments with no water consequences.
Pinal County was a hotspot for Arizona's old land swindles. With the completion of I-10 in the late 1960s, however, the real-estate hucksters dreamed of subdivisions. Sun Lakes was among the first. Elsewhere, retiree growth in east Mesa spilled across into Pinal and never looked back. The pristine slopes of Superstition were destroyed by wildcat building and then wrecked for good by the obscene Gold Canyon. All this, and everything to come, was heavily subsidized by taxpayers who paid for the roads and infrastructure — never enough to keep up — that made the land barons and developers rich.
By the time the housing bubble was really going, Pinal had slipped the leash of any history, much less sustainability. Its population increased 109 percent in the 2000s, to more than 375,000. Subdivisions and "master planned communities" proliferated, all in the dreary look-alike of industrial-scale building. The good ole boys in the little towns coveted the incredibly modest construction fees, even though they never covered the infrastructure costs, much less the externalities, that resulted. Big money from the Real Estate Industrial Complex controlled politics, but so did the pariochial, "individualist" ethos. Big land owners pushed this sad enterprise ahead, and any real planning or environmental mitigation was never allowed. I-10, inadequate when it was built, was still a rural, two-lane interstate. The two-lane Hunt Highway, built for a rural county, was a traffic disaster every day. The talk was big: the speck that was once Maricopa would become "the next Scottsdale." But the character and form of the little Pinal County towns was lost. One example is the horrid strip from the freeway interchange into Casa Grande. In Casa Grande proper are the bones of a wonderful little town, which until recently included a desert moderne SP depot (it was allowed to fall into disuse and then burned). But there's no creative class to cherish and revive it. All the investment has been sucked out to the commercial ugliness stretched out on the highway leading to I-10.
Then it all blew up. The result is a disaster that will take years, if not decades, to sort out. As for really "fixing it," there's no appetite. The real-estate boyz dream of huge developments in Superstition Vistas, even though the water is lacking, much less demand, credit or the ability to build even minimal infrastructure. They talk of a "great planning opportunity" in this state land, but we know what would result if it were ever built.
In reality, the county is left with rotting subdivisions, others deep underwater, high foreclosures, few jobs, and a wide disparity between the retiree haves and everybody else. For this "bedroom community," no transit and no trains are available to reach metro Phoenix as gasoline prices keep climbing. Regional planning? Taxes adequate to pay for the true infrastructure needs of all this development? Socialism! Meanwhile, the notion that the Gila River Pimas can be rolled to give up their water for subdivisions is just as delusional as Superstition Vistas or that Pinal County will be part of a super-duper, this-time-we'll-get-it right Sun Corridor, with "cool concrete" but championship golf.
The desert always wins? Well, yes and no. Pinal County's future will echo the Hohokam. But the damage done here by the past 30 years of reckless and horrendously butt-ugly development will take eons to erase. And no future civilization will preserve the ruins of the Super Wal-Mart.
Read more Phoenix 101 here.