Today's Papago Park is full of delights and history, from the Desert Botanical Garden to the Phoenix Zoo, Hole-in-the-Rock, hiking, baseball, and Hunt's Tomb. As the official website says, "Its massive, otherworldly sandstone buttes set Papago Park apart, even in a city and state filled with world-class natural attractions."
But Papago Park almost didn't happen.
For those of you who don't venture south of Bell, north of "south Chandler," or are out-of-town readers, I'm writing about land that sits in east Phoenix and north Tempe. Technically, the boundaries run from McDowell on the north to Tempe Town Lake on the south, and 52nd Street and the Crosscut Canal/College Avenue to the west and east respectively. The park could have been much larger.
These magical uplands were five-and-a-half miles from the original Phoenix townsite when they were included in the reservation for the Pima and Maricopa tribes by President Rutherford B. Hayes. This was 1879, when the biggest concerns of the hardscrabble settlements of Phoenix and Tempe were reclaiming the Hohokam canals for agriculture. The National Park Service claims the Hohokam used Hole-in-the-Rock to mark the solstice. Early American settlers also appreciated the beauty of the ancient rock formations, including Carl Hayden (born in 1877) growing up across the river in Tempe.
Later in the 19th century, the reservation was contracted to the present-day borders of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Some desultory mining activity took place around the buttes and they became more popular as exotic destinations for visitors. In 1914, a grown up Hayden, the new state's only representative in the U.S. House lobbied his friend, President Woodrow Wilson, to make the area a National Park. Wilson declined, but using the presidential powers of the Antiquities Act, declared it the Papago Saguaro National Monument. At the time, it stretched from the Salt River to Thomas Road.
But a Papago Saguaro National Park was not to be. Responsibility for care of national monuments was not clear for many years. At first, it was the responsibility of the General Land Office. The young National Park Service (established in 1916) lacked the resources to police all of them and appropriated $70 a year for the monument's upkeep. This stinginess was especially true during the Harding administration's return from World War I's bigger government to "normalcy" (forever corrupting the word "normality"). Coolidge austerity further starved the government of the means to protect these treasures.
By the 1920s, Phoenix was no longer a dirt-poor frontier settlement but the growing hub of an agricultural empire. Transcontinental passenger trains made Phoenix a popular tourist destination, with trips to the nearby monument part of the appeal (the postcard above is from 1930). In addition to tourists and locals, the area attracted vandals and cactus thieves. Perhaps a majority of its original saguaros were stolen. Roads were cut into the monument, cattle grazed and cement aggregate mined there, graffiti and commercial messages painted on Hole-in-the-Rock. Trash was dumped. Its geological and environmental value was further degraded by the building of the Crosscut Canal. It didn't help that the pungent Tovrea feedlots, among the largest in the country, were just to the west.
The Papago Saguaro National Monument was a local example of "the tragedy of the commons," with neither Phoenix, Tempe, nor the state of Arizona seeing it worth their while to police and protect the land. The monument was close enough to the towns to be damaged by use and misuse, yet far enough away to be low on priorities. Phoenix was not completely without vision. It spent $17,000 (around $239,500 in today's dollars) to acquire what became South Mountain Park from the federal government in 1924 — and this was even farther from the city limits. But it proved unable and unwilling to fund full-time rangers for the federal monument. Indeed, within the city limits, Phoenix had too few parks for its size well into the 1960s. Meanwhile, despite petitions of conservationists, the Legislature would not make Papago a state park.
In 1930, Papago Saguaro became the first National Monument to be delisted.
Whether a Hoover administration in crisis offered the city of Phoenix a deal similar to the one given by Calvin Coolidge in 1924 is unknown. With the Great Depression drying up the city treasury, it's unlikely the city could have paid for it. So the delisted monument was parceled off piecemeal. The Salt River Valley Water Users Association bought a piece for power lines and other expansions. Little Tempe, population 2,495, acquired some of the southern end. The state took the rest, including the northern end for the National Guard.
Over the next two decades, good and ill played out. Easter sunrise services became a community tradition. Long-serving Gov. George W. P. Hunt wanted to make it a state park, but the Legislature didn't go along. Still, the area began to be called "Papago Park." Hunt built a bass fish hatchery there. A tuberculosis sanatorium was added. In the Depression, with the completion of the Mill Avenue Bridge, Tempe developed part of it as a city park, and Civilian Conservation Corps workers made improvements. When Hunt died in 1933, he was entombed in a white pyramid on a hill at the park. The now world-class Desert Botanical Garden, created by Gustaf Starck and Gertrude Webster, opened in 1939 (the city of Phoenix later reduced its size by nearly two thirds).
Still, the park was mostly unofficial and damage continued. The military reservation took up the entire northern end, famously serving as a prisoner of war camp during World War II. After the war, it was used as a Veterans Administration hospital. It became the headquarters of the National Guard (in the 1960s, a Cold War bunker was built in a small butte intended to be the county's command center in the event of nuclear war). The base has been continuously expanded on the northern half of the onetime National Monument. In 1954, McDowell Road was rammed between the iconic twin buttes.
According to historian William S. Collins, Phoenix Mayor Nick Udall looked into building a golf course there in 1950, but it went nowhere. City hall's ambivalence about the park continued through most of the decade. The fish hatchery closed and the parcel reverted to the state Land Department as further pieces of the former monument were sold. Arizona State College President Grady Gammage Sr. toyed with building part of the campus in the park, then a football stadium. The state fair commission proposed building new fairgrounds there, along with a Turf Paradise horse track. In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright offered to design a state capitol building for the site. Fortunately, these gambits went nowhere. However, more of the park was lost when the Salt River Project built a new headquarters on its south end, replacing its offices downtown.
By the mid-1950s, civic groups the Pulliam press, and leaders of Motorola, AiResearch, and the AFL-CIO began pressing the city to develop Papago Park. Although the Desert Botanical Garden was there, desert preservation was not a priority. The Pulliam newspapers, especially, wanted a Balboa Park-like setting. A golf course and zoo were pushed consistently. The city plan that emerged would have manhandled most of the remaining desert land, including turning the area north of the large southern butte (the larger northern one is named Barnes Butte) into a lavish water recreation park. In addition to artificial waterfalls, the planners envisioned a golf course, sports fields, a deer park, "model mineshaft" at Hole-in-the-Rock, and a practice trail for bow hunters. And you wonder why Jane Jacobs hated the professional planning elite?
Fortunately, most of this never happened, largely because Phoenix City Council didn't want to appropriate adequate funding. Robert Maytag, an heir of the appliance company founder, did give $100,000 to the Arizona Zoological Society to begin a fundraising drive. The Phoenix (Maytag) Zoo opened in 1962 around the old fish hatchery lagoons. It remains the largest privately owned, non-profit zoo in the nation (and Phoenix's zoo, while beloved, is far beneath its level as a big city). The city finished an 18-hole golf course in 1963 and soon opened Municipal Stadium. Legend City, our amusement park, was nearby from 1963 to 1983.
Only gradually did preservation of the remaining park become a priority. But by the time I was a teenager and older, it was one of Phoenix's gems. I remember beer parties at Hole-in-the-Rock during high school (yes, we policed our beer cans). On the ambulance, I recall two vivid incidents. One involved a man who had gone through the fence of the military reservation and attempted to scale Barnes Butte. He fell and it was hours before he was found. He had died there, looking out on the jewel of lights, help so close and yet so far. In another case, a police lieutenant's son had taken his date, visiting from Chicago, to the park at night. A gang attacked them, nearly killing him and raping her. This was the mid-1970s, when Phoenix still had the feel of a small town and the park was often a place of solitude. But it was a big, bad city and the solitude could contain menace.
Phoenix is a city of lost opportunities. It's interesting to consider what might have been: the pristine National Monument stretching for miles, no military reservation, zoo, golf course, McDowell highway, or office "parks" along Washington Street. But that didn't happen. We're lucky Papago Park turned out as well as it did.
Papago Park Gallery:
This 1892 map shows how isolated the future Papago Park was from Phoenix, and, on the other side of the river, from tiny Tempe. It was also east of the north-bank residents' focus: the canal system.
Riders on horseback in 1930, the year Washington delisted the Papago Saguaro National Monument.
An Easter sunrise service between the buttes in 1934, four years after the National Monument designation was taken away. (McCulloch Brothers/ASU Libraries)
The sanatorium built circa 1930. It was later expanded to a two-stories and the Moorish theme removed. (McCulloch Brothers/ASU Libraries)
Hunt's Tomb, a landmark many people see as their airliners are landing at Sky Harbor.
A trail at the Desert Botanical Garden.
The Phoenix Zoo entrance in 2014. It was originally named the Maytag Zoo after its chief benefactor.
My book, A Brief History of Phoenix, is available to buy or order at your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.
Read more Phoenix history in Rogue's Phoenix 101 archive.