Best Of Tucson®

A Trip up the Mountain

A firestorm of controversy raged in Tucson throughout 1928. The Tucson Citizen, along with the Lions Club, wanted a "short road" built up to Mount Lemmon, while the Arizona Daily Star and the chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors opposed the idea.

Thirty years after the first permanent settlement was established on top of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the cool climate of the pine forest retreat was only accessible via Oracle. That was a bumpy, four-hour drive on a 67-mile route described as "a difficult and narrow road with many switchbacks for approximately 10 miles."

To shorten the trip, Pima County was petitioned to ask voters to approve $500,000 in bonds financed by a property-tax increase. Lions Club member J.J. Thornber, dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona, outlined the advantages of building a new, 25-mile road.

When it was completed, Thornber said, Tucson would benefit economically by becoming more like Phoenix. He thought that instead of being just an eight-month settlement, because of the exodus of so many people to Southern California during the hot summer months, Tucson would transform itself into a true year-round city.

Thornber also suggested the easier access would allow the university to open a summer school on top of the mountain, which could attract hundreds of students.

On the other hand, Board of Supervisors Chairman Joseph Ronstadt listed several reasons why the project shouldn't be supported. Among those were that additional tax money was needed instead to build new schools in the growing community, plus the road would only be used for pleasure purposes a few months each year.

In an editorial entitled "Let's Fly to the Mountains," the Star went so far as to advocate airplane transportation from the city center to Mount Lemmon, suggesting this inevitable aerial link would make the road meaningless.

On Nov. 6, 1928, Herbert Hoover was easily elected president, after campaigning for lower taxes, reduction of the national debt and continued economic prosperity. That same day, the road bonds were overwhelmingly defeated.

The loss at the polls didn't deter the Citizen, which continued to push the idea, and the new road was eventually built.

As the 1928 Mount Lemmon road issue played itself out, the El Conquistador Hotel finally opened after years of planning and community financial support. Located on East Broadway Boulevard, it offered first-class accommodations to Tucson visitors.

Further east, the ruins of Fort Lowell, which had been abandoned by the U.S. Army in 1891, continued to be occupied by a small settlement of Mexican-American families. While some of the adobe walls of the old fort were slowly disappearing due to the weather, a few of the westernmost buildings were also being used as a tuberculosis sanitarium.

These latter structures were sold in 1928 to the Atkins family. Six years later, they began manufacturing steel tanks on the property.

It was a hot business from which a quick trip up to Mount Lemmon might have offered some relief.