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Ambitious road leading to Mt. Lemmon has an interesting history

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The way we were

Ambitious road leading to Mt. Lemmon has an interesting history

  • The Mt. Lemmon Highway
    T Temple-Pueblo Paradiso/FlickrThe Mt. Lemmon Highway

As summer approaches, Pima County residents look toward the Santa Catalina Mountains as a refuge from rising temperatures. Rising over 5,000 feet above the desert floor, the summit of Mt. Lemmon is typically 20 degrees cooler than the Old Pueblo. Yet, despite their obvious appeal as a retreat from the heat, the mountains next door remained largely inaccessible to Tucsonans until well into the 20th century when a colorful newspaperman dragged county and federal officials into pursuing an ambitious project to build a road up Mt. Lemmon.

Before the 1930s, Tucsonans would usually approach the mountain from the north, via the mining camp of Oracle just over the line in Pinal County. This was the route taken by botanist Sara Lemmon when she ascended the summit in 1881, an achievement commemorated by Pima County Surveyor George Roskruge when he named the peak in her honor on his famous 1893 map. In 1920, the U.S. Forest Service improved this route — described as a "burro trail" — into a single-lane automobile road to service a small community, eventually known as Summerhaven, which had developed on top of the mountain.

The more rugged south face of the range was not entirely ignored. Sabino Canyon had long been a popular picnic site. Additionally, a handful of wealthy Tucsonans had located summer cabins at a place they called "Soldier Camp," because troopers from Ft. Lowell had established a convalescent camp there in the 1880s. The route, accessible only by mule even in the 1920s, became known as Soldier Trail.

As travel by automobile became more popular nationally, the "Good Roads" movement emerged, calling for paved streets and highways. The federal government became involved in road construction and improvement as they never had been before. By the 1920s, in some parts of the country, roads were being built not for commerce, but for the express purpose of opening up areas to recreation.

Tucson resident and best-selling author Harold Bell Wright's 1923 novel "The Mine With The Iron Door" contributed to increasing interest in the Santa Catalinas and accelerated notions of developing recreational access. Community leaders and the press called for building a road up the south side of the Catalinas with a road through Sabino Canyon. Advocates for the proposal said that this would keep tourism dollars that would otherwise go to California in Pima County. Initially reluctant, Board of Supervisors Chairman Carlos Ronstadt was persuaded by business community boosters to put the item before voters in a bond election in November 1928.

The community as a whole proved skeptical. Prominent local engineers from the University of Arizona and in private practices criticized the proposal as unworkable, unnecessary and poorly thought out. The Star editorialized that the project would only benefit "those who can afford vacation homes." In the end, the item failed by a 2-1 margin.

The idea was soon revived by a new champion. "General" Frank Harris Hitchcock was a dapper and imperious Republican Party power-broker who had the ear of President Hoover and had served in various high-level federal patronage positions, including the office of postmaster general. Having been one of a partnership that purchased the Tucson Citizen in 1910, Hitchcock came to Tucson in 1928 to run the paper personally, where he proved to be a controlling, difficult and notoriously cheap boss.

Hitchcock took up advocacy for the new road after a bird-watching trip in 1930. After the earlier failure, county officials were leery, so he used his influence with Forest Service officials and convinced them to pursue the idea. The County's support was still necessary to make it happen, so the Board passed a resolution in 1931 backing the proposal. Though early on it was understood that the county would ultimately be responsible for maintaining the road, the county engineer soon found himself sidelined by federal officials, prompting frustrated Board Chairman J.C. Kinney to say that the Forest Service "must skin their own cats" as the county would not contribute to the project's planning or construction.

The Forest Service soon rejected the notion of running the road through Sabino Canyon, determining that a route via Molino Basin was more feasible. Given the nationwide economic crisis, potential costs became a concern. Hitchcock proposed, and helped arrange for, the use of convict labor to construct the highway — a controversial idea even at that time.

Construction began in 1933. A labor camp established near Soldier Camp became home for a rotating and eclectic mix of prisoners. At first these were minor offenders on loan from a federal prison in Texas. Many of them were Mexican nationals who had crossed the border illegally after a change in immigration policy during the Hoover administration. Later, after the United States entered World War II, their number included Hopi, Mennonite and Japanese-American draft resisters. The camp was supervised by former Pima County Sheriff Walter Bailey, who famously went back and forth in the 1923 Studebaker he had used while in office, a vehicle which is still on display at the Arizona Historical Society museum in Tucson.

Construction of the road proved slow and difficult. It would not be until 1945 that the road, largely unpaved at this point, would be formally dedicated. Pima County officials, perhaps no longer cranky about being cut out of the project, participated in the ceremony. The road, now called the Catalina Highway, was completed in 1950. Hitchcock, having died suddenly in 1935, was not around to see it, though a plaque memorializing him would be placed at Windy Point and some referred to the road as the "General Hitchcock Highway."

Though county officials were marginalized from the project early on, they would remain responsible for safety and maintenance along the road. At various times, the road was regarded as one of the most dangerous in the state, presenting special challenges for the sheriff, though improvements in the 1980s and '90s changed this for the better. Additionally, issues like rockfalls, ice and snow are a particular problem largely unseen in most of the county's road system. However, to the hundreds of thousands of county residents for whom the winding road presents the promise of a respite from the desert heat, the added trouble and expense is well worth it.

The writer thanks Tom Zoellner for sharing his research, which was presented at the 2019 Arizona Historical Convention and will appear in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Arizona History.

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