c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Jan recently published her newest book, Good Time Girls of Arizona and New Mexico: A Red-Light History of the American Southwest, which includes a chapter about Flagstaff’s demimonde. It can be purchased at Rowman.com.
This year marks the 164th anniversary of Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale’s expedition in Arizona. In 1855 the road surveyor camped on a hillside roughly midway between New Mexico and California. Above camp towered what are now known as the San Francisco Peaks. Beale’s men trimmed and scaled a tall Ponderosa Pine, and flew the United States flag from the top. In the years following, the area was landmarked with this “flagstaff”.
Flagstaff remained a stopping point along Beale’s route for some twenty years before anyone thought to actually settle there. This was Thomas F. McMillan, who built a cabin at the base of Mars Hill in about 1876—and some say that this was also when the U.S. flag was really raised for the first time. Be it a flag or McMillan’s settlement, something did the trick, for soon the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad announced it would eventually be cutting through the flat area below the San Francisco Peaks. Enterprising pioneers lost little time in scurrying to accommodate railroad workers.
Soon Old Town, as it was later called, sprang up on the southeast slope of today’s Observatory Hill. The numerous business houses included twenty one saloons along the rough main street. There was also at least one “dance house in which the proprietor has a large platform erected which he has furnished with several pistols and guns. When a valiant gets a little troublesome he picks him off at a single shot and that is the end of the creature.”
Yes, early Flagstaff was as rough and tumble as any other western town. Within a few years, however, positive growth was evidenced by the railroad industry, a post office and the shipping of timber, sheep and cattle. Miners were present too, and by 1886 the town had become the largest city on the A & P Railroad between Albuquerque and California. Anything and everything was available at Flagstaff.
Although historian Sharlot Hall of Prescott once called Flagstaff “a third rate mining camp”, Flagstaff soon shed its mining camp status. Throughout the 1890’s, upwards of 100 trains passed through Flagstaff daily to points in every direction. In 1896 the famed Lowell Observatory was built there, and the Northern Arizona Normal School (today’s Northern Arizona University) was established in 1899. So was the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, which premiered at Babbitt’s Opera House. The Babbitts and their CO Bar Ranch, as well as their trading companies, department store and numerous other businesses, have been known in the Flagstaff area and beyond for generations.
During the early 1900’s, Arizona continued experiencing business growth, including a good-sized red light district. The district got even larger in 1908 with the mayoral election of Benjamin Doney, who followed through on his plans to lift the hefty laws imposed on the bawdy houses, saloons and gambling dens. He also expanded the red light district to a ten block area. Business licenses for bordellos were in fact lowered even as respectable businesses were required to pay more. Doney’s actions were appalling to certain citizens, state legislators and reformists, and by 1910 he was out. The red light district closed altogether following the gory and unsolved murder of Madam May Prescott in 1916.
Two years after Route 66 was completed in 1926, Flagstaff was incorporated as a city. Then in 1930, planet Pluto was discovered from Lowell Observatory. The discovery rocked the astronomical world and Flagstaff became famous all over the globe. In 1955 the United States Naval Observatory established a station at Flagstaff, and the Clark Telescope was used to map the moon during the Apollo expeditions of the 1960’s. Today the city even has its own asteroids, 2118 Flagstaff and 6582 Flagsymphony. And in 2001, Flagstaff was named the first ever “International Dark Sky City” by the International Dark Sky Association.
Back on Earth, Flagstaff waned a wee bit for a few decades. But revitalization efforts that began in 1987 have resulted in an artistic blend of old with new. In the downtown area especially, historic preservation efforts still stand out with such historic structures as the Hotel Weatherford and the Hotel Monte Vista, not to mention numerous other shops, taverns, businesses and restaurants. The historic Depot, the Museum Club, San Francisco Street—all reflect on Flagstaff’s colorful and alluring past.