Last week I wrote about the pioneer Mormon community of Binghampton. Now I'll tell the story of another early Tucson community that succeeded because of plentiful water in the Rillito River - Old Fort Lowell.
In the early 1870s the U.S. Army started developing Fort Lowell. The Tanque Verde and Pantano creeks joined to form the Rillito River, and the streams flowed freely most of the year. A dense mesquite forest grew there and the desert oasis contained many birds, mammals and plants - some unknown before then.
The soldiers found remains of prehistoric Hohokam habitation and a couple of irrigation ditches, probably dug in the 1860s by Mexican and Anglo settlers to draw water from the Tanque Verde to their farms to the west of Fort Lowell (as the Mormons in Binghampton would do 40 years later).
Both the Army and nearby settlers exploited the then-plentiful water, but argued constantly over land and water rights, and use of the canals. The fort relied on water from shallow wells and water diverted from the pre-existing irrigation ditches.
Fort Lowell grew to include about 30 adobe buildings with barracks, a hospital, commissary, stables, trading store, guardhouse, kitchens, a large parade ground and tree-lined sidewalks.
Additional wooden structures, barracks, sheds and equipment buildings were built in the mid-1880s when the fort was at its peak occupation of more than 250 officers and soldiers.
The Army abandoned Fort Lowell in 1891 - with the threat from the Apache eliminated, the Department of the Interior sold the fort's lumber, tin roofing, doors and windows. The adobe buildings began to disintegrate from weathering and vandalism.
Mexican settlers arrive
But Mexican immigrants searching for a better life, and attracted by the relative abundance of water, began to arrive. They replaced doors, windows and roofs and lived within the old adobe walls, raising families and livestock.
The men cut wood for their needs and took some to Tucson for sale. They made adobes, worked in construction and raised gardens. The women did the washing in the irrigation ditches. The place came to be known as El Fuerte ("The Fort").
In the 1920s and '30s the Mexican families who had settled at the fort began to find lots west along East Fort Lowell Road and build small adobe "Sonora ranch"-style houses. They dug wells, finding water at less than 30 feet. They built a school and a succession of small churches, dedicating the San Pedro Chapel in 1932.
By the late 1940s the little community of perhaps 300 people had added a store and a cemetery, and had become a social center for people in the broader area.
Anglos were also attracted to the neighborhood. In 1900 three of the abandoned fort's officers' quarters and their kitchens were purchased for use as a sanatorium. In 1928 the Adkins family bought part of the old fort land (including the sanatorium) at the southwest corner of North Craycroft Road and East Fort Lowell Road and began the business that became the Adkins Steel Manufacturing Co.
By the late 1930s several Anglo families, including a well-driller and prominent farmers, were living in the community.
By the mid-1940s the land was bare except for a few mesquite trees. Everything had been cut for firewood, building or farming. Wells were going dry as the water table lowered steadily due to greater Tucson's pumping of underground water.
In 1948 St. Cyril of Alexandria Catholic Church was built on North Swan Road at East Pima Street. The little chapel of San Pedro was abandoned and used as a private residence.
The old Fort Lowell neighborhood was gradually transitioning from a Mexican-American community to an Anglo community.
By the 1960s, Glenn Aire subdivision had been built west of the old fort, and North Craycroft Road was extended north from East Fort Lowell Road, first to the river in 1929 and later to cross the Rillito River. The extension in 1929 demolished one of the old fort's officers' quarters and cut the fort grounds in half.
Starting in the 1950s there were several efforts to turn old Fort Lowell into a recreational park. By the 1970s the area had become a Pima County park, with swimming pool and playing fields.
Preserving Fort Lowell
Over the years there were also many efforts to try to understand Fort Lowell's historic past and preserve some of its buildings. Archeological studies of Hohokam sites began in 1935. Pima County and even the Boy Scouts of America were active in sporadic restoration activities of Fort Lowell ruins from the 1940s to the 1960s.
The Fort Lowell Museum was opened in 1963, administered by the Arizona Historical Society. Fort Lowell was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, while the formation of the Fort Lowell Historic District was completed in 1981.
Also in 1981 the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association was created to help plan for the preservation of the larger Fort Lowell community.
The old San Pedro Chapel became the first City of Tucson Historic Landmark in 1982, and was subsequently placed on both the state and national registers of historic places.
With help from an Arizona Heritage Foundation grant, private donations and fundraising activities, in 1993 the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association bought the chapel and started efforts to preserve the building and restore its original character.
With Tucson continually expanding, Fort Lowell Park was transferred to the city of Tucson in 1984. Since then, the development and historic preservation of the park has been guided by a periodically updated master plan.
The Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association continues to plan the development of the community of roughly one square mile, bounded by East Glenn Street on the south, North Swan Road on the west, Pantano Wash on the east and the Rillito River to the north.
The association hosts an annual Fort Lowell Day Celebration that features walking tours, cavalry drills, vintage-baseball games, music, food and youth activities.
A drive through the neighborhood today clearly shows a proud sense of community and appreciation for its history.
Sources: Online: Cultural Resources Assessment for the Fort Lowell Park … (2009), Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood; Brochures: A History of the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association, San Pedro Chapel; Book: The People of Fort Lowell (1982); Arizona Historical Society: Fort Lowell Historic District: Portfolio II (2004); Fort Lowell Park Master Plan (2009) E-mail Bob Ring at firstname.lastname@example.org