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Nathaniel Plumer and Tucson’s Speedway Boulevard

(From left:) Tucson businessmen Tenney Davis Williams, Fred Steward and Nathaniel Plumer sit in their automobiles, a Stoddard-Dayton, a Cadillac and a Maxwell, respectively. The boy in the photo is not identified.

Nathaniel E. Plumer, for whom a Tucson street is named, arrived in the Old Pueblo in 1899 after making the long trip from the East Coast to seek a cure for tuberculosis in the dry desert air. As his health improved and he was able to work, he formed a real estate and insurance business with Fred Steward. Their offices were on North Stone Avenue.

In 1903, Plumer and Steward founded the Southern Arizona Bank & Trust Co. Plumer served as president, a position he held until his death.

He actively sought depositors. He became fluent in Spanish and Tohono O’odham and encouraged Hispanics and Native Americans to participate in the banking business. Before he acquired an automobile, he frequently was seen riding around Tucson on his favorite horse, talking up banking to prospective clientele.

In 1910, Plumer and Steward decided Pima County ought to have a roadway for motoring enthusiasts. By then both men had purchased automobiles, and they wanted to drive some place where they could get up a little speed. A third friend, Tenney Davis Williams joined them.

Plumer asked Pima County to supply road scrapers to open up a desert trail east of town. Williams solicited funds for the project from Tucson merchants. The new road was called Speedway; the cost to build it was just $750.

On New Year’s Day in 1910, Speedway was opened officially with a celebration and an auto race with entries both from Tucson and Phoenix.

Plumer and Steward developed other projects. The partners opened a Tucson subdivision near East Fifth Street and Tyndall Avenue. As part of their promotion, they gave away a home. The subdivision included a golf course — two acres of cleared desert with an unusual hazard: snake holes. Whenever a ball went down a snake hole, the golfers left it there, with no score tallied.

Plumer organized the Railway Holding Company, which secured the right-of-way and depot sites for a railroad. The holdings then were used as an inducement for the Southern Pacific to build in Tucson.

The Railway Holding Company returned its investment with a profit, and then specified that the profit be used to build a YMCA building. Plumer became a trustee of the YMCA and president of the board, which raised the balance of the funds necessary for construction. Plumer also directed the construction of the building and the procurement of equipment for the new facility.

Plumer became a force in the movement to abolish gambling in Tucson and to prohibit liquor sales. Generally, he voted Republican and insisted that he was on the side of good government. He was a trustee of the Congregational Church and arranged for the sale of the church property to the city of Tucson for a new city hall and for the construction of a new church.

After years fighting his illness, Plumer succumbed to tuberculosis in May 1917. He left a wife and an 8-year-old daughter. Tucson mourned the loss of an important civic leader.

— Jane Eppinga. Photos courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.

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