Flagstaff’s abundant natural resources of water, grass, and timber drew the initial settlers in the 1870s. At the time, there were no fences or rules about grazing livestock and more and more livestock operators moved their herds in. Loggers also arrived to harvest the majestic ponderosa pine forest. This coincided with the construction of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad moving from the east to the west and timbers were felled into railroad ties.
Enough people were in Flagstaff in 1876 to hoist a flag up a stripped ponderosa pine on July 4 to honor the nation’s centennial – which in turn gave Flagstaff its name. Where the flag staff was located is subject to conjecture, but most agree it was near today’s Flagstaff High School. The first sawmill opened in 1882 by Chicago industrialist Edward E. Ayer, who hired Denis Matthew Riordan to manage it. A few years later, Riordan bought out Ayer, and with his brothers, re-opened the sawmill as the Arizona Lumber and Timber Co.
The town of Flagstaff is usually thought to have begun in August 1882 when the train whistle first announced its arrival. Early Flagstaff was a settlement of tents with more saloons than anything else. Even though rough and rowdy like most western towns, the beauty of the San Francisco Peaks, plus the availability of water, trees, and grass caused people to stay and create a town to raise children and put down roots. The first school was established early on in one of those tents, but because of stray bullets and inebriated people, the teacher demanded a solid cabin be built as a classroom.
John W. Young, a son of LDS president Brigham Young, built a stockade named Fort Moroni in today’s Fort Valley with the idea of creating an LDS settlement. Young left in 1884 to escape polygamy charges and sold the fort to the Arizona Cattle Company, a New Jersey-based outfit consisting of wealthy eastern manufacturing executives. They brought in thousands of cattle and purebred horses who roamed the still-unfenced ranges. The executives arrived in Flagstaff in special train cars and played cowboy during the summers. The ACC, with the A-1 brand, were as large as their rival, the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, aka the Hashknife, in eastern Arizona. Drought in the 1890s caused the ACC to sell out to the CO-Bar. The grasses were gone, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), under the guidance of Holbrook’s Albert F. Potter, instituted grazing policies for using the public lands.
The natural resources also drew scientists to northern Arizona to investigate. In 1889, biologist C. Hart Merriam explored the lands from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top of Mt. Humphreys and into the Verde Valley. He was amazed to find six of the earth’s seven lifezones within this relatively small area. All plants grow in specific lifezones, based on elevation and other factors, and to have the majority of lifezones contained in northern Arizona is hugely significant. Merriam gave a report to the townspeople that summer sharing the podium with an ornithologist who had been studying the birds of the area. This was but one of several presentations on the scientific wonders of the region. A few years later, in 1894, Lowell Observatory was established in Flagstaff because of its unobstructed views to the cosmos – just 12 years after Flagstaff was founded.
Merriam returned in 1896 with forester Bernhard Fernow who called Arizona “a happy accident’ for its verdant forests. Protection of the state’s forests had been place since 1891, but government officials had a difficult time establishing rules about how many trees to cut and when. With all the extensive logging and lumber mills, the largest sawmill owners, the Riordan brothers, were concerned that the forest would disappear. They contacted their friend Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the USFS, and suggested ‘experimentry work’ in the ponderosa pine forest. This led to the 1908 establishment of the Fort Valley Experiment Station, the USFS’ first forest research facility, with the mandate to study ponderosa pine regeneration. Their findings proved that seed trees needed to be kept on logged lands to provide seeds for repopulation; logging permits soon required that seed trees remain in place.
Meanwhile, the town was growing – the Normal School, dedicated to teaching teachers, opened in 1899 which brought professors and students to Flagstaff and eventually became Northern Arizona University. Painted ladies were instructed to walk on one side of the street only and NEVER on Sunday. The community-minded Riordans opened the first hospital in 1910.
D.M. Riordan also suggested the name ‘Coconino’ for the new county formed in 1891 from massive Yavapai County, following the tradition of Arizona counties being named after Native Americans. Flagstaff is the county seat of Coconino County.
The original tent settlement burned at least twice before town was moved to be closer to the railroad depot where timber-built structures burned at least twice, too. They were replaced with buildings made of local sandstone. Water supply was a constant issue and was delivered to townspeople in barrels and sold for $1/barrel. When necessary, railroad cars brought in water from Winslow until Lake Mary was created by the Riordan brothers. A water pipeline from the Peaks also provided water to the growing town.
By 1920, Flagstaff had 1,500-2,000 residents and a dedicated group of women and men working to make Flagstaff into a solid, respectable place that continues to draw scientists and those who appreciate the natural beauty.
— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of author.