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Flagstaff grows up: 1920s – 1970s

7-18-Times-PastThe some 2,000 Flagstaff residents in the 1920s were filled with optimism and vigor toward the future of their burgeoning town.

The world-class Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) opened in 1928 — bringing a small, existing museum into prominence under the leadership of zoologist Dr. Harold S. Colton and artist Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton.  One of their first projects was to stop Hollywood from blowing up Sunset Crater for a movie scene. The museum cited archeological items on the top of the crater as one of the reasons to not destroy the unique cinder cone.

A larger museum building on U.S. Highway 180 opened in 1936 to house more exhibits, collections and research. This facility became the exhibits building after World War II when Mrs. Colton’s former farm, across the highway from the exhibits building, was converted into a research and collections center.

Mrs. Colton’s farm was one of several in the area. Farming in the high altitude with a short growing season was always risky, but through the 1920s until after World War II, some were successful with potatoes and beans. Sheep still summered in the area and cattle roamed the range, but with more fences and restrictions than before.

Lowell Observatory increased its distinction when, in 1930, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh proved the existence of “Planet X,” later to be named Pluto. The name was chosen for the mythological being named Pluto. A factor in the name was also that the planet’s symbol, PL, is also the initials of Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory.

The Normal School changed its name several times until it received university status in 1966 and was given its current name, Northern Arizona University. Ida Mae Fredericks, the first Hopi to receive her college degree, graduated in 1939.  In the 1970s, NAU had a NCAA-ranked hockey team and constructed the indoor sports venue known as the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome.

The USFS continued its work at the Fort Valley Experimental Forest on sustaining the ponderosa pine through scientific research. A “perfect storm” of high-quality seed and spring precipitation led to an unusually high percentage of pine seedlings, which gave scientists optimum opportunity to study pine regeneration.  The rustic Fort Valley headquarters were mostly vacated when a new lab and office facility were built on the NAU campus adjacent to the forestry school. Students worked alongside professionals to continue scientific research on the forest and range of northern Arizona.

Hotel owner John W. Weatherford began construction on a toll road from Flagstaff to Doyle Saddle on the peaks. Construction began in 1920 and was beset with delays. He died in 1934 before the road was finished and the road is now a trail and part of the USFS road system.

The Coconino Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution planted a sprig from the historic Elm tree that George Washington is thought to have stood under as he assumed command of the revolutionary army. The tree was planted on Arbor Day, April 22, 1931, in front of Old Main on the NAU campus. It was recently named as one of Arizona’s Magnificent 7 trees for its heritage to Arizona and the nation.

U.S. Route 66 brought thousands into Flagstaff and northern Arizona as the mother road that took dust bowl refugees to the fertile fields of California. Motels, gas stations, and restaurants sprang up and a few 1930s-era structures still stand.

The boardwalks that served as city sidewalks were replaced with concrete in the 1930s by Ed Raudebaugh. Lake Mary was dammed to help conserve supplies, and area wells and reservoirs were created. Water was still brought in from Winslow via the train when Flagstaff supplies ran short.  Dr. Charles Sechrist opened the Flagstaff Hospital in 1936 with 25 beds.

Flagstaff skiers created their first ski run in 1938 that was accessed from Flagstaff by a circuitous route through Hart Prairie. A former homestead cabin kept the skiers warm as they took a break from the rope tow. In the 1950s, U.S. Highway 180 was paved from Flagstaff north to Valle and its airport to accommodate skiers and Grand Canyon visitors.

World War II enabled the former railroad stop and lumbering center known as Bellemont, 12 miles west of Flagstaff, to become the Navajo Ordnance Depot. The influx of soldiers and families doubled the population of Flagstaff.  World War II also meant gas rationing, tire shortage, and a citizen’s group led by Dr. Colton to support a ship named the USS Flagstaff. Mrs. Colton taught Red Cross first aid classes to the community.

In 1955, the US Naval Observatory opened a facility near Flagstaff for dark-sky defense monitoring.

The construction of the Glen Canyon dam between 1959 and 1962 led to the founding of the town of Page and the paving of today’s I-17 from Verde Valley area north to Flagstaff as the large trucks bringing cement from the Verde Valley to the dam site couldn’t negotiate the Oak Creek Canyon switchbacks and required a more direct route.  The dam caused the river to flood the exquisite Glen Canyon area — and MNA scientists scrambled to document the lovely site between 1952 and 1962. Archeologists stood in ankle-deep water to record sites destined to be flooded.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) established their Flagstaff presence in 1965 with headquarters in the newly formed MNA Research Center. Their work focused on the Apollo mission which would put a man on the moon in 1969.  Astronauts trained in the cinder cones surrounding Flagstaff.

The train whistle through Flagstaff averaged every 18 minutes through the 1960s carrying freight and passengers east and west. Buffalo Park, an open space within the city limits, opened in 1966 and offered stagecoach tours to view bison and wildlife roaming free, Navajo weavers at a hogan, and concessions. About 35,000 people lived in Flagstaff by the end of the 1970s.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of author.


  1. My grandmother and her sisters all graduated from Az Normal School, there used to be a picture of her at the BurgerKing across from NAU!

  2. A most interesting article. Growing up in beautiful Flagstaff, this article taught things I didn’t know and reminded me of things I did know but long forgotten.

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