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A Flat Little Town


This is the town 24-year-old John Plesant Gray wrote about in his diary on his way to Tombstone from San Francisco in June 1880.

The journey was difficult and his early impressions were not favorable. “Our railroad ride from California had been very tiresome, for in those days the roadbed was new and despite the slow speed of the train caused much jolting of the passengers. The dust crept in through window casings and every conceivable place, even when the car windows were all closed, and that, with the desert heat, which was a new and trying experience, had about exhausted all of us.

“That last morning on the train, we had stopped for breakfast at Tucson,” continued Gray. “It had been rather a disappointing sight we had of the flat little town of drab adobe houses . . . Because in age it is close to being the oldest town in the United States, we naturally expected something different. With its square-built adobe houses standing flush with the narrow, treeless streets – apparently bare of any sort of plant life, it had made us still more homesick than before for the bright flower gardens and cheerful paint that graced California towns.

The “flat little town” to which Gray refers was, in reality, the center of commerce of the Arizona Territory, as well as much of the Southwest.

Between 1870 and 1880, the population of Tucson more than doubled, from some 3,500 inhabitants to 7,007. Tucson had been the northern-most outpost of Sonora, Mexico, until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 brought it into the United States, and the architecture reflected the influence of Mexico and the building materials of the desert.

Another man who wrote critically of Tucson was Will C. Barnes, noted Arizona soldier and cowboy-turned-historian, who referred to Tucson in 1880 as a “sorry-looking Mexican town with narrow, crooked streets lined with one-story houses built of sun-dried adobe, and mostly with dirt floors and dirt roofs.”

However, 1880 was a pivotal year for Tucson. The railroad arrived and with it came an abundance of building materials – lumber most notably – that quickly changed the town’s architectural landscape.

Many of the square adobes were given pitched roofs and wide verandas, and construction began of dwellings in traditional Queen Anne Gothic Revival and Victorian styles popular at the time.

Despite his criticism, Gray concluded his description of Tucson on a more positive note: “. . . In time we discovered that many of these rough-looking mud (adobe) houses had an inside court or patio with flower gardens pretty as any California home could boast of.”

Photo courtesy Arizona Heritage Center; research by W. Lane Rogers. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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