How Fort Lowell Sowed the Seed of a City

The Fort Lowell Museum main building sits at the edge of Fort Lowell Park. This building used to house the officer and all his servants.
The Fort Lowell Museum main building sits at the edge of Fort Lowell Park. This building used to house the officer and all his servants. Photo by: Mihdi Afnan

 

Camp Lowell’s solider enjoyed themselves in the night life of downtown Tucson in 1866.

But seven years of wine and women led military officials to call for a halt to this. In 1873, Camp Lowell moved seven miles to the northeast, where the Fort Lowell Military Reservation grew to become the central site for military operations in Southern Arizona.

A 20-acre plot of land dotted with a number of decrepit ruins is what remains of the once glorious 80 square-mile base that was responsible for the growth and development of Southern Arizona.

“A lot of people haven’t heard of this place, but it really is a place to remember and save,” said Caren Groesbeck, curator of the Fort Lowell Museum, off North Craycroft Road, between East Fort Lowell Road and East Glenn Street.

Modern Tucson as it is known today grew as a result of the fort’s successes. At its peak, Fort Lowell housed 239 enlisted men, along with their families and servants. High-profile people such as the famous Major Walter Reed, who discovered the manner in which malaria spreads and who the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is named after, were stationed there.

A photograph of the Fort Lowell baseball team from the Fort Lowell Museum. The team played against teams from neighboring forts on the parade ground. Photo by Mihdi Afnan
A photograph of the Fort Lowell baseball team from the Fort Lowell Museum. The team played against teams from neighboring forts on the parade ground. Photo by: Mihdi Afnan

With them, these people brought American culture to the newly acquired Tucson area. From its own baseball team to a local band, Fort Lowell had everything to make it an oasis of American culture in the midst of the hostile desert.

The fort never hosted any battles, with the closest being about 100 miles away in Apache Pass. Instead, it served as the central hub for most military movement in Arizona. Supplies and personnel coming from California and the East Coast travelled through Fort Lowell before going to the surrounding battle frontlines.

“The fort was heavily guarded, it was in the middle of the desert, the Apache were outnumbered. Why would the Apache attack? They avoided this fort,” Groesbeck said.

This safe and protected environment served as the perfect catalyst for Tucson to boom. Even after the fort was decommissioned in 1891, the civilians left behind continued to develop the area. The numerous century-old houses that line Fort Lowell Road today are remnants of the germination of civilization in Southern Arizona, and many other pieces of Fort Lowell’s history are yet to be uncovered.

“We had a construction worker come in a few weeks ago with a cannonball. He had found it while digging near here,” Groesbeck said.

Today, the city strives to preserve and restore the Fort Lowell ruins. In 2015, Pima County won two awards for its restoration of the officers’ quarters at Fort Lowell Park, the building where the Fort Lowell Museum is based. The museum has been a branch of the Arizona Historical Society since 1963.

A couple takes a picture of the post hospital ruins at Fort Lowell Park. The city strives to maintain whats left of buildings like this to preserve Tucson's rich history. Photo by: Mihdi Afnan
A couple takes a picture of the post hospital ruins at Fort Lowell Park. The city strives to maintain whats left of buildings like this to preserve Tucson’s rich history. Photo by: Mihdi Afnan

“There’s a lot of pride in the history of the area in what we have,” said Frank Flasch, president of the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association. As Flasch explains, the function of the association is to make the city aware of the unique and historical neighborhood.

Every year, the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association hosts the Fort Lowell Day Celebration, inviting the public to walk through the streets and among the ruins.

Mihdi Afnan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at mafnan@email.arizona.edu.

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