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History of Downtown Tucson

People have been living in the Tucson area for more than 4,000 years, making this one of the oldest continually occupied places in the United States. During a 1698 visit, Jesuit missionary Father Francisco Eusebio Kino found a small O’odham village surrounded by irrigated fields on the west side of the Santa Cruz River. This place was called Chukshon, which could be translated as “at the base of the black mountain.” The Spanish pronounced it “Tucsón” and went on to establish a mission there called San Agustín.

When a Spanish king decided to consolidate his territories, Colonel Hugo O’Conor, Irish expatriate and officer in the Spanish Army, was sent to the northern frontier to reorganize the empire’s defenses. He found that the Presidio at Tubac was too far to the south, so he ordered it moved about 45 miles north to the other side of the river. The new post, the Presidio of San Agustin de Tucson, was on a mesa with a commanding view of the valley. The soldiers stayed there for over 80 years, under the flags of Spain and Mexico, maintaining an alliance with the O’odham and doing their best to ensure peace on the frontier.

The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 brought Tucson into the United States, but it remained a rough frontier community. Visitors were more likely to hear Spanish spoken on the streets than English, and Mexican silver seemed to be the default currency. The local economy relied heavily on contracts to supply the Army. In 1867, Tucsonans were thrilled to earn the honor of being home to the territorial capital, only to lose it ten years later – much to their disappointment.

The Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1880, transforming Tucson from a sleepy little burg to more of a metropolis. The city grew further in 1885 when it secured the University of Arizona, the first university in the territory.

The biggest growth spurt, however, came from World War II and the invention of air conditioning. In just a decade, Tucson’s population grew five-fold. The newcomers spread out and attention shifted away from the once-vibrant Downtown. Many Tucsonans still believed in the city center, and worked through the 1980’s and 1990’s to keep Downtown worthy of its nationwide reputation for arts and culture. With the new millennium, a surge of investment and the hard work of dedicated individuals has created an urban renaissance Downtown and helped restore it to its rightful place as the heart of the community.