A Heritage Preserved

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The building shown below may look like a low-rise adobe condominium, and in a sense, that is what it is today—someone’s house. But it was once something more: the quartermaster and commissary storehouse for Fort Lowell, Arizona Territory, one of a string of army posts scattered about the Southwest in the 1870’s and 1880’s as bastions against the raids of cunning, resourceful, diligent—and often nearly invisible—Apache Indians. That the storehouse still exists, as well as much of the rest of Fort Lowell, is a tribute to the notion that when concerned citizens get together, something good frequently can happen.

 

Which is not to say that the remnants of Fort Lowell are architectural triumphs worthy of preservation for their own sake. They are a rather drab collection of buildings and half-buildings utterly typical of the slapdash, utilitarian fashion of the time and place. But however worn and unprepossessing, they are nevertheless eloquent reminders of an era in which the Anglo-Mexican appropriators of this desert land lived never very far from the shadow of ruin.

First established in 1862 next to the primitive little town of Tucson, Fort Lowell was relocated on the banks of the Rillito River nine miles northeast of the village in 1873. For good reason, as a news story in the Tucson Weekly Arizonan of March 12, 1870, suggests: “On Sunday night a party of 20 soldiers … drunk, and armed to the teeth, made a descent upon the town and attempted to carry all before them. They went first to the saloon of Mr. Levin and demanded lager beer—giving the bartender to understand that they did not intend to pay for it. … In passing the residence of Mr. Pennington the barking of a watchdog was distasteful to their drunken instincts, so the whole party fired through the gate, shooting the faithful dog through the head.… It is enough that the people are constantly harassed by Indians without being subjected to the outrages of a depraved and drunken soldiery.”

So much for John Wayne.

In truth, it is not surprising that such raucous behavior occasionally punctuated the quiet of Tucson, for life at Fort Lowell, as at most Western forts, was a frustrating mix of heat, dust, boredom, and danger. Martha Summerhayes, who spent two years at Lowell with her 2nd lieutenant husband, did not recall the experience with nostalgia. Upon finally being transferred in 1876, she wrote in Vanished Arizona: Recollections of My Army Life , the relief was overwhelming: “I had left behind me the deserts, the black rocks, the burning sun, the snakes, the scorpions, the centipedes, the Indians… and so the tears flowed, and I did not try to stop them; they were tears of joy.”

At the height of the Apache Indian campaigns in the mid-1880’s, Fort Lowell was operating at full capacity—18 officers and 239 enlisted men—but with the capture of Geronimo and his band of Chiricahua Apaches in 1886, the need for military protection in the area declined. The fort’s complement was reduced each year, and in 1891 the army abandoned the post altogether, turning it over to the Department of the Interior for disposal.

Most of the property ultimately fell into private hands, and many of the buildings of the fort crumbled under the ravages of time and weather. But not all of them, and in 1963 the site of the fort was donated to Pima County for development as a public park. As Tucson’s population began to swell and spread out beyond its original boundaries, it threatened to swallow up the park, leaving it in the hands of real estate entrepreneurs. Residents living in and around the area resisted, and in 1978, after many years of dedicated effort, they managed to have it included in the National Register of Historic Places as the Fort Lowell Historic District. Those buildings still standing were lovingly restored by their owners; new buildings in the district were required to adhere to the architectural style of those around them—called “Arizona Territorial,” essentially one-story adobe structures much in keeping with the land around them.

For most people in the area it has been a happy marriage between past and present. As the owner and restorer of the old sutler’s store put it, “When we finally started our required alterations, we did so with the conviction that we had a moral responsibility to protect the historic quality of the house and grounds.”