The extended journey of the Arizona Capitol
By Priscilla Racke
The future of the United States was anything but certain in 1863: the future of settlers in the wilderness of Arizona even less so. In the east, north, south and west, American blood flowed freely as brother waged brutal war on brother, and western settlers continued to find themselves pitted in terrible conflict with Native American peoples.
It was at this time, in the weeks following the Emancipation Proclamation, that President Lincoln signed his name to a bill granting territorial status to Arizona. Newly appointed Governor John Noble Goodwin, traveling from Maine, arrived in the territory with his cabinet after a nine-month journey. They found there an inspiring and challenging expanse of land, both dangerous and life giving. Tucson, the most sizable and logical candidate for Territorial Capital, had a decade earlier been acquired through the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico. But the delegation looked askance at the settlement for its romance with secession, which had already damaged the nation so grievously. In addition, the Old Pueblo’s heavy Mexican influences and Spanish roots made it less desirable to an Eastern delegation to come to govern a fledgling American territory.
A new town, located just south of the temporary capital at Fort Whipple, was raised specifically to fill the Territorial Government’s need for a more permanent space. The town, called Prescott after author William Hickling Prescott, was to remain Capital only for about three years. Then, in 1867, after the transfer of governorship to former Territorial Secretary Richard Cunningham McCormick, the capital was moved to Tucson. Prescott’s residents were angered by the move, naturally, and continued to lobby hard for its return.
Tucson acted as the Territory Capital for eight years before being named by the Territorial Legislature the “permanent Capital.” Permanency only lasted for two years, however, as the capital was moved back to Prescott in 1877. But though the community of Prescott may have been relieved by the return of its legislative control, a three-way race had emerged between Tucson, Prescott and Phoenix by 1885.
The Thirteenth Territorial Legislature, infamous at the time as the “Thieving Thirteen” for its ethically questionable habits, was to decide if the capital would be moved and where the new asylum for the insane would be located. Strange as it may sound, the asylum was quite a prize to be won, as a sizable allotment of funds was to come with its assignment.
Tucson’s leaders, as much as those from Phoenix and Prescott, wanted first and foremost the Capital, but could be consoled with the asylum and its $100,000 allowance. But while the other delegates stated their cases in Prescott, the delegate from Tucson, C.C. Stevens, was nowhere to be found. Some accounts say that his wagon wheel broke in the wilderness. Others say that the Gila River was flooded and Stevens had to take a detour by rail through California. Whatever the reason, Stevens arrived in Prescott too late to secure either the capital (to remain in Prescott) or the asylum (awarded to Phoenix). He returned home bearing a measly $25,000 to establish a state university. Some accounts say that the bedraggled delegate was pelted with eggs, vegetables, and even a dead cat for his disappointing performance.
Even so, by the Fifteenth Territorial Legislature four years later, Phoenix was given the capital to grace its impressive new municipal facilities. This time the move was truly permanent. In 1889, Prescott was left without a capitol, asylum or university. Tucson was putting the finishing touches on Old Main.