Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh

Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto was one of the top 10 news events in Flagstaff's last 100 years. (Courtesy of Lowell Observatory)

As we spent reams of hours reading old editions of the Coconino Sun and the Arizona Daily Sun, talked to historians and people alive during various events and researched for letters, documents and listened other people’s interpretations on our local history, we came across hundreds of incredible stories that have shaped Flagstaff and northern Arizona.

But, as we prepare for our state’s Centennial on this upcoming Tuesday, we wanted to take a look at our history from 1912 to 2012 from one more angle. As newspaper folks, we could not help but ask: What were the biggest headlines from our region during the first 100 years of statehood?

Eliminating the ongoing news stories such as the price of housing, the expansion of the university, dams and water, the multifaceted stories such as the World War II effort and various trends and crises, we came up with our list of most attention-grabbing, hard-hitting news stories to come along in those first hundred years of us being Arizona.

With some straw-polling, request for reader input, and a kind of matrix that weighed immediate and lingering impacts, community reaction and state or national implications, we came up with the following list.

10. Eric Clark murders police officer. On our list of the biggest headlines during the last one hundred years, a couple of kinds of stories somehow came in pairs. Our No. 10 choice became one of two of the biggest criminal headlines to hit Flagstaff and rock the community.

On June 21, 2000, a high school senior named Eric Michael Clark was driving around and blaring music from his pickup truck. He attracted the attention of police officer Jeff Moritz. When the officer pulled Clark over, the teenager shot him with a .22-caliber weapon.

The bullet entered in one place where the officer’s vest did not protect him and severed his aorta, killing him.

The case went on for several years. A bench trial happened in September 2003 and Judge H. Jeffrey Coker found him guilty of first-degree intentional murder. This came despite evidence that Clark suffered from mental illness and defense attorneys arguing for a guilty- but-insane ruling.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and raised a number of legal questions about the Arizona standard for legal insanity, which requires that the defendant not know the act he or she committed was wrong.

Aside from the legality of the case, the crime became the only time a Flagstaff police officer was killed in the line of duty. Moritz was remembered for being an officer who cut firewood for handicapped people, bought food for the homeless and was a loving husband and father.

9. The Schultz fire. It might be surprising to find a relatively recent news story on this list, but the June 2010 Schultz fire became one of the closest, largest fires in Flagstaff history. And, it would come to threaten homes in multiple ways and, indirectly, claim one life.

The 15,000-acre wildfire happened only a few miles north of Flagstaff, as an unattended campfire on June 20, 2010, was the ignition point for a blaze fanned by major winds. The smoke from the blaze looked massive from town.

It would lead to the evacuation of 748 homes, Second Chance Center for Animals, Sunset Crater and Wupatki national monuments and a major closure of a portion of the Coconino National Forest.

Around 800 firefighters worked to stop the blaze before it could destroy homes. Firefighting efforts lasted for nine days. Although the fire was controlled, flash floods and mudslides due to unstable soil and erosion from the blaze have impacted area neighborhoods ever since.

That July, 12-year-old Shaelyn Wilson died after falling into a flooded wash south of the old White Vulcan pumice mine near her neighborhood. She had been watching the floodwaters with her sister after the thunderstorm.

The fire also led to closures of forest roads and trails for several months and wholly altered a large area of Peaks District of the national forest. Note that the Wallow and Rodeo-Chedeski fires were considered for this list, but we considered those eastern Arizona stories.

8. Disappearance of Glen and Bessie Hyde. When it comes to stories from the Grand Canyon, few carry the lingering mystique of the disappearance of doomed honeymooners Glen and Bessie Hyde. They disappeared while running the Colorado River through the Grand and their bodies were never recovered.

The newlyweds launched from Green River, Wyo., and ran the Green and Colorado rivers with relatively few problems from their launch point to Phantom Ranch. They hiked to the rim and spent a few nights at Grand Canyon Village.

They returned to their boat on Nov. 17, 1928, and it was the last time anyone would see them alive. A month later, a massive search located their boat with all of their supplies floating in an eddy in the river. The Hydes were never seen again.

As a news story, the effort to locate the Hydes made news across the country, as Bessie looked to be the first woman to ever run the river through the Grand Canyon. It also survived as lore, as many people offered theories as to what really happened — including a scenario where Bessie escaped and changed her name and appearance.

The saga has been documented in two books, “Sunk Without a Sound” by local author Brad Dimock and a novelization called “Grand Ambition” by Lisa Michaels.

7. Body of Jennifer Wilson found. Many longtime locals in Flagstaff often look to the summer of 1988 as a time of lost innocence for Flagstaff.

This was when the body of 9-year-old Jennifer Wilson was discovered under a heap of twigs and oak leaves on top of Sheep Hill. The grisly sexual assault and murder of the young girl would eventually bring charges against a man named Ricky Bible.

In 1990, a jury found Bible guilty and he was sentenced to the death penalty. His death sentence was finally carried out in July 2011, when he was executed in Florence. Bible held that he was innocent.

Flagstaff and northern Arizona has experienced a number of murders over the past 100 years — sometimes seeing as many as a half-dozen or more in a year. However, Wilson’s murder deeply unsettled the community given her age and the heinous nature of the crime.

In the recent coverage, many people talked about how the case affected them personally. Parents living in Flagstaff at the time also became guarded. It became a crime that left emotional scars for many people.

6. Bruce Babbitt elected governor. With state politics often heavily dominated by Phoenix and Tucson, it was an exciting moment when Flagstaff’s native son Bruce Babbitt became the governor of Arizona. And, it is one of a number of highlights of Babbitt’s political career.

Babbitt was first elected to state office as attorney general of Arizona. On March 4, 1978, Gov. Wesley Bolin died in office. By state law, the secretary of state would become governor, but the person who held the office at the time, Rose Mofford, was appointed and not elected to her post.

This put Babbitt in line for the governorship. Later that year, Babbitt was elected to a full term as governor and he was reelected in 1982. He remains the only Arizona governor to have completed two four-year terms, and with the appointment, served a total of nine years.

Babbitt went on to run for president in 1988 and performed well in some of the early primaries. But ultimately, he dropped out and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis won the nomination.

Still, Babbitt would go on to become the Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton. He served all eight years and helped create new national monuments in Arizona and Utah among his achievements.

5. The 1986 Grand Canyon tour flight crash. It’s not surprising that our list of big news stories contains two major plane crashes at the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to ignore the incredible impacts both the 1956 crash and the 1986 crash had to aviation in general for the former and flight tours for the latter.

The 1986 crash, detailed in a Feb. 5 story as part of our centennial coverage, involved a tour plane known as a Twin Otter and a Bell helicopter. On June 18, 1986 shortly after 9 a.m., the two aircraft collided near Mencius Temple.

All told, 25 people died, with 18 passengers and two pilots on the plane and four passengers and one pilot on the helicopter.

It became the second-worst civil aviation disaster in the Grand Canyon. The 1986 crash would raise a number of questions about safety within the tour flight industry — particularly at the Grand Canyon.

Within a year, new rules were created to better regulate routes and altitudes that could be flown in the Grand Canyon. Also instrumentation known as the “traffic alert and collision avoidance system” was required by the Federal Aviation Administration on all Twin Otter aircraft.

4. The Radio fire. Another not-so-shocking pair of news events makes our top 10 list with two major wildfires. The Schultz fire was larger and post-fire floods and other impacts made it a major news story. But the Radio fire represents the dawn of catastrophic wildfire and its possible impacts on communities.

The fire started in late June 1977 after a Flagstaff girl camped out near the base of Mount Elden and started a fire. The next morning, she walked away from it. That day was cemented in Flagstaff history.

A fire-scarred tree stump near where the campfire was abandoned served as one of many remnants of the blaze that ripped up and down the mountain and — at 4,600 acres — became one of Coconino National Forest’s largest wildfires at the time.

Although many other wildfires have been larger, it has become better known as a dangerously close one with ordered evacuations and as a grand spectacle for anyone who lived here.

For a handful of days in 1977, the Radio Fire became a visual demonstration of the power nature as Ann Phillips and other Flagstaff residents watched in awe. “It was unbelievable how fast that fire moved. You could just watch it run up the mountain. It was really amazing … I’d never seen anything like it.”

3. The Storm of the Century. When 86 inches of snow falls in one week in Flagstaff and puts the whole town at a standstill, it is a serious news event indeed.

In northern Arizona, where snowfall totals can exceed a hundred inches in a season, it’s not unusual to have major blizzards and storms rock the area. But, for the record books, the 1967 storm still holds the top spot.

According to news reports and interviews with people who were here at the time, Flagstaff was virtually shut down. The record-breaking Flagstaff snowstorm from Dec. 13 to Dec. 20, 1967, is etched forever in their memories.

The second storm followed closely on the heels of the first, and many people perceived it as one storm, as a low-pressure front moved over Flagstaff and the Four Corners region, left briefly, returned and then stalled.

Flagstaff was not the only place affected. Sedona, unusually, received three feet of snow from that storm. On the Navajo Reservation, people were stranded for several weeks and supplies had to be air-dropped from helicopters.

Even a week in January 2010 that brought more than 50 inches of snow and collapsed the roofs of the Jay Lively Ice Rink and Bookmans Entertainment Exchange did not meet the snowfall totals of the 1967 storm.

2. The 1956 midair collision over Grand Canyon. Given the sheer death toll of these two commercial flights colliding over the Grand Canyon — and the way it would alter aviation forever, the 1956 collision was one of the biggest headlines from our region in the state’s first hundred years.

At the time, the crash represented the most-fatal airline disaster in aviation history, with a total of 128 dead. It led to complete aviation reform, the establishment of the Federal Aviation Administration, a realization that commercial flights needed strict and constant regulation and the requirement of cockpit voice recorders known as Black Boxes.

The June 30, 1956 crash involved a TWA Super Constellation — known by pilots as a “Connie” — and a United Airlines DC-7. Both planes took off from Los Angeles, within three minutes of each other. The TWA flight was bound for Kansas, the United flight for Chicago.

The TWA pilot requested and altitude change to avoid thunderclouds. At 10:31 a.m., about a mile southwest of the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, the planes collided at 21,000 feet.

The Connie went into a vertical dive and crashed to the floor of the Grand Canyon, at the base of Temple Butte. The DC-7 had lost its outer left wing panel. Its lift had been compromised. It struck the top of a sheer cliff on Chuar Butte.

1. The Discovery of Pluto. Nothing made news around the world from our little town of Flagstaff as much as the 1930 discovery of the planet Pluto, as it would become the only designated planet in the solar system discovered in the U.S.

A young assistant named Clyde Tombaugh was hired by Observatory director V.M. Slipher to help out with the search of what became known as Planet X. It was a ninth planet that, in theory, Percival Lowell believed existed.

Following a carefully planned program designed by Slipher, Tombaugh searched for the planet. By October 29, 1929, while the rest of the world was gripped with the Stock Market Crash, Tombaugh was becoming proficient at making and examining photographic plates with the new telescope.

On February 18, 1930, Tombaugh was examining a set of plates taken the previous month, when he detected what appeared to be a new planet. He and the rest of the staff carefully studied the plates, but decided not to make any formal announcement until they could further study the object to verify its planetary nature.

Several tedious weeks passed, during which the Observatory staff studied the object through telescopes, made numerous photographic records and computed copious astronomical calculations.  By mid-March, the scientists had gathered enough evidence to justify the announcement of this object as a new planet.

That announcement sealed Flagstaff’s place in the history of scientific discovery and put Lowell Observatory on the map when the find made international news.


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