On the far reaching timeline of history, Flagstaff—like many cities in the American West—is fairly new, only a couple notches back from where we find ourselves now in 2019. Historic Tales of Flagstaff, a new book by Michael Kitt and Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler, is quick to acknowledge the relative nature of history. How much history can a town founded in the late 1800s, compared to, say, Boston, Massachusetts, or Paris, France, have? Quite a bit, actually.
For visitors, locals and curious historians of the West, Historic Tales of Flagstaff details the history of our mountain town, not through the events that have shaped it, but through the individuals who helped said events transpire.
A little more than 100 nimble pages, Historic Tales of Flagstaff is full of insights that prompt quiet curiosity, an “ah” or “hmm” as one learns about the various names that are sprinkled throughout Flagstaff. The Weatherford Hotel, an historic and apparently haunted hotel where Western romance writer Zane Grey purportedly wrote many of his stories, was named after an entrepreneur from Fort Worth, Texas. John Weatherford and his wife Margaret settled in Flagstaff in the late 1880s, building the hotel around 1897. Northern Arizona University’s Ashurst Hall was named after Henry Fountain Ashurst, a master orator who learned to read and write á la Abraham Lincoln. He and Marcus Smith would later be chosen as Arizona’s first senators when it became a state in 1912.
If you’re looking for a solid picture of some of the names that helped make Flagstaff a cultural bastion and safe haven from the Phoenix heat, look no further than the mountains that stretch into the skyline: Dook'o'oosłííd, as the Navajo people call them. Nwa’tukya’ovi, by the Hopi. We know them as the San Francisco Peaks—which, no, were not given the name because early settlers could see the city of San Francisco from the top, but rather after Saint Francis of Assisi by the Franciscan friars who had established a mission at the Hopi village of Oraibi. The chapter “A Mountain of Names” goes into the backstories of Andrew Humphreys, Louis Agassiz, John Frémont, Allen Doyle, Julius Aubineau, Tom Rees and Charles H. Schulz, whose names give a familiar shape to the Peaks. To close the chapter, the authors write, “An old Japanese proverb states, ‘Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.’ In Flagstaff, these names are further chiseled into history by their association with the names of the individual San Francisco Peaks.”
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One thing you’ll notice about this insightful little book is how sincere it is in its appreciation of the people who have made Flagstaff what it is today. In its final chapter, “Mr. Flagstaff,” the authors introduce Platt Cline, a former editor of the Arizona Daily Sun, from which Historic Tales of Flagstaff derives much of its information, saying “so it seems poetic to end this book with an introduction to him.” People like Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the elusive “Planet X”—later named Pluto, a name first introduced by 11-year-old Venetia Burney of Oxford, England—and Wilson Riles, the first black student to attend Arizona State Teachers College (later NAU) and civil rights leader, are described, not as Western heroes, but as people with determination, who struggled and overcame. In this regard, Historic Tales of Flagstaff becomes more human, weaving a tapestry of characters together.
From Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto to the founding of the Museum of Northern Arizona to the 1963 NASA training operations for the first ever manned mission to the moon, Historic Tales of Flagstaff places a strong emphasis on the arts and sciences in the region. But it’s also full of quirky anecdotes like the stealing of a meteor rock to the naming of SP Crater. Apparently the shape of the crater cone reminded Charles “C.J.” Babbitt of a chamber pot, “except he used a less refined word in place of ‘chamber,’” the authors write. “As schoolchildren might say, the four-letter word begins with an ‘s,’ ends with a ‘t’ and is high in the middle.”
As one learns while reading Historic Tales of Flagstaff, there’s a lot more to Flagstaff than NAU and ski season and ponderosas, and this very thorough, very insightful book nobly tries to look at it all. But it’s perhaps best taken in bites, as little amusing samples of Flagstaff’s history and progress.