That's Prescutt, pardner. The mile-high town rests in a mountain basin ringed by the pine-forested Bradshaws, towering Thumb Butte, the jumbled mass of Granite Mountain, boulder-strewn Granite Dells, and the vast grasslands of Chino and Lonesome Valleys. Downtown, the Doric-columned courthouse sits in a spacious grassy plaza surrounded by tall elm trees. The equestrian statue in front of the courthouse commemorates the spirit of William "Buckey" O'Neill, newspaperman, sheriff, mayor, adventurer, and Spanish-American War hero. Buckey led a company of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Cuba, where an enemy bullet cut him down.
The Palace and a few other bars on Montezuma Street opposite the courthouse carry on the tradition of "Whiskey Row," where more than 20 saloons roared full-blast day and night in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Sharlot Hall Museum, two blocks west, preserves Prescott's past with early buildings and excellent historical collections. On the other side of downtown, the Smoki (SMOKE-eye) Museum displays a wealth of artifacts from Native American cultures. About 100 Yavapai live in the Prescott area, mostly on a 1,400-acre reservation just north of town.
Though small, Prescott (pop. 36,000) contains several art galleries, an active artists' community, two colleges, and an aeronautical university. Just outside town, you can explore the area's forests, fishing lakes, mountains, and ghost towns.
William Owen O'Neill (1860-98) came to Arizona in 1879, lured by Gov. John C. Fremont's promotion of the territory. After first visiting Tombstone and Phoenix, he arrived in Prescott, where he worked as court reporter, editor of the Miner, editor and publisher of the Hoof and Horn, probate judge, school superintendent, sheriff, tax assessor, author, onyx quarry operator, militia commander, volunteer fireman, and mayor. O'Neill got his nickname Buckey for "bucking the tiger" in faro, whose game cards had tigers on their backs.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, this popular figure petitioned Governor McCord for permission to raise "one thousand Arizona cowboys" to fight in Cuba. Although only 170 men came from Arizona, recruits from other western states and territories joined the group. Newspapers christened the volunteers the "Rough Riders." Displaying his courage below Kettle Hill in Cuba, Buckey reportedly said, "the Spanish bullet is not molded that will kill me"—just before being fatally shot by a sniper on July 1, 1898.
Unlike most Western towns, which haphazardly boomed into existence, Prescott sprang from a plan. Soon after Congress carved the territory of Arizona from New Mexico Territory in 1863, Governor John Goodwin and a party of appointed officials set off from Washington on a tour of the area. Their arduous three-month journey took them to the rich mineral districts of central Arizona, a promising new region relatively free of the Confederate sympathizers who lived in the southern towns of Tucson and Tubac.
Goodwin and his party first set up a temporary capital at Fort Whipple in Chino Valley. Then, to be closer to mining activities and timbered land, both the government and the fort moved 17 miles south to a site along Granite Creek. Fort Whipple served as the center for campaigns against Tonto Apache and Yavapai during the 1860s and 1870s. Sentries stood on alert for Native American attacks as workers felled trees to build the Capitol and Governor's Mansion.
Early citizens named the settlement after William Hickling Prescott, a historian noted for his writings about Mexico. Unlike towns to the south, with their adobe buildings and strong Spanish-Mexican flavor, Prescott derived its character from the settlers of New England and the Midwest. Vast forests provided timber for log cabins and later frame buildings.
In 1867 the Legislature had a change of heart and moved the capital down to Tucson. Prescott's future looked bleak, as Apache attacks and high transportation costs threatened further mining and agricultural development. However, improved mining techniques and the gold strikes of the 1870s brought the region back to life. The outlook further improved with the return of the Legislature in 1877. The politicians transferred the capital to Phoenix in 1889, but by then Prescott was a thriving city and no longer needed the politicians. Mining, ranching, and trade prospered. Even a disastrous fire in 1900, which wiped out much of Prescott's business district—including Whiskey Row—couldn't destroy community spirit. Undaunted, the saloonkeepers moved their salvaged stock across the street and continued to serve libations as the fires blazed. Within days the townsfolk began rebuilding, creating the downtown you see today.
Agriculture and a bit of mining continue in the Prescott area, but it's the character of the place that charms most people. You'll find it in the many historic buildings lining Prescott's tree-shaded streets, the clean pine-scented air, and the agreeable four-season climate.
ARIZONA'S DOOMSDAY CAPITAL
Although it's well known that Prescott had served as the first capital of Arizona, the mile-high city could have been the last capital. On September 21, 1961, at the height of Cold War hysteria, the Arizona Republic reported that state civil defense leaders had chosen Prescott to be the emergency capital if disaster struck. A three-inch-thick survival plan spelled out the details of how the state government would respond after a nuclear war. Prescott and Yavapai County, because they had no "priority targets," seemed the perfect refuge in case Phoenix had to be evacuated.
If the worst nightmares had come to pass, the National Guard Armory on Prescott's Gurley Street would have become the civil defense control center. State officials would set up shop on the west side of town, and federal departments on the east. State legislators were to meet in the three-story Elks Building, across from the Hassayampa Hotel, with representatives in the Elks Theater and senators in the Elks Club auditorium. Prescott Junior High would be transformed into the capitol. Members of the Arizona Supreme Court were to huddle in the Yavapai County Courthouse basement.
With a massive influx of refugees expected from other parts of Arizona and even the West Coast, the plans dictated that non-essential state agencies be suspended and their staff moved over to the ghost town of Jerome. In a last pitch for survival if Prescott had to be abandoned, the old Douglas mansion in Jerome was to be the state control center. And finally, the miles of tunnels beneath the old mining town could have sheltered many thousands of people if radioactive clouds swept in over the hills. One can imagine that metal drums of stale water and boxes of moldy biscuits still lie deep underground in Jerome's abandoned mines.
Sharlot Hall Museum
Nine buildings make up this superb historical museum (415 W. Gurley St., two blocks west of the plaza, 928/445-3122, www.sharlot.org, $5 ages 19 and up). Summer hours (May–Sept.) run 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat.; during the rest of the year it's closed Sunday and open 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Saturday. Check for upcoming living history programs, lectures, festivals, and theater productions.
You could start with a visit to the Museum Center, which offers a display illustrating the life of Sharlot Hall, temporary exhibits, and the Museum Archives (noon–4 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Sat.). Sharlot Hall, who founded the museum in 1927, was herself a pioneer—she arrived in Arizona by wagon in 1882 at the tender age of 12, then developed a keen interest in the land and people here. From 1909 to 1911 Sharlot served as the territory's first historian, traveling Arizona's primitive roads to collect information and stories firsthand. She also shared her impressions in stories and poems.
The two-story Governor's Mansion, built from logs on this site in 1864, might today seem too primitive to qualify as a "mansion," but in those days most people lived in tents or lean-tos. In the beginning, Governor John Goodwin and Territorial Secretary Richard McCormick occupied opposite ends of the building. The territorial Legislature may have met here while awaiting completion of the Capitol. The mansion has been restored and furnished as it was during the early years. Outside, the rose garden commemorates outstanding Arizona women of the territorial years.
Exhibits inside the Sharlot Hall Building re-create military life at Fort Whipple and recall early ranches, mining operations, frontier saloons and stores, home life, and Prescott heroes. One room houses the exhibit "The Baskets Keep Talking: The Continuing Story of the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe."
Fort Misery, Arizona's oldest wooden structure, dates from 1863–64 when it served as a general store. Judge John Howard lived here in the 1890s, and one story relates that the hospitable judge was such a bad cook that guests received "misery" at suppertime. The cabin appears as it did when he lived in it. The Schoolhouse is a replica of the territory's first public school, built near Granite Creek in 1867. The little Ranch House represents those of pioneers in the Prescott area.
The 1875 Fremont House is an early Victorian building with a restored interior. Its wood-plank construction shows a considerable advance over the Governor's Mansion built just 11 years earlier. John C. Fremont, Arizona's fifth territorial governor, rented the house from 1878 to 1881. He had earned fame as an explorer of the West, but he failed in Arizona politics. Fremont didn't care for Prescott's climate and spent long periods back East or in Tucson. Public pressure forced his resignation after three years in office.
Admire the details of the 1877 late Victorian Bashford House and step inside to see a few exhibits and a large gift shop that sells crafts and Arizona history books. Exhibits in the Transportation Building include Sharlot Hall's 1927 Durant Star Four auto, a stagecoach, wagons, sleighs, and bicycles.
From a split-twig figure of 4,000 years ago to the beautiful baskets and pottery of contemporary tribes, this collection (147 N. Arizona Ave., one block north of E. Gurley St., 928/445-1230, www.smokimuseum.org, 1–4 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat. except closed early Jan., $4 adults, $3 seniors over 65, $2 students, free for children 12 and under) preserves a wide variety of Southwest Native American artifacts. Much of the pottery and many of the stone tools come from prehistoric pithouses excavated in nearby Chino Valley. Paintings and sketches by Kate Cory illustrate Native American life; she lived with the Hopi from 1905 to 1912 and helped design the pueblo-style stone museum building, which opened in 1935. Finely crafted baskets show the skills of Apache, Yavapai, Hualapai, and Havasupai tribes. Some Hopi kachinas are on display too. Former Senator Barry Goldwater, who belonged to the Smoki, donated many of the museum's items. Kids have a touch table and can try their hand at grinding corn.
Guest artist and lecture programs occasionally take place. Researchers can arrange to use the library. A gift shop offers books along with jewelry and other arts and crafts made by Native American and Latin American artisans.
Anglo members of the community organized the Smoki "tribe" in 1921 to raise funds for the annual Frontier Days Rodeo by performing Native American dances. The presentations became very elaborate with a cast and crew in the hundreds. Although criticized by some Native American groups, the Smoki took a serious interest in Native American rituals, dance, and artifacts. The Smoki danced last in 1990 and disbanded in 2001.
Changing exhibits by outstanding artists celebrate Western fine art at this museum (4701 N. Hwy. 89, 928/778-1385, www.phippenartmuseum.org, 1–4 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., $3 adults, $2 seniors and students, free for children 12 and under). Look for the ranch-style building on the right six miles north of Prescott. Shows change every three months, and you might see either established or promising new artists. The well-liked Western artist George Phippen (1915–66) helped establish the Cowboy Artists of America and served as its first president. You can watch videos on request and use the small library. A museum store sells artwork, jewelry, crafts, and cards. On Memorial Day weekend, the museum sponsors a big Western art show at Courthouse Plaza.
Heritage Park Zoo
Meet denizens of the Southwest, exotic creatures, and farm animals at this small but growing zoo (six miles north of downtown on Heritage Park Rd., just south off Willow Creek Rd., 928/778-4242, www.heritageparkzoo.org, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily May–Sept. and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily Oct.–April, $8 adults, $5 children 3–12). Celebrities include Abbey the mountain lion, Shikar the Bengal tiger, Inca the black jaguar, and Shash the friendly black bear. Others that you'll meet include ring-tailed lemur, llamas, coatimundi, Mexican wolf, pronghorn, and collared peccary. Birds and reptiles are represented too, and the tarantulas have their own "grotto." The zoo offers a picnic area, playground, and gift shop. Zoo by Moonlight takes place on full-moon nights May to September. Groups can arrange tours.
This army fort dates from 1863 and honors Brigadier General Amiel Weeks Whipple, who served with the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers until his death in the Civil War. The post played a major role during the Indian wars and was maintained until 1912. Ten years later it took on its present role as a Veterans Administration hospital. Many of the military buildings, including the barracks and officers' quarters, date from around 1900. You're welcome to visit the hospital grounds, though there's no museum or visitor center. Fort Whipple lies on the northeast edge of town off AZ 89.
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