25 Things You Should Know About Tucson
By Mark Mancini
The west is still wild in Tucson. Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Arizona’s second-largest city attracts artists, astronomers, outdoorsy types and at least one rare cat. Read on for more Tucson trivia.
1) Some of the earliest evidence of corn cultivation in North America comes from Pima County, Arizona, where Tucson is located. Archaeologists have recovered kernels estimated to be 4000 years old within 60 miles of the city.
2) Towering above the downtown area is an iconic mountain called Sentinel Peak. Look at it from a distance and you may notice that the base is darker than the summit. The native Tohono O’odham people called this landmark Ts-iuk-shan—which is a corruption of their word for “black base.” Spaniards later turned Ts-iuk-shan into Tucson.
3) On March 20, 1880, a passenger train rolled into Tucson for the first time. Mayor R.N. Leatherwood sent out telegrams to dignitaries to publicize the occasion, writing to Pope Leo XIII that the railroad now linked "this ancient and honorable pueblo" with the rest of the Christian world. Newspapers began calling Tucson “the A. and H. Pueblo,” which gradually shrunk to its current nickname, “the Old Pueblo.”
4) If you’re a stargazer, Tucson is one of the best spots in the U.S. for astronomy. In 1972, Pima County enacted a “dark sky” code to regulate the brightness and number of outdoor bulbs in an effort to help local observatories like one at Kitt Peak. Now Tucson suffers from far less light pollution than most cities do, allowing stars and planets to shine through the darkness.
5) Above Broadway Boulevard, you can walk through the belly of a giant metal snake. A covered bridge for pedestrians and cyclists, this serpentine structure is designed to look like a diamondback rattlesnake, whose gaping jaw and fangs form the entrance.
6) By day, it looks like a big plastic doughnut. But after sundown, the solar-powered Desert O sculpture lights up in an array of vibrant colors. The ring, owned by the city of Tucson, is 6 feet in diameter and uses LED lights to create a brilliant display with a different color combo for every night of the week.
7) In 1970, then-mayor Jim Corbett called Tucson's East Speedway Boulevard the "ugliest street in America." At the time, it was enveloped by garish billboards that obscured the city's beautiful vistas. Then Life magazine ran a two-page photo of the forest of road signs and advertisements. The embarrassing spotlight led to Tucson's sign code, passed in the 1980s, which gradually limited billboards and tacky signage.
8) According to Guinness World Records, Davis-Monthan Airforce Base in Tucson has the largest aircraft repair shop and storage facility on Earth. Covering 2600 acres, it could house 4200 aircraft and 40 aerospace vehicles at one time, while still leaving room for 350,000 production tools.
9) In 2013, a new species of scorpion was discovered in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which are visible from downtown Tucson. Biologist Rob Bryson Jr. discovered the species in the Santa Catalinas' "sky islands"—isolated mountaintop habitats known for their biodiversity.
10) Cyclists should consider dropping by on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving for El Tour de Tucson, Arizona's largest and longest-running cycling event. The series of races attracts more than 9000 bike enthusiasts per year and usually raises about $2 million for local charities.
11) Hugo O’Conor, an Irish colonel in the Spanish army, is regarded by some as the founder of Tucson. Although a Spanish mission had been operating in present-day Tucson since 1692, and Native American communities before that, O’Conor arranged to have a military base for Spain's army set up on the site in 1775, resulting in a population boom for the city. O'Conor's red hair and courage in battle gave him the nickname “The Red Captain.”
12) The United States Handball Association Hall of Fame is located on North Tucson Boulevard.
13) Five years after peace was declared in the Mexican-American War, the U.S. bought the lower third of Arizona, which included Tucson, from Mexico. The $10 million transaction, known as the Gadsden Purchase, was finalized in 1854 and added a 30,000-square-mile territory to the United States. The expansion allowed Gadsden, a railroad promoter, to build a transcontinental railroad through the new territory.
14) One of the largest rock shows in the country, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show attracts around 50,000 people annually. In addition to hosting gemstone scholars and dealers, the annual convention has exhibited the most dazzling rocks in existence—like the Hope diamond, lunar rocks collected by NASA astronauts, and the eye-popping Logan sapphire.
15) The Arizona State University Sun Devils and the University of Arizona Wildcats have a longstanding rivalry that dates back to their first meeting in 1889. Each year, the teams compete for the Territorial Cup, the oldest rivalry trophy in college football. The Wildcats play regular home games in their 56,000-seat stadium in midtown Tucson.
16) Speaking of the University of Arizona, it was founded in 1891—21 years before Arizona achieved statehood.
17) Tucson's world-class culinary scene was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015 as a “Capital of Gastronomy.” Only 18 cities around the world have been given this title, and no other American city has cracked the list yet. Jonathan Mabry, a historic preservation officer in Tucson, filed the application for the city. “There are more heritage foods grown within 100 miles of Tucson than any other city in North America,” he told Smithsonian.com.
18) The Fourth Avenue Underpass doubles as a one-of-a-kind photo gallery. Roughly 7000 tiles bearing black and white portraits of 21st-century Tucsonans line the walls.
19) Four national flags have flown over the Old Pueblo. Spain ruled Tucson and the rest of Mexico until 1821. Then Mexico itself took over, but sold Tucson and much more territory to the United States in 1854 (see #13). When the Civil War broke out, the city joined the Confederacy and flew the Confederate flag from February to June 1862. Then Union forces, bearing the American flag, took the city back
20) Tucson is the oldest incorporated city in Arizona (and has been since incorporating in 1877).
21) For a few weeks in 1933, radio listeners in Tucson could enjoy a local show hosted by a very young Ray Bradbury. At age 12, he landed a gig at KGAR reciting comic strips on the air every Saturday night. “My pay was free tickets to see King Kong, Murders in the Wax Museum, and The Mummy,” he later reminisced. “You can’t do any better than that.”
22) El Charro Café is the oldest Mexican restaurant in the U.S. continuously operated by the same family. It may also be the birthplace of the chimichanga. As the legend goes, they were invented by Monica Flin, who established El Charro in 1922. She once flipped a burrito right into the fryer, splattering oil everywhere. Since kids were within earshot, she resisted the urge to curse and yelled “chimichanga,” a slang word that means thingamajig, instead.
23) The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is truly larger than life. A gallery of scale models, it boasts more than 300 tiny room boxes and houses. Some examples predate the Revolutionary War.
24) Downtown, a street known as Calle Carlos Arruza honors one of the greatest bullfighters in history, Mexican-born Carlos Arruza, whose nickname was El Ciclon (The Cyclone). According to historian David Leighton, Calle Carlos Arruza is one of the very few streets—possibly the only street—in the U.S. named after a bullfighter.
25) Only two non-captive jaguars, the largest cats in the New World, are known to reside within the U.S. One of them, nicknamed El Jefe, is a Tucson celebrity. Discovered in 2011, he can be found stalking the Santa Rita Mountains 25 miles south of the city. Jaguars are a near-threatened species: biologists estimate that about 15,000 are left in the wild.