Arivaca still has 1850s feel

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Story and Photo by Sam Negri

Those of us who live in the Tucson area tend to think of Pima County as everything we can see on our daily trips around the urban area –– the Catalina Foothills, the suburbs of Oro Valley and Marana, and unincorporated communities like Green Valley, for example. Relatively few realize most of the county is rural, isolated, and tranquil compared to the busy county seat at Tucson, which encompasses approximately 1 million people.

You can get a good feel for what the “other” Pima County is like by taking a short drive to historic Arivaca, population 695. The village, roughly 55 miles southeast of Tucson, is one of the oldest settlements in Arizona. 

Arivaca Road, which extends westward from I-19 at Amado to the village, was a dirt track until 1976, which may have contributed to the enclave’s Sleepy Hollow ambience.

Like much of southern Arizona before the first Europeans arrived, Pima and Tohono O’odham Indians originally populated Arivaca. In the 1700s, when Arizona was part of New Spain, Spaniards were attracted to Arivaca because of its water, grazing, and mining potential.

Arivaca sceneAgustín Ortiz, a member of a prominent Arizpe, Sonora, family who had moved to Tucson, was one of the earliest settlers. Ortiz applied for a land grant in 1812 at a time when Spain was auctioning lands in the nearly uninhabited regions of Arizona. Ortiz was the highest bidder with 747 pesos and three reales (reales were silver coins) for the land surrounding Arivaca. The typical size of these land grants for stock grazing was 17,350 acres.

Before and after the arrival of the Ortiz family, miners blanketed the mountains throughout the Arivaca region. Eventually there were more than 100 mines, most of them small operations, in the surrounding mountains. Gold, silver, lead, copper and tungsten production started in Spanish colonial times and continued intermittently through the 1950s.

One of the best known of these mines was the Cerro Colorado or Heintzelman Mine, named after Samuel P. Heintzelman, president of the Sonora Mining and Exploring Co. The mining company bought all of the Ortiz family’s mineral rights in 1856. Investors from the East, principally Samuel Colt, the Connecticut firearms inventor and manufacturer, financed its operations.

Silver from the Heintzelman Mine was processed at a smelter in Arivaca. The bullion was then hauled across the Mexican border, about 11 miles to the south of town, and transported to the port at Guaymas, Sonora, for shipment to San Francisco. One of the most engaging accounts of these mining operations in the Arivaca region can be found in Samuel Peter Heintzelman’s journal, much of which is included in Samuel Peter Heintzelman and the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company by Diane M.T. North (University of Arizona Press, 1980).

Arivaca village was always more or less where it is now, yet three different countries governed it. Once part of Spain, it became Mexican after Mexico won independence in 1821. It joined the United States with ratification of the Gadsden Purchase in 1854.

Today, people are drawn to Arivaca because of its great natural beauty and the presence of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

If you like fresh air, uncluttered natural landscapes and wildlife, you’ll enjoy a visit to Arivaca Ciénega, an easy one-hour drive southwest of Tucson. The ciénega is part of the Wildlife Refuge, which has its headquarters about 12 miles west of Arivaca at the edge of Sasabe. 

A ciénega is a marshy or swampy area, a rare place to come upon in an arid climate like ours. This one has a flat trail that makes a loop slightly more than a mile long. Parts of it are on a raised boardwalk that will keep your feet dry on those rare occasions when the ground actually gets soggy.

There are seven springs feeding Arivaca Ciénega and while water isn’t always visible, the broad wild grasslands, willows, and towering cottonwoods nourished by the water can be seen year round.

There’s also an abundance of birdlife, everything from Vermilion Flycatchers to Great Blue Herons and a variety of hawks and owls, as well as muledeer. Wildlife viewing is so popular at the ciénega that the Arivaca branch of Pima County Library allows you to check out binoculars and bird books.  The library is one-eighth of a mile west of the entrance to the ciénega. It’s open all week except Sunday and Monday.

Getting to Arivaca Ciénega is simple. From the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 19 in Tucson, drive I-19 south for about 33 miles to Exit 48 at Amado.
take a right off the highway, turn right again at the “T” for about a block, and then turn left at Arivaca Road, which is adjacent to the Cow Palace restaurant.
Drive 22 miles and watch for the entrance and parking area for Arivaca Ciénega on the left. There are restrooms and picnic tables near the parking lot.

The village of Arivaca, where you’ll find gas, food and supplies, is just a quarter miles beyond the entrance to the ciénega. The altitude at Arivaca is about 3,600 feet and temperatures will likely be between five and 10 degrees cooler than Tucson. 

Each month, Pima County FYI will feature a column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Sam Negri. A journalist for more than 40 years, Negri was Pima County Communications Department Director from 2008 to 2012. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Arizona Highways, Phoenix Magazine, Sunset, Yale Alumni Magazine, and numerous other publications. He is the author of the Visitors Guide to Kartchner Caverns State Park and several books published by Arizona Highways, including Arizona, The Beauty of it All.

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