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  • The Way We Were: Exploring the history of Colossal Cave

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    By Tom Prezelski
    In this column a few months back, we learned how Pima County created Tucson Mountain Park. At the same time, there was a similar drive to preserve Colossal Cave for the public. The story of its acquisition and development is likewise complicated and similarly reflects that conservation of natural and historical resources has long been a policy priority for the county.

    It would not be proper to say that Colossal Cave was “discovered,” as archaeological evidence shows that Hohokam people were using the cavern as early as 900, and that the place remained a campsite for Sobaipuri, Tohono O’odham and Apache people into historical times. The site became known to Anglo-Americans in January 1879, when Solomon Lick, proprietor of the Mountain Springs stage station near what is now Vail, stumbled on a “tunnel” or “old mine” while trying to find some lost cattle. By the end of the month, Lick organized an expedition of what the local press called the “Arizona Catacombs.”

    For the next three decades, the press would mention, from time to time, excursions to the site, which was then called “Mountain Springs Cave.” After the railroad arrived, the ranch was no longer operated as a stage station, but was advertised as a sort of resort for Tucsonans seeking relief from the summer heat. Even at this early date,
    Colossal Cavethe place was seen as a scenic attraction.

    The first reference to the cavern as “Colossal Cave” in print came in 1917, when a local businessman organized regular automobile tours to the site. In 1922, Frank Schmidt, a German immigrant who had extensively explored the cave on his own, filed a lease for 160 acres of state trust land around the cave and invested in a series of improvements, including a ticket office and electric lighting.

    In 1925, Schmidt travelled to Phoenix to petition the State Land Board to extend the terms of his lease. State law did not allow for a lease of more than five years at a time, which tended to stifle long-term plans. In the absence of some sort of special allowance, he suggested that the state take over the site and operate it as a park.

    By 1930, local leadership was increasingly concerned that the cave could pass into private hands. The Chamber of Commerce created a committee to address the issue. Meanwhile, the Arizona Daily Star was extolling its virtues as a tourist attraction and lamenting the lack of local initiative in promoting it. The editor praised a legislative effort to handle the state land issue, but showed little faith that the problem would be resolved in Phoenix. The paper called for the creation of a national monument.

    In 1934, Schmidt agreed to relinquish his lease to the cave so that federal resources in the form of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) could be used to make improvements. When work was done, the county took up the lease and hired Schmidt to run the cave as a park. In March, 1940, the park saw 695 visitors, which was regarded as an “all time record.”

    Schmidt remained on the job until 1956, when the county entered into a contract with a private partnership to manage the park, establishing a precedent for the arrangement which continues today.

    In addition to providing for recreation, the county also found another, more practical use for the cave. The Recorder’s office took advantage of it as an ideal place to store old documents, maintaining a vault in a chamber which was blocked off from public access. This continued until the county built a deep storage facility at a more convenient location in 1971.

    But the county’s priority remained the vision expressed by the Star’s editor in 1930, namely, maintaining the cave as a revenue-generating attraction and preserving it as a public resource. The problem of ownership was finally resolved in 1992, when the county was at last able to outright purchase the 495 acres from the state.

    In the first quarter of 2016, the park saw 17,641 visitors, a “record number” that dwarfed the figure which so impressed county officials decades ago. Clearly, those who saw the cave’s potential back then have been proven right.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.
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