Historic photograph of Prescott, AZ with Thumb Butte on the horizon. Ca. 1908.
Prescott, Arizona is a city with a rich history that dates back to the Wild West. Led by the prospect of finding gold, pioneers ventured westward hoping to strike it rich, and just like that, Prescott was born. Despite hardships and change (seemingly at every turn), Prescott has endured. Today it is a thriving city that pays homage to the past while embracing the future.
The Humble Beginnings of Prescott, AZ
Prescott had a long history before settlers ever arrived. Apache and Yavapai natives occupied the territory and put up a fight to keep the land. The rocks of Granite Dells are millions of years old, and many of the trails that we enjoy today intertwine with the history of the land.
During the Civil War of 1863, Congress enacted legislation creating the Arizona Territory. In May of 1863, Joseph R. Walker discovered gold in the Bradshaw Mountains, southwest of present-day Prescott. A flurry of events led to the establishment of Fort Whipple in Granite Creek and the founding of Prescott. Prescott was officially founded on May 30, 1864.
What’s in a Name?
Prescott started off with several proposed names, including “Audubon,” “Goodwin City,” and “Atzlan.” The name “Prescott” was chosen to honor William Hickling Prescott. William was the author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico. Prescott was “a good citizen… with… perseverance under difficulty, amiability of character and love of country.”
The site of Prescott was chosen by Arizona Territorial Governor John Goodwin. Goodwin replaced John A. Gurley, who was appointed by Abraham Lincoln but died before taking office.
The Original Arizona State Capitol
Prescott started off as the capitol of the state of Arizona as well as the seat of government for Yavapai County. Prescott was appealing to several groups of people: miners sought gold; farmers sought land through the federal Homestead Act; other groups, such as merchants and lawyers, sought new business opportunities.
While Prescott remains the Yavapai County seat, Prescott’s capitol status has changed over time. It served as state capitol from 1867 to 1877, at which point the state capitol moved briefly to Tucson. By the end of the year, however, the capitol was moved back to Prescott where it remained for 12 more years until 1889. At that point it was moved to Phoenix, where it has been ever since.
Despite hardships and change—seemingly at every turn since its founding in 1864— Prescott has endured.
Prescott in the 1800s
Prescott started out very much as a mining town. Because of this, there were many economic fluctuations. There was a severe mining slump in 1885 that caused many businesses to close.
The community also had a strong cattle industry, so Prescott was able to recover. At the end of 1886, the Arizona Grand Central Railway opened. In 1893, they replaced it with a branch of the Santa Fe Railroad. The Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix Railroad was called the Peavine Railroad. The Peavine connected the mining area with the Southern Pacific line.
Along with the benefit of transportation, this newfound railroad access helped the local economy improve. The Palace Restaurant and Saloon opened in 1887 on Whiskey Row, one of the first restaurants in the area. Early patrons included the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. Doc gambled in Prescott. His common-law wife, Big Nose Kate, worked at the Palace Saloon.
An electric light plant came in 1889, along with telephones. Prescott continued to prosper and homes reflected Victorian-era architecture. The greater Prescott area grew in landmass as people moved across Granite Creek, farther south, and even west of Prescott.
Prescott in the 1900s
The Formation of Watson Lake
In the early 1900s, the Chino Valley Irrigation District built a dam on Granite Creek. As part of the project, Watson Lake was formed as a reservoir and immediately became an appealing part of the landscape for early Prescott residents. Interestingly, Watson Lake would not be officially purchased by the city of Prescott until 1997, nearly 100 years after it was created.
The Great Prescott Fire of 1900
In 1900, a great fire blew through Prescott, burning down almost all the buildings on Whiskey Row. As four and a half blocks of downtown Prescott burned, 20 mercantile establishments and 12 hotels were lost, including the Burke Hotel, which had been advertised as “the only fireproof hotel in Arizona.”
The fire presumably started because a miner left a candle on the wall of his room in the OK Lodging House, which was next to Scopel Hotel on South Montezuma Street. Early on, the fire could have been stopped by some buckets of water, but Prescott had no water at the time. The only water supply came from a well on Aubrey Street which was not pumping at the time of the fire because, tragically, the pumping plant was being repaired, and the engine had been disconnected from the pump.
Patrons on Goodwin Street believed the fire wouldn’t cross the street and hit them, but it did. It swept up Whiskey Row, destroying Sam Hill Hardware Store, Cob Web Hall, Palace Saloon, and the Burke Hotel.
Back then, the Prescott Fire Department was volunteer only. There were three major hose companies in Prescott: Dudes, OK Hose Company, and Toughs, which usually arrived at hydrants first. There was much rivalry between the three, and fistfights ensued when more than one company reached a hydrant at about the same time. This was no exception, but as expected, Toughs led the way in the city’s fight against the blaze.
Palace Saloon was able to save some its structure due to the work of patrons, who removed the entire bar and back bar to the square as the fire approached. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the structure was lost to the fire. When the Palace rebuild was completed in 1901—its brick building rebuilt and the formerly-removed elements reinstalled—it was called “the most beautiful saloon in all of Arizona.”
Amusingly, huge amounts of liquor were spared from the fire. So while 11 bars in total burned, business remained good—even while the fire raged! According to rumor, patrons simply moved across to Courthouse Plaza to watch the fire burn as they drank.
Like History? Try Prescott!
With as much history as there is to this historic northern-Arizona city, we’ve barely scratched the surface here. Prescott has so much to offer visitors and residents alike—top-notch artwork for art aficionados, great parks for the kids, tantalizing cuisine for foodies, and so much more. If you’ve never visited Prescott, there’s no better time than today. One day here and you’ll know in an instant why it’s so loved and sought after.
Well, what are you waiting for? Find a hotel and book your next visit to Prescott today!