Coconino County

Flagstaff, AZ


Flagstaff, Arizona is a decent sized city located in a cool forest just below the San Francisco Peaks. Located in the Coconino National Forest at nearly 7,000 feet, Flagstaff is a great escape from the summer heat, as it’s just 2 hours north of Phoenix. Flagstaff has a long history filled with cattle, timber, and the railroad; so kick back, relax, and enjoy this history page.

We begin in the 1850’s, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, sent the Army Corps. of Topographical Engineers out to survey a possibility for a transcontinental railroad. In 1865, Lt. Amiel W. Whipple set out with his men along the 35th parallel. They camped at Flagstaff on a snowy Christmas day. They then headed south along the Verde River, following other rivers until they reached the Colorado, where they picked back up on the California 35th parallel.

Just after Whipple, Lt. Edward F. Beale set out to survey the land; however, he used his trusty camels. Because the camels were too stubborn to learn English, and the handlers couldn’t learn Arabic, camel drivers were ‘imported’ from the Middle East. Of these were the famous Hadji Ali, better known as Hi Jolly. The military survey’s proved successful and the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad built a transcontinental railroad. The Civil War slowed progress, but by 1881, it had reached Flagstaff. It wasn’t until 1883 that a complete line stretched across Arizona.

Post office and other buildings in Flagstaff, 1899.

In the spring of 1876, a colony of 50 men from Boston settled down in Flagstaff. They planned to settle near the Little Colorado River, however a group of Mormon’s had already settled there, so they continued further west. They planned a town site near Leroux Springs, one of the two important springs in Flagstaff. The men were inspired by Samuel Cozzens, who traveled to the very different southern Arizona in the 1860’s. He traveled back to New England proclaiming all that Arizona had to offer and even wrote a book about Arizona. The colonists didn’t stay long and quickly left.

On July 4th of that same year, another group of colonists arrived from Boston. Because it was Independence Day, they cut the branches off of a tall pine and raised the American Flag. This flag pole remained a landmark for years and may have influenced the name of Flagstaff. The colony didn’t stay long either and left soon after they arrived.

Thomas F. McMillan gets the credit of being the first permanent resident of Flagstaff. McMillan was from Tennessee and arrived at about the same time as the first group of colonists from Boston (spring of 1876). He built a cabin and corral near Antelope Spring, which would later become known as Old Town and Old Town Spring.

By 1881, the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad had reached Flagstaff. A single boxcar served as the very first depot. Since the railroad was given 20 mile sections of land on each side of the tracks, the Atlantic & Pacific sold the land to ranchers. In 1886, Flagstaff was the largest city on the rail line between Albuquerque and the Pacific Coast.

Welcome to Flagstaff sign

The San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff

Shortly before this, John W. Young formed the Mormon Cattle Company. However Young had to leave the state quickly when a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1885. The company was renamed the Arizona Cattle Company, which became known as the A-1 a few years later. Over 16,000 cattle lived in the A-1’s ranches north of Flagstaff, but by 1889, the A-1 would be bought out by the Babbitt’s, quite possibly the most successful ranchers in Northern Arizona.

On a cold spring morning in 1886, Dave and Billy Babbitt arrived in Flagstaff. Two of their other brothers, C.J. and George would later move out to Arizona, with the youngest brother, Edward, staying in Cincinnati. The brothers came up with $20,000 to start a grocery and buy land (which was a penny an acre at the time). The brothers stamped “C.O.” on their cattle, in honor of their hometown. Their company would become later known as the CO Bar Ranch. Within only a few months, over 17 loads of cattle made its way off the Babbitt Ranch, and after encouragement from their stepfather, the brothers began to expand their business insights. Dave opened a mercantile, George got into Real Estate, and C.J. and Bill ran the Cattle ranch. By 1889, the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company proved to be invaluable when the cattle industry declined with the drought. Also in 1889, the CO Bar Ranch purchased the A-1 Ranch, doubling its size.

From 1909 to 1919, business boomed and the CO Bar Ranch was herding animals all over northern Arizona. The Brothers continued to expand their business, opening trading posts, automotive garages, banks, an ice plant, livery stable, slaughterhouse, opera house and mortuary. The Babbitt’s owned nearly everything but used their money and power in a humbler way. The CO Bar Ranch is still operating today and is still one of the largest in the state; however they reduced their operations in the 1990’s.

The San Francisco Peaks in the morning

In the same year of the Babbitt brothers arrival, 1886, another pair of brothers arrived; the Riordan brothers. Rather than cattle, the Riordans’ were interested in timber, another largely available resource in Flagstaff. In 1903, Timothy Riordan completed a dam south of Flagstaff. The lake behind it was named Lake Mary, after his oldest daughter, and would become an important source of water. The two brothers built a huge log mansion in 1904. It was called Kinlichi (“Redhouse” in Navajo) and housed both brothers and their families. The mansion stood as a testament, and still stands, to what helped shape Northern Arizona. The Riordan brother’s mansion has since been turned into a state park, the Riordan Mansion State Park.

With cattle and timber booming, Flagstaff grew quickly. In 1891, the population was about 1,500. Also, churches sprang up in the late 1870’s, having Protestants and Catholics (begun by the Jesuits) to name two. At the turn of the century, Flagstaff shifted to more tourism as Route 66 passed right through Flagstaff.

In 1899, the states youngest university, Northern Arizona University Opened. In 1901, the first graduating class, a group of four women, received their diplomas. The name was changed to Northern Arizona State Teachers College because it focused on teaching at first, however it was changed back a number of years later. N.A.U. has grown considerably and now is home to thousands of students.

Fernow Cabin, one of the cabins avaliable to rent

On an interesting and somewhat important side note, in 1893, Dr. Percival Lowell moved to Flagstaff. He built Lowell Observatory on top of Mars Hill, named this because he mainly studied Mars and believed intelligent life was there. Lowell claimed that Flagstaff had the clearest air and best visibility in the United States. He discovered the location of an unknown planet as well. He died in 1916, but in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in the exact spot Lowell had founded

Flagstaff is a great place to escape the summer heat and attracts many people every year. Recreational activities vary greatly from skiing to hiking to just relaxing. Cabin rentals, trails and state parks all await you in Flagstaff. Flagstaff sits in the Coconino National Forest and is the First International Dark Sky City. Flagstaff is guaranteed to be a great place for you, so be sure to check it out if you haven’t already!



  1. Trimble, Marshall. Roadside History of Arizona. 2nd edition. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2004. 223-234. Print.