Rooted in the Past

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Original Presidio boundary demarcation
Original Presidio boundary demarcation,
Turquoise Trail, El Presidio Historic District.

Stories of Tucson, as yet untold, are just underfoot. Archaeologists and preservationists like Tucson’s Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Jonathan Mabry, are the explorers who piece together what is an archaeological puzzle map — one guide in city planning of today.

Dr. Mabry’s fieldwork has helped the city discover settlements, preserved underground in the desert landscape around us. He completed investigations that helped Tucson discover its heritage (including a 1990s discovery of a mission settlement and pithouses at the base of A Mountain, validating Tucson’s claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States). Trenches cut during that investigation, co-directed by the historical archaeologist Homer Thiel, identified remnants of the early 1800s Mission San Agustín del Tucson and Convento, where foundations of a granary and an undisturbed Native American cemetery also were discovered. A stone demarcation now outlines the walls of this original mission (situated near the Cushing Bridge streetcar stop and the walled Mission Garden).

“Archaeology continues to open an extraordinary window into what our past looks like and, as explorers, we draw lessons from the what we find in the landscape around us,” says Dr. Mabry.

Sanborn 1919

Old maps, with their ornamental symbols and their exquisitely flowered legends, can be works of art. The complexity and beauty of these relics of a specific Tucson timeline and history — reveal information that continues to enlighten Dr. Mabry’s work.

From the 1919 Sanborn Map

“An old map of our city is a snapshot of how a previous generation perceived the structure of the built environment they experienced in their daily lives,” Dr. Mabry says. “Studying it connects us to their world in their time, and shows us an earlier form that our current city came from.”

Old maps support the work of city development, he notes: “For a city planner, it shows an earlier layout that influenced our urban design. For a historian, it shows the spatial relationships between places mentioned in manuscripts or captured in photographs. For a historic preservationist, it shows the original context of the historic buildings we have left from that time.”

While many historic Tucson maps are preserved in the Arizona Historical Society library, Dr. Mabry has a treasured copy in his office, gleaned from his research. “When I look at the 1919 Sanborn map of downtown Tucson, I see that we have lost a lot of those buildings, but there are a surprising number of them still here. That makes our downtown an authentic place where all of us want to spend time,” he says.

Cushing Bridge
Cultural mapping can be found
on the Cushing Bridge

There are several resources for urban exploring looking to learn more:

  • identifies historic buildings and locally owned businesses along the Modern Streetcar route;

Some Tucson structures, like the Cushing Bridge, are themselves a form of cultural map. To those exploring on foot, the Cushing Bridge offers cultural navigation along its walkways. Embedded in the Bridge walkways is a series of images depicting city milestones. The milestones align with certain dates and time, and this summer there are two special dates to visit the bridge for a special experience: July 3 and August 20.


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