Waterlore: Lake Elmira

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By Jim Griffith

It’s summer in Tucson, and the hot weather is definitely with us. The rains have started, as well, or the monsoons, if you will. But that’s a pretty recent term for our rainy season, which in my experience was usually called just that, or “las aguas” in Spanish. I suspect the newer term represents an attempt by recently arrived media folks to validate our desert weather by pretending it’s somewhere else.

Lake Elmira location
Lake Elmira location: Sixth Avenue underpass in Tucson. Photo: Leigh Spigelman

A genuine Tucson tradition that started off in the local media, on the other hand, is the story of Lake Elmira. It begins in 1937, in the days before air conditioning, when everyone who was able to do so took off for San Diego or some other cool place for as long as they could. The town was pretty dead in those times, and one day Howard O. Welty, a young newspaperman at the Arizona Daily Star, decided that as long as there wasn’t much in the way of local news, he’d make some up. So he wrote a story about young Elmira Doakes, daughter of Tucsonan Joseph Doakes, who was the first person to swim across the pond that forms in the Sixth Avenue underpass after a heavy rain. The story tickled folks’ fancy, and the body of water became known as “Lake Elmira.”

A few years later, it was reported in the same paper that certain city interests had applied for a grant to chlorinate Lake Elmira and build a marina in its southern shore, referred to as the “Toole Avenue Landing.” Elmira and her wonderful lake appeared in the Star from time to time over the years, until in the 1980s two public-spirited but anonymous Tucsonans fabricated a phony historical marker in English and Spanish, and affixed it to the South face of the overpass. There it remains to this day, its original bronze painted a dull grey, still telling young Elmira’s story in English and Spanish. As the Cat in the Hat said, it’s fun to have fun, but you’ve got to know how.

Lake Elmira Plaque
This is what the plaque says: “Lake Elmira. According to a 1937 newspaper account, thirteen year old Elmira Doakes (daughter of Joseph Doakes of Tucson) was the first person to successfully swim across the body of water which formed in the Stone Avenue Underpass (during summer rains). Her route from the Toole Avenue Landing to the Northern Shore has not to our knowledge been followed since. There is apparently no truth to the rumor that the Federal aid was
denied in 1940 for building docking facilities and a chlorinating system in this once popular recreational area. (Although the Doakes current whereabouts is not known, it is believed that she moved to California after the Underpass received more efficient drains in the mid ?)”

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