Flagstaff is a city located in northern Arizona, in the southwestern United States. In 2013, the city’s estimated population was 68,667. The combined metropolitan area of Flagstaff has an estimated population of 136,539. It is the county seat of Coconino County. The city is named after a ponderosa pine flagpole made by a scouting party from Boston (known as the “Second Boston Party”) to celebrate the United States Centennial on July 4, 1876.
Flagstaff lies near the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, along the western side of the largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest in the continental United States. Flagstaff is located adjacent to Mount Elden, just south of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountain range in the state of Arizona. Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet (3,851 m), is located about 10 miles (16 km) north of Flagstaff in Kachina Peaks Wilderness.
Flagstaff’s early economy was based on the lumber, railroad, and ranching industries. Today, the city remains an important distribution hub for companies such as Nestlé Purina PetCare, and is home to Lowell Observatory, The U.S. Naval Observatory, the United States Geological Survey Flagstaff Station, and Northern Arizona University. Flagstaff has a strong tourism sector, due to its proximity to Grand Canyon National Park, Oak Creek Canyon, the Arizona Snowbowl, Meteor Crater, and historic Route 66. The city is also a center for medical device manufacturing, since Flagstaff is home to W. L. Gore and Associates.
In 1855, Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale surveyed a road from the Rio Grande in New Mexico to Fort Tejon in California, and camped near the current location of Flagstaff. The lieutenant had his men cut the limbs from a straight Ponderosa Pine tree in order to fly the United States flag.
Flagstaff ca. 1899; view of Post Office and other buildings on Terrace Street
The first permanent settlement was in 1876, when Thomas F. McMillan built a cabin at the base of Mars Hill on the west side of town. During the 1880s, Flagstaff began to grow, opening its first post office and attracting the railroad industry. The early economy was based on timber, sheep, and cattle. By 1886, Flagstaff was the largest city on the railroad line between Albuquerque and the west coast of the United States. A circa 1900 diary entry by journalist Sharlot Hall described the houses in the city at the time as a “third rate mining camp”, with unkempt air and high prices of available goods.
In 1894, Massachusetts astronomer Percival Lowell hired A. E. Douglass to scout an ideal site for a new observatory. Douglass, impressed by Flagstaff’s elevation, named it as an ideal location for the now famous Lowell Observatory, saying: “other things being equal, the higher we can get the better”. Two years later, the specially designed 24-inch (610 mm) Clark telescope that Lowell had ordered was installed. In 1930, Pluto was discovered using one of the observatory’s telescopes. In 1955 the U.S. Naval Observatory joined the growing astronomical presence, and established the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, where Pluto’s satellite, Charon, was discovered in 1978.
During the Apollo program in the 1960s, the Clark Telescope was used to map the moon for the lunar expeditions, enabling the mission planners to choose a safe landing site for the lunar modules. In homage to the city’s importance in the field of astronomy, asteroid 2118 Flagstaff is named for the city, and 6582 Flagsymphony for the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra.
Northern Arizona University’s Old Main building
The Northern Arizona Normal School was established in 1899, renamed Northern Arizona University in 1966. Flagstaff’s cultural history received a significant boost on April 11, 1899, when the Flagstaff Symphony made its concert debut at Babbitt’s Opera House. The orchestra continues today as the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, with its primary venue at the Ardrey Auditorium on the campus of Northern Arizona University.
The city grew rapidly, primarily attributable to its location along the east-west transcontinental railroad line in the United States. In the 1880s, the railroads purchased land in the west from the federal government, which was then sold to individuals to help finance the railroad projects. By the 1890s, Flagstaff found itself located along one of the busiest railroad corridors in the U.S., with 80-100 trains travelling through the city every day, destined for Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.
Old Coconino County Courthouse from Birch Avenue, June 2005
Route 66 was completed in 1926 and ran through Flagstaff. Flagstaff was incorporated as a city in 1928, and in 1929, the city’s first motel, the Motel Du Beau, was built at the intersection of Beaver Street and Phoenix Avenue. The Daily Sun described the motel as “a hotel with garages for the better class of motorists.” The units originally rented for $2.60 to $5.00 each, with baths, toilets, double beds, carpets, and furniture. Flagstaff went on to become a popular tourist stop along Route 66, particularly due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon.
Flagstaff grew and prospered through the 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, many businesses started to move from the city center, and the downtown area entered an economic and social decline. Sears and J.C. Penney left the downtown area in 1979 to open up as anchor stores in the new Flagstaff Mall, joined in 1986 by Dillard’s. By 1987, the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company, which had been a retail fixture in Flagstaff since 1891, had closed its doors at Aspen Avenue and San Francisco Street.
In 1987, the city drafted a new master plan, also known as the Growth Management Guide 2000, which would transform downtown Flagstaff from a shopping and trade center into a regional center for finance, office use, and government. The city built a new city hall, library, and the Coconino County Administrative Building in the downtown district, staking an investment by the local government for years to come. In 1992, the city hired a new manager, Dave Wilcox, who had previously worked at revitalizing the downtown areas of Beloit, Wisconsin and Missoula, Montana. During the 1990s, the downtown area underwent a revitalization, many of the city sidewalks were repaved with decorative brick facing, and a different mix of shops and restaurants opened up to take advantage of the area’s historical appeal.
On October 24, 2001, Flagstaff was recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association as the world’s first “International Dark-Sky City.”
Flagstaff is located at 35°11′57″N 111°37′52″W. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 63.9 square miles (165.5 km2), of which only 0.03 square miles (0.08 km2) (0.08%) is water.
At 7,000 feet (2,130 m) elevation, located adjacent to the largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest in North America, Flagstaff is located on a mountain surrounded by volcanoes, in the heart of the Coconino national forest. Any type of desert climate can be found below its elevation 100 miles from Flagstaff. The city is situated on the Rio de Flag, and is about 130 miles (210 km) north of Phoenix.