By Norm Tessman
Tents to log cabins to shopping centers as seen from the 'Sphinx'.
To the Yavapai People, Thumb Butte was Nymit-gi-yaka, "Mountain Lion Lying Down." Anglo pioneers called it "the Sphinx," and wrote legends about its powers. Thumb Butte has always been symbolic of our community, and generations of Prescottonians have looked down upon the town from atop its 6,522-foot summit.
Imagine that a family of persistent butte hikers had regularly photographed Prescott over the last one hundred thirty-four years. What would be the most constant element of that historical photographic sequence? Obviously, the answer is CHANGE, progressing more rapidly in some decades than others, but always apparent.
From the Butte's vantage in 1863, our imaginary hiker/photographers would have watched bearded newcomers who panned the area's creeks for gold. The next summer they looked down on men cutting the forest, building a territorial capital of Ponderosa Pine amidst wood smoke and granite dust. A decade later, they viewed streets of new Victorian houses and a prosperity born of Bradshaw Mountain silver strikes.
In 1887, a ribbon of steel steamed down from the north, transforming Prescott into a railroad center. Like many Wild West towns, there were cowboys, rodeo, and the temptations of Whiskey Row, but these were strongly balanced by schools, a thriving business community, and unfailing law and order. About 1903, our watchers from Thumb Butte would have recorded a miraculous new arrival, a four-wheeled carriage without horses, which would soon become a national craze. The automobile would do much, for better or for worse, to change the face of Prescott.
Unfortunately, neither our watchers from the Butte nor their continuous Prescott photographic record exist. As the next best thing, the Sharlot Hall Museum offers "THE VIEW FROM THUMB BUTTE: THE CHANGING TOWNSCAPE OF PRESCOTT, ARIZONA, 1864-1997," as its featured exhibit for 1997. Using photographs from the museum's archives and from the community, the exhibit documents Prescott's changing history, even as it might have been seen from atop the 'Sphinx' and recorded throughout the streets of our town.
Some parts of the exhibit tell of Prescott's past. The Nyav-gah-paya, today's Yavapai tribe of Prescott, are followed from imprisonment at San Carlos Reservation to their present status as owners of the Prescott Resort and Frontier Village Shopping Center. Fort Whipple, Prescott's sibling down Granite Creek, is seen first as frontier army post, then as a 1920's hospital for tubercular soldiers, and finally as today's Veteran's Center.
In the exhibit, sequences of historic and modern photos trace the evolution of the heart of Prescott, the blocks surrounding the Yavapai courthouse square. The reverse of these same panels shows the many faces of Prescott's two courthouses and the plaza around them.
The exhibit looks at "Shapers of Prescott," human happenings and institutions that have molded today's community. Schools, the railroad, automobiles, the great depression, catastrophic fires, and the on going selling of the town as a retirement center are some of these "shapers". Another section of the exhibit features Prescott's outlying satellite and bedroom communities, from the 1860's boomtown of Walker, to the Phoenician summer retreat of Iron Springs, and today's explosively growing Prescott Valley.
"I remember when" quotes the feelings and remembrances of ten long-time Prescottonians. It includes a video of some- old timers," which concludes with "What the Hell Happened to Prescott?" by Native Northern Arizonan, Bob Dean.
"One person's gain is another person's loss" looks at the positive and negative aspects of Prescott's growth, suggesting that change, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It asks viewers whether today's development is a loss, in making Prescott more like every other Sun Belt town, or a positive step toward modernization and economic growth.
The exhibit's largest, and possibly most unusual image, is an eight foot square aerial photograph which was taken over Prescott in November, 1996. As museum staff installed this huge visual, we found ourselves fascinated at seeing our entire community so clearly from the air. Over the next year, it will undoubtedly inspire many exclamations of "Wow, there's my house!" and "Look at all that development!"
Today's growth-related controversies are considered in "Growing Pains," a look at twelve growth-related Prescott issues, which have stirred controversy and commanded significant space in Prescott's newspapers. Visitors are invited to contribute a thirteenth "pain," which they see as a major local problem for the future.
"THE VIEW FROM THUMB BUTTE" asks you to take the hike to Thumb Butte's summit, if only in your mind, and from there to look down upon Prescott. You will see our town both as it was in the past and as it is today. The Museum hopes it will help you to visualize the best possible future for Prescott, and to make the decisions that are necessary to achieve that vision.
"THE VIEW FROM THUMB BUTTE" exhibit opened to the public on March 14, 1997, and will run through January 1998.
Norm Tessman is Senior Curator at Sharlot Hall Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (buh7020p)
Reuse only by permission.
A view of Gurley Street looking west in the 1890's. The city has seen a great deal of change and controversy in the past century.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (f2103pd)
Reuse only by permission.
The downtown fire of 1900 brought about a number of changes to the landscape. Rebuilding occurred immediately after the fire, with many changes becoming apparent.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (citn178pb)
Reuse only by permission.
A 1930 aerial view of downtown Prescott from the west, with a similar view angle as the "hiker/photographers" atop Thumb Butte might have seen at that time. Can you find the Courthouse? Gurley Street? Train depot?