El Fuerte

The Department of Interior put the Fort's lumber, doors, windows and other such items up for sale and they were hauled away. Gradual disintegration of the adobes began. View three images from Tom's Marshall's 1900 photos of Ft. Lowell.

But something new happened. Immigrants from Mexico were arriving in search of a better life. The old Fort buildings provided some shelter. The people replaced doors, windows, roofs, and lived within the old adobe walls, raising families and livestock. The place came to be known as El Fuerte, The Fort. The men cut wood for their families and also transported it into the town of Tucson for sale. They made adobes and worked in construction; they raised truck gardens. The women did their washing in the acequias, the irrigation ditches.


[FL2]  Señora Soledad Olivas washing clothes in the acequia
Señora Soledad Olivas washing clothes in the acequia


A little before 1900 another kind of people had begun to arrive, finding this place of fairly abundant water. They were the Mormon families, of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, who came from the north. Always they looked for water and verdant land and they found it in this area of the now abandoned Fort. Mormon farmers established dairy farms. They developed irrigation ditches on both sides of the Rillito. The source of the water was the Narrows, at the confluence of the two rivers where there was always a steady supply, since it sank underground at this point. They sent word to the Mormon families who had settled in Chihuahua to come and join them. They established their center, Binghampton, about two miles to the west of the Fort, in the vicinity of what is now Dodge Boulevard and Ft. Lowell Road. There they built a thriving community.


[RS3] Corbett Ditch
Corbett Ditch



[RS4] Silos built and used by the Mormons
Silos built and used by the Mormons


About the same time, at least one Chinese farmer built a house and cultivated a truck garden. Even to the mid-thirties and later, people remember him driving his wagon full of produce to sell in Tucson. What was believed to be his house was excavated by the Arizona State Museum archaeologists in the 1980s.


[HS5] Fuerteño workers standing in front of "sartas de chiles colorados" hanging on the commissary wall
Fuerteño workers standing in front of "sartas de chiles colorados" hanging on the commissary wall


In the 1920s and 30s, the Mexican families who had settled in the Fort buildings looked toward the vacant lands to the west and, as Dean Byron F. Cummings of the Archaeology Department of the University of Arizona became aware of the historical value of the old Fort and tried to save it, the Mexicans began to find lots west along Fort Lowell Road and to build small adobe "Sonora Ranch" style houses, the same style as those they had left in Sonora. They raised their families and continued to work in the same trades as they had while living at the Fort -- cutting and selling wood, planting gardens, making adobes. A real community grew up. They dug wells and found water at less than 30 feet. There was a school. The men built a church. The first church was tiny, just big enough for the Carmelite Fathers, who came from Holy Family Church once a month, to stand in and serve mass while the communicants stood under the mesquite trees in front. A larger church was built on a rise in 1917, but it was demolished by a tornado in 1929. The strength of the community led them to build yet another church in Mission Revival style, San Pedro Chapel. The Chapel was dedicated in 1932 by Diocesan Bishop Daniel J. Gercke.

In the late 40s, a little store was built by one of the El Fuerte villagers, La Tiendita. Church, school, store, even a cemetery -- it was a real center for the people. Mexicans living far to the east came to attend the church and school, to enjoy the gay parties, baptisms, confirmations, and other social events which took place. There were weddings, too, as the families became interrelated. Perhaps 300 people were part of this community.


[RS1] La Tiendita
La Tiendita



[FL3] El Fuerte School class
El Fuerte School class



[FL4]  Fort Lowell Cemetery
Fort Lowell Cemetery


These were a proud people, though very poor at first. As time passed, they moved on to other areas of Tucson. They learned many ways to make a living and became substantial members of the larger society. The Village of El Fuerte was a way station, a stepping stone, a stage in their development as citizens. But they all remember El Fuerte. It was a hard life, but they think of it with nostalgia. They love to come back to visit; they enjoy telling about it. With pride and smiles they show the dog-eared photographs of their beginnings in El Fuerte. They are the families named Diaz, Lujan, Villa, Ochoa, Jacobo, Perez, Martinez, Casteldeoro, Garcia, Domingo, and others.