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  • The Catalina Highway:Boosterism, Convict Labor, and the Road to Tucson's Backyard Mountain
  • Tom Zoellner (bio)

The 1920s was a decade of bold civic ambition when it came to paved roads, with plentiful federal money flowing into regional authorities. Civic boosters in mountainous regions across the United States looked especially to nearby peaks and conceived them as potential recreation areas for motorists. The business class of Tucson, Arizona, wanted to leverage financial support for a nearby mountain retreat away from the heat of the desert floor. Mount Lemmon, the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, was the obvious target, as it already had a grouping of vacation cabins near the top accessible via a mining road up the north slope. But getting to the base of this rutty road required a thirty-mile detour around the western edge of the mountains, a journey considered too ponderous for a tourist.

The means for a more direct highway up the southern slope would eventually be unlocked by Frank Hitchcock, an enigmatic Republican political operative and confidant of presidents, who made Tucson his home in semi-retirement and the operation of one of its daily newspapers a hobby. His successful public campaign for a serpentine road on the Tucson-facing side of the range resulted in a construction project that lasted eighteen years and cost $942,000. The Catalina Highway was a remarkable engineering feat, crossing ridges and canyons, gaining 5,293 feet in elevation and taking its [End Page 131] motorists around 206 total curves.1 It opened up the community of Summerhaven to larger-scale development and made it possible for the U.S. Forest Service to build Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski destination in the nation.

But the Catalina Highway also earned a reputation as the most dangerous road for motorists in the entire state. It was also built nearly entirely by prison labor, without a great deal of care for the impacts on the surrounding landscape. A total of 8,003 convicts, mainly serving short sentences, worked on the road between 1933 and 1951, resulting in a mixed legacy that would forever after be tied to the identity of the tallest mountain in the Santa Catalina range, Mount Lemmon.

There were plenty of examples of similar projects in other parts of the country. The construction of the "Skyway" through the Great Smoky Mountains—including a spur road up the face of Clingman's Dome, the highest mountain in Tennessee—and the consequent rush of tourist interest in the area had proved the economic value of such projects, especially those that could be paid for with public funds.2 After the governor of South Dakota, Peter Norbeck, led the effort to designate and develop a patch of the Black Hills he called "Custer State Park," he sought to showcase its scenic beauty primarily through the then-novel phenomena of leisure automobile tourism. While traveling the new Needles Highway in South Dakota, the writer P. D. Peterson extolled the ease of traveling up mountains and between canyons in almost mystical terms, with glorious pictures unfolding in front of the windshield like a motion picture without the need to touch a shoe to dirt. It brought "a feeling almost beyond description to the soul of the driver."3

By the 1920s, urban elites increasingly spent taxpayer money to open patches of unpopulated nature, with an eye toward real-estate development. For instance, the president of the Long Island State Parks Commission, Robert Moses, used his enormous clout and willingness to tap public funds to help New Yorkers speed [End Page 132] their way to the Hamptons and points beyond. Similar federal spending on roads and bridges helped opened up Cape Cod for Bostonians and the northern lakes of Minnesota for Twin Cities residents. The powerful director of the National Park Service from 1917 until 1928, Stephen Mather, viewed a major part of his mission, the building of smooth all-weather roads into previously wild places, not merely as an economic development measure. Instead, Mather perceived this project as a contribution to the scenic and recreational assets of the nation, as well as a method of ensuring a permanent...


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