Ring's reflections: Research leaves columnist awash in Tucson history

2012-05-31T00:00:00Z 2012-05-31T07:32:38Z Ring's reflections: Research leaves columnist awash in Tucson historyOpinion by Bob Ring Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

My last two columns told the story of two early 1900s Tucson communities that were successful because of reliable water in the Rillito River. I had so much fun researching and writing those columns - and spent so much time working on them - that I thought you might be interested in some of my experiences.

It started early this year when my better half, Pat, and I, after living in Tucson for ages, "discovered" Rillito River Park and its nicely done walking paths and bicycle trails. How could it have taken so long (we asked ourselves) for us to stumble across such a wonderful Tucson resource?

I began thinking about writing a column on our belated discovery and started collecting data about the River Walk and its extension the Loop that will shortly encircle Tucson. I was well along with my planning when I woke up on Feb. 5 to find a column on that exact subject in the Arizona Daily Star written by Josh Brodesky. I had been scooped!

Then a knitting friend of Pat's, Anne Fletcher, suggested that I write a column about the pioneer Mormon community of Binghampton that developed on both sides of the Rillito River bend.

"Huh," I said. "Never heard of it!"

With my ignorance established, I went to the Internet to see what I could find. That led to visits to Brandi Fenton Memorial Park (which historically commemorates Binghampton) and the Binghampton Cemetery (still active today after 113 years).

Meanwhile Pat and I had attended a talk Jan. 29 on the history of Fort Lowell by my buddy Jim Turner at the restored San Pedro Chapel, just west of Fort Lowell Park. I followed that up by visiting my packrat brother Al's historical files to read some of Jim's source material.

That led me to Fort Lowell Park and the museum there, administered by the Arizona Historical Society. Bette Richards walked me through some fascinating historical materials.

To make a long(er) story short(er), I soon discovered the interesting connection between the Mormons in Binghampton and the settlers who followed the soldiers at Old Fort Lowell: a plentiful and reliable water supply and the use of ditches to carry water up to two miles to irrigate their farms. I immediately envisioned a two-part series.

I went back to the Internet and found new leads on both communities, plus little tidbits of information. In studying Mormon history in Mexico, I discovered that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's father was born in 1907 in the same colony from which Mormons left to come north to settle in Binghampton.

I also learned a lot about the early 1900s hydrology of Tanque Verde Creek and how the settlers drew water from the near-surface underground flow, but my summary for the column didn't pass Pat's review, due to an excess of "engineering complexity."

I visited the Arizona Historical Society on East Second Street twice to search its books, newspapers and historic photographs. I couldn't resist ordering (and paying for) a copy of an 1888 photo of the fort that was published in the column.

As for my family-history-tracing adventures in the Gold Rush country of California and southern Mexico, I used street maps and satellite maps as important parts of my research.

My little red car became a familiar site in the Binghampton and Old Fort Lowell neighborhoods as I drove up and down all the streets, looking for evidence of past history and interesting sites to stop and photograph.

I used satellite maps to study the Rillito, Tanque Verde and Pantano waterways, trying to find remnants of the irrigation ditches. Over several weeks and a half-dozen visits, Pat and I trudged for miles in the loose, sandy bottoms of the dry washes, finding no artifacts, trying to imagine how the irrigation ditches tied in to the then-running and underground water.

The final part of my research was finding and interviewing Duane Bingham, whose grandfather was the younger brother of Bingham family patriarch Nephi Bingham. Besides managing the Binghampton Cemetery, Duane has inherited many Binghampton historical materials, including priceless old photographs, one of which I was able to use in my column.

Among the many interesting things Duane told me was that the Rillito used to have very shallow banks. The current steep banks are a result of dredging by mining operations over the years. He also described a digging tool called a "Fresno scraper," a sort of open-front-end, horse-drawn wheelbarrow that the Mormons used to help dig the irrigation ditches and the basement of the big Mormon church.

So I worked on the two columns for four months, on and off. Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining. I enjoyed every minute!

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com or view his website, ringbrothershistory.com.

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