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Life in the Old Pueblo: Here's how Tucson came to own its charming nickname

Life in the Old Pueblo: Here's how Tucson came to own its charming nickname

The Big Apple. The Windy City. The Old Pueblo. Each name says that city is one of a kind. Ever wonder how Tucson came to be called the Old Pueblo?

It's hard to tell how nicknames get started, but, like the town itself, it goes back a ways.

Founded in 1775 on top of a prehistoric Hohokam village, Tucson was first called the Presidio San Agustín del Tucson. Taken from the Latin word praesidium, these outposts were first established on the hostile frontiers of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. They were not just garrisons or forts, but self-contained villages where families and other civilians, as well as the soldiers, lived inside a protective wall.

At first, the term pueblo, or pueblito, referred to the Pima Indian village at the base of "A" Mountain several miles to the southwest, not to the presidio, where the Pima County Courthouse and the Tucson Museum of Art are now. A century later, the name moved from the Indian village across the Santa Cruz River to downtown Tucson.

Ironically, it was not the Spanish-speaking residents who came up with the name, but Anglos trying to bring in business. When the railroad first came to town on March 20, 1880, Mayor R.N. "Bob" Leatherwood was so proud of the accomplishment that he sent telegrams to the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the president of the United States and even the pope. In his telegram to the pope, Leatherwood said:

"The mayor of Tucson begs the honor of reminding Your Holiness that this ancient and honorable pueblo was founded by the Spaniards under the sanction of the church more than three centuries ago, and to inform Your Holiness that a railroad from San Francisco, California, now connects us with the Christian World."

Legend has it that somewhere down the line a smart-aleck telegraph operator tapped out this reply:

"His Holiness, the Pope, acknowledges with appreciation receipt of your telegram informing him that the ancient city of Tucson at last has been connected by rail with the outside world and sends his benediction but, for his own satisfaction would ask, 'Where in Hell is Tucson?' "

This might be a fable, but we Tucsonans love a good joke on ourselves, so we keep it alive.

Notice that Mayor Leatherwood said "ancient and honorable pueblo?"

Reporters liked Tucson's catchy new nickname, but after a while it began appearing in the newspapers as the "A. and H. Pueblo," perhaps to save space. There is no telling when A. and H. evolved into The Old Pueblo, but we do know why it caught on.

In the late 1870s, the Santa Fe Railway was in financial trouble. Looking around for a way to increase revenue, it focused on the new tourism fad created by the Gilded Age barons of industry. The Santa Fe lured them away from grand tours of Europe and the Holy Land with promises of exotic getaways to romantic places with catchy phrases like "Land of Enchantment" and "Indian Detours."

About 40 years later, Tucson businessmen borrowed that Southwest imagery to boost Tucson's tourist economy.

In the 1920s, the Tucson Sunshine Climate Club was formed to bring tourists, snowbirds, health seekers and retirees to Tucson.

They peppered their ads with the phrase "Old Pueblo" to brand the location with its exotic Spanish-Indian past.

The nickname caught on, and every time it is repeated it reminds people that after 4,000 years of habitation (235 years by European descendants), the Old Pueblo is indeed a most ancient and honorable city.

Jim Turner recently retired from the Arizona Historical Society. He is now a freelance lecturer, writer and editor and teaches and gives tours for Pima Community College. You may contact him through his website at

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