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Flagstaff History

Flagstaff’s roots date back to pioneer days. In the late 1800s, travelers to the area stopped to camp at a spring in the highest mountains of Arizona. As the story goes, it was Independence Day, so they climbed one of the tall, slender ponderosa pines in the area, removed the branches, and hung the U.S. flag. That flagstaff became a landmark guiding travelers, and the name stuck. Thomas McMillan is credited as being the first permanent settler of Flagstaff, in 1876. The arrival of the railroad a few years later turned the pioneer campsite into a bustling area for logging, cattle and sheep, as well as international visitors on treks to see the Grand Canyon. Ten years after McMillan’s arrival, Flagstaff had become the largest city on the rail line from Albuquerque to the West Coast. In 1894 Lowell Observatory was built just west of downtown on what is now known as Observatory Mesa. It gave astronomers a unique high-altitude view of the night sky. Some 30 years later Pluto was discovered there. While it was recently determined not to be a planet, people here still take pride in its discovery and the subsequent contributions to astronomy. Flagstaff’s astronomical importance grew again in the 1960s and ‘70s when it was the home base for geoscientists working on the Apollo missions to the moon. A transportation boom brought many travelers via Route 66 beginning in the 1920s, which played a role in Flagstaff’s incorporation in 1928. Another big part of Flagstaff’s history is Northern Arizona University, which was founded in 1899 as the Arizona Teachers College. NAU has since become a major employer in town as it has grown into a leader in many types of educational endeavors, including forestry and alternative energy.