Fort Lowell History

By Buck Bannister on June 30th, 2008

museum3The opening of the Fort Lowell Museum on Veteran’s Day 1963 culminated more than thirty years of work. Located in Fort Lowell Park, which contains part of the original Army post, the museum buildings are accurate reconstructions of the commanding officer’s quarters, circa 1885. In front of the buildings runs Cottonwood Lane, the trees replanted as they grew originally along officers’ row.

Permanent exhibits in the museum tell the story of the History of Fort Lowell during the Apache Wars. The reconstructed kitchen building holds permanent archeology and changing photographic exhibits. Near the museum are the ruins of the hospital, now with a protective roof over them. Features spread around the historic parade grounds in Fort Lowell Park also include the reconstructed post flagstaff, numerous interpretive metal signs and a large bronze statue, titled “Chief Trumpeter.”

On the northeast corner of the park is the interpreted ancient Hohokam archaeological site, known as the Hardy site.

Public programs include the annual historic walking tour and living history event La Reunion de El Fuerte, held in early February. Other programs include living history and museum tours, and concerts by the 4th Cavalry Regimental Band.

Future projects involve the historic Army Quartermaster and Commissary storehouse and the development of the Cavalry corrals and stables site, with further expansion of Hohokam archeology sites.

In the summer of 1866, an Army post was established just east of present downtown Tucson. In August of 1866, this post was made a “permanent” base and named Camp Lowell, in honor of Brigadier General Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 6th U.S. Cavalry, killed during the Civil War. By 1869, the base was supporting the supply functions of the downtown Tucson Depot and conducting military campaigns against Apaches.

By 1872, it had become apparent to Army officers that the location of Camp Lowell was not a good one. It had turned into an area “unfit for animals, much less the troops of a civilized nation.” Tucson had spread to the edge of the post, and officers noted increased sickness among the soldiers, particularly malaria. The post well had become contaminated, and the soldiers often misbehaved in town.

Brevet Major General George Crook recommended in 1872 that the post be moved. Early in 1873, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Asa Carr, commanding the 5th Cavalry, was given the job of finding a new location. With Territorial Governor Anson P. K. Safford, Carr selected a site on Rillito Creek, about seven miles northeast of Tucson. By March 20, 1873, troops of the 5th Cavalry were on the spot, clearing the ground for construction.

Lack of funds, and frequent bad weather, delayed completion of the buildings at Lowell until 1875, and these needed constant repair and refinement. Roofs leaked and the dirt floors became mud puddles during
Fifth Cavalry Lt. Colonel Eugene Asa Carr, who selected the site for Fort Lowell. He was commander of the post eleven times.

Between 1875 and 1888, funds for repair amounted to more than double the original construction. An ongoing problem was acquiring a continuing supply of water. Rillito Creek did not provide a dependable quantity, and it was not until 1887, with the introduction of a steam pump, that the problem was solved.

Not all the activities at the post were centered on improvement of living conditions. The garrison protected settlers, guarded depot supplies, escorted wagon trains to other posts, and made expeditions clear to the Mexican border chasing the elusive Apaches. The number of troops stationed at Lowell varied considerably during its fifteen year history, averaging 150 officers and enlisted men, but military duty and social life remained the same.

The troops by no means lost contact with Tucson. Social activities were common, with band concerts, dances, picnics, parades, and baseball games involving towns people and soldiers. Soldiers frequented the stores and gambling halls of the town and even constructed a roller skating rink over one of the buildings in Tucson. Telegraph communication between the post and Tucson was established in 1875.

In 1879, Lowell was designated a fort, implying permanent status. During the 1880s, troops from Fort Lowell participated in the now famous Geronimo Campaigns, and the Fort served as the major supply depot for the other installations in the area. Troops from Fort Lowell established Camps Huachuca and Thomas. When the struggle reached a climax in late 1886, Lowell was quartering four companies of the 4th Cavalry, and the 8th Infantry. For the first and only time in its history, it was operating at full capacity— eighteen officers and two hundred and thirty-nine enlisted men.

With the surrender of Geronimo to Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles on September 4, 1886, troops were gradually withdrawn from the fort. For several more years, troops from the post pursued small renegade bands like those led by the Apache Kid, but the days of the Indian Wars were over.

In 1889, the Commander of the Department of Arizona recommended that Fort Lowell be abandoned, but for several years it remained a prestige post, recognized in military circles as a fine place to be stationed.

Finally, on January 8,1891 the Department of War ordered the abandonment of Fort Lowell. The troops were needed in New Mexico and in the north plains, where General Miles was in pursuit of the Sioux Nation. Local citizens protested the abandonment, but to no avail.

On February 14, the last taps echoed across the parade ground. The following April, Fort Lowell was transferred to the Department of the Interior, for disposal of property and scrap materials at public auction. In the following years, trees and gardens withered, vandals moved in, and most of the buildings fell into complete ruin.

Today the rebuilt Commanding Officer’s Quarters stands as a monument to those farsighted individuals who realized the importance of Fort Lowell in the history of Arizona and set about the task of making it live again.

One of the most famous officers at Ft. Lowell was Walter Reed, Post surgeon in 1876-77.