History of the University of Arizona

After the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, the push for a university in Arizona grew. The University of Arizona was approved by the Arizona Territory’s “Thieving Thirteenth” Legislature in 1885, which also selected the city of Tucson to receive the appropriation to build the university. Tucson had hoped to receive the appropriation for the territory’s mental hospital, which carried a $100,000 allocation instead of the $25,000 allotted to the territory’s only university (Arizona State University was also chartered in 1885, but at the time it was created as Arizona’s normal school, and not a university).[citation needed] Tucson‘s contingent of legislators was delayed in reaching Prescott due to flooding on the Salt River and by the time they arrived, back-room deals allocating the most desirable territorial institutions had been made. Tucson was largely disappointed with receiving what was viewed as an inferior prize. With no parties willing to provide land for the new institution, the citizens of Tucson prepared to return the money to the Territorial Legislature until two gamblers and a saloon keeper decided to donate the land to build the school.[citation needed] Construction of Old Main, the first building on campus, began on October 27, 1887, and classes met for the first time in 1891 with 32 students in Old Main, which is still in use today.[10] Because there were no high schools in Arizona Territory, the university maintained separate preparatory classes for the first 23 years of operation.

A Proud Beginning:

Old Main early construction 1887

Figure 1: Old Main in the early stages of construction 1887


Original owners of the land grant

The year was 1885 and the mood was mean. The cities and counties needed money and the territorial legislature controlled the purse strings. To make matters worse the members of the 13th Territorial Legislature were known to make decisions, often, for less than ethical reasons. They had earned the nickname, “The Thieving Thirteenth”.

There were two major prizes to be won from the legislature that year. Phoenix and Prescott came out on top. Phoenix was given the asylum for the insane and Prescott kept the state capital. Tucson received an unwelcome consolation prize of The University of Arizona, and with it, a measly $25,000 appropriation, just one quarter of the amount Phoenix received to build the insane asylum.

C.C. Stevens was the man sent to Prescott to win the state capital for Tucson. He came home with what he hoped would be welcomed as good news about the University. Instead of celebrating, Tucson responded angrily. Some reports say the people of Tucson greeted him with a shower of ripe eggs, rotten vegetables, and a dead cat. Thus, the very beginning for The University of Arizona wasn’t all that proud.

One condition the legislature slapped on Tucson was that the people of Pima County had to donate 40 acres to the University. The response was less than overwhelming. No one offered an inch.

One man decided the time had come to take matters into his own hands. Jacob S. Mansfeld was a member of the new Board of Regents. He took a walk into the desert about a mile east of town and picked out a site for the new university. The land was owned by two professional gamblers, E.B. Gifford and Ben C. Parker, and saloon keeper W.S. “Billy” Read. They weren’t all that sure their land was the perfect spot for the new University of Arizona.

Finally, on Nov. 27, 1886, the owners agreed and the deed was filed. A year later, on Oct. 27, 1887, ground was broken for the building that was to be known as Old Main.


Old Main:

On Oct. 1, 1891, The University of Arizona opened its doors. When the school bell rang that first day of class, Tucson celebrated.

Thirty-two students enrolled for the first semester but only six were admitted to the freshman class. The rest went to a specially established prep school. The problem was there were no high schools in the territory. It took seventeen years for university students to outnumber those in the prep classes. The University maintained the preparatory classes for twenty-three years.

Old Main early years

How about student life during those years? The students rode their cow ponies to school and tied them to hitching posts near Old Main. Discipline was strict. Running on the balcony of Old Main cost the offending student 10 demerits. In 1892, the dean of students asked the Board of Regents to prohibit the use of firearms on campus. And if a student’s class work wasn’t going well the problem was immediately taken up by the entire faculty and his parents were called in for a conference.


Rufus Arizona:

Rufus the Bobcat 1920s

The original wildcat mascot arrived on campus October 17, 1915, and was introduced to the student body the following day at assembly in Herring Hall. He was the gift of the freshman football team who had raised the funds ($9.91) to purchase him. He was officially named “Rufus Arizona”, after UA President Rufus B. von KleinSmid.



On April 17, 1916 Rufus died. The Arizona Wildcat reported that: …while endeavoring to perform gymnastic stunts in the limbs of a tree to which he was tied, Rufus Arizona… fell and was hung.”

Note: never tie a feline to a tree. Rufus was memorialized in verse and a Wildcat editorial, which noted that his “growls urged our team to victory” and spoke of his “strength, alertness, tenacity — the true Arizona spirit.” Rufus had several successors in later years.

Old Main Condemned:

Old Main condemned around 1938

Since 1938, when it was declared unsafe, Old Main had stood unused and locked up. One could only walk around the lower area under the verandas. There were various proposals and arguments for its demolition but Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, Billy Bray — after making a survey — said it would cost more to tear it down than to let it stand.

It was, in the end, the U.S. Navy which kept Old Main from sinking. In September 1942, the Navy awarded a contract for the repair and rehabilitation of the UA’s most treasured building for use of the wartime Naval Indoctrination School. The entire structure was refurbished at a cost of $89,000.


Polo Team:

During the 1920s and 30s the sport that first brought The University of Arizona national recognition was Polo. The sport was established in 1922 with horses and a coach provided by the military, and with athletes from the school’s ROTC unit. The first teams were the target of snide remarks from football and basketball team members, but the detractors soon had to eat their words. The 1924 squad captured the Western Collegiate Championship and traveled to the east coast where it presented President Calvin Coolidge a cowboy hat. They met Princeton for the intercollegiate title, losing 6-2 and 8-0.

The coming of World War II and the conversion of cavalry from horses to mechanized equipment was to spell doom for the sport at the university. Without the financial and personnel support of the U.S. Army and the campus ROTC detachment, the University was unable to continue sponsoring a team.


UA Campus:

Top: View of Old Main, 1909.

Bottom: Steward Observatory, 1923.

Berger Memorial Fountain:

Situated at the west entrance of Old Main, the Memorial Fountain, honoring those UA students who lost their lives in World War I, was the gift of Alexander Berger, an uncle of Alexander Tindolph Berger, one of those to whose memory it is dedicated.

On January 31, 1920, the Memorial Fountain in front of Old Main was dedicated amid a huge turnout of students, faculty, townspeople, and military who had come to honor the University’s World War I dead and to greet the guest of honor, General John J. Pershing. General Pershing’s speech was brief and impressive, following which the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon him by President von KleinSmid.


“A” Mountain:

It was a sensational 7-6 Arizona football victory over Pomona College on Thanksgiving Day, November 6, 1914, that led to the building of the “A” on Sentinel Peak, west of Tucson.

In what was doubtless a burst of enthusiastic pride for his alma mater, Albert H. Condron, a member of the 1914 team and a civil engineering student, suggested to one of his professors that a class assignment be made to survey Sentinel Peak for the location of an “A”.

The site was cleared of shrubbery and cactus, trenches dug to outline the letter’s foundations, rock at hand was mixed with mortar and water hauled up the mountain by six-horse teams. The total cost of materials, equipment, and transportation was $397. The back-breaking work was done by the students themselves, Saturday after Saturday, with many difficulties and discouragements, but the “A” was finally whitewashed on March 4, 1916. No one called it Sentinel Peak anymore. It was known thereafter as “A” Mountain. The “A” is 70 feet wide and 160 feet long (or “tall”).

The basalt rock quarried from the construction site was used to build the Rock Wall surrounding most of the university’s historic district.

Territorial Cup:

When football teams from The University of Arizona and Arizona Territorial Normal School (now Arizona State University) took the field on Thanksgiving Day in 1899, they never imagined that it would put them in the NCAA record book more than 100 years later.

The trophy that was awarded to the winner that day (ASU) and still is given to the winner of this annual football game, makes the Territorial Cup the “oldest trophy for a rivalry game in America.”

Button Salmon: Bear Down

In October 1926, “Button” Salmon, one of the most popular players on the football team and president of the Student Body, was critically injured in an automobile accident on the Phoenix highway. Shortly before his death on October 18, 1926, Athletic Director J. F. McKale visited him, and asked if he had any message for the team. Whether truth or legend, “Button” is reported to have said, “Tell them . . . tell them to bear down”.

A year later, in December 1927, the men’s junior honorary organization, Chain Gang, sponsored a fund-raising dance to paint “Bear Down” on the roof of the gymnasium. A professional sign painter was hired to outline the letters, and the Chain Gang members filled them in early in 1928.



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