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Gates Pass Area History

Gates Pass was named for Thomas Gates, a local pioneer, rancher, gambler, saloon keeper, and miner. He petitioned Pima County in 1883 to build a shorter road from Tucson to the Avra Valley. The County refused, so he spent about $1,000 of his own money. The road cut 8 miles off the route to his mine. The true wealth through Gates Pass turned out to be access to our parks and other attractions.

Tucson Mountain Park was initiated by Cornelius B. Brown, who arrived as the Pima County Agricultural Agent in 1920. Brown wrote about agriculture and dams, but he became fascinated with the Tucson Mountains. He urged local leaders to set land aside for future generations. In 1928, he worked with the Board of Supervisors and Senator Carl Hayden to successfully have the BLM withdraw 28,988 acres from mining and homesteading.

On April 11, 1929, a unanimous vote of the three Supervisors established Tucson Mountain Park. It was the largest county park in the country, leased under the 1926 Park Act from the BLM for three cents an acre. The land was later divided into Saguaro National Park and Tucson Mountain Park. Pima County purchased the first 40 acres from the BLM in 1933. Both the WPA and the CCC built picnic areas, restrooms, trails, dams, and more during the Depression. Some are still in use.

Tucson Mountain Park is now part of the larger Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan developed by the Board of Supervisors and Pima County Administrator, Chuck Huckleberry, to preserve open space, wildlife corridors, historic sites, and much more in Pima County. Pima County is over 9,000 square miles. It runs west as far as Ajo.


The Bowen Homestead aka The Stone House was built by Sherry Bowen, a typesetter and later editor at the Arizona Daily Star. He and his wife, Ruby, came from Illinois in the late 1920s. They homesteaded approximately 2000 acres and lived in a small wooden cabin on the site. He started building the stone house in 1931 and finished it in 1942.

The walls and two fireplaces for the new house were built of native stone from the small canyon. It had large windows, a concrete floor, and a tin roof, with the inside paneled in redwood. Water from the well and windmill fed a pond and provided household water.

Their daughter, Gloria, was born in 1943. They lived in their stone house until 1944. After that, it sat empty except for transients and vandals. The roof burned in the 1970s.


The homestead became part of Tucson Mountain Park in 1983. In 2014, Pima County dedicated the still-standing walls of the stone house as a historic venue. Access is from the David Yetman Trailheads and from the Bowen Trailhead west of the JW Marriott resort in Starr Pass.
Ruby Bowen wrote “Arizona Homestead: An Adventure in Beauty.” She could not travel because of her heart condition, so spent most of her days at home in “this mystic beauty of desert and mountains”. She described the annual harvest visit of a Tohono O’odham family in their wagon, ready to gather saguaro fruit with their long sticks and ollas. They built a temporary shelter nearby where they made ceremonial wine, syrup, and dried the fruit. Coyotes called. Javelinas got in the garden; deer browsed on the shoots. Once she saw a herd of wild horses. Another time, a mountain lion looked in the window to check out her roasting meat. Bighorn sheep climbed the cliffs at dusk.

(Hartmann, Gayle. "The Saga of the Old Stone House" | Kreutz, Doug. "Homesteader's old house to be recognized." Arizona Daily Star. June 19, 2014. | Sevigny, Melissa. "Poppies And Saguaro Fruit: A Visit to The Bowen Homestead." Desert Leaf. March 2015. | Roger Carpenter, personal communication, 2015.)


Another historic stone house is located across from the east end of Painted Hills. The planned Mary Henderson Desert Center trailhead will one day link Tucson Mountain Park, Starr Pass Resort, and Painted Hills.


Rancho de las Lomas (Ranch of the Little Hills), started as a 190-acre poultry project. Architect Margaret Fulton Spencer later named and developed the property. She was the only woman enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1907 to 1909, graduating in 1911. In 1929, she became the second female member of the American Institute of Architects. There is a legend that she sketched out the initial floor plans for Las Lomas in the dirt with a stick.
Las Lomas operated as a guest ranch in the 1930s and 1940s, then as rental units. Stories recount that various famous people stayed or rented at Las Lomas, as well as many notable local scientists, artists, writers, and musicians. Joe Carithers (an aide to Morris Udall) told Roger Carpenter that he used to shoe horses for Las Lomas in the 1930s. He rode his horse from the Carithers’ home just east of Tucson Mountain House (now part of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum) to reach Las Lomas. His father was the Superintendent of Tucson Mountain Park. Joe said his father saw bighorn sheep up near Wasson Peak.

Sections of Las Lomas were sold over the years. The core of the SR zoned suburban ranch property, with its thirteen unique stone buildings of locally quarried stone, was inherited by her granddaughter, Shayla Spencer.


The David Yetman Trail parking lot at the south dirt end of Camino de Oeste was once a quiet place. After the Board of Supervisors named the trail in honor of former Supervisor Yetman for his active environmentalism, the gently winding 10.8 mile Sonoran Desert trail became very popular. More hikers came from the trailhead at Starr Pass after the resort was built. Yetman is a longtime host of KUAT-TV’s Channel 6 “The Desert Speaks."

(Kreutz, Doug. "Outside. Hearing the desert speak." Arizona Daily Star. May 2002.)

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