This is Stop 5 of our Self-Guided Downtown Tucson History Tour. If you enjoy it and want the whole Tour, you can purchase the online version here. If you would like the Online version and the printed version of the Self-Guided Tour, send us a note. We will give you the information.
What notable state institution sits on land donated by a saloonkeeper and two gamblers? U of A.
If you had been standing here in the 1860s, the gazebo in the center of this picture is about the center of what was La Plaza de la Mesilla. The plaza was the terminus of the road from Mesilla New Mexico that had a similar plaza still used for fiestas today.
Two historically important restaurants were located here. In 1870, three men from the Wong family left their jobs laying track for the railroad, came to Tucson, and established the O.K. Restaurant at Church Plaza and Mesilla Street only a city block from George Hand’s Saloon. This was the first Oriental dining establishment in Tucson.
In 1922, Monica Flinn established El Charro Cafe here. The location was moved in the 1960s when this area was demolished to make room for the Convention Center and La Placita, the colorful but failed commercial buildings that were demolished in the summer of 2017. El Charro Cafe moved to 311 N. Court Avenue, two blocks north of El Presidio. It is the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family, and highly recommended.
The Second Catholic Church
A Catholic Church (later a cathedral) was built at what is now Veinte de Agosto Park across Broadway to your left where the statue of Poncho Villa is. Veinte de Agosto is Spanish for the 20th of August, the date El Presidio del Tucson was dedicated by Col. Hugo O’Conner and Father Garcés.
Present-day Tucsonans consider this to be Tucson’s birthday and they celebrate it at the Presidio. Of course, now you know that Tucson was established years earlier on the west side of Rio Santa Cruz.
The First San Agustín Catholic Church was located within the Presidio walls.
When this 2nd San Agustín Church (next photo) was built on Church Avenue between 1867 & 1870, Plaza Mesilla became Church Plaza. Every August, Tucson celebrated the Feast de San Agustín (St. Augustine). It was not a particularly religious event, but rather a fairly rowdy secular celebration with much drinking and gambling.
We do know that in August of 1881, two months before the “Gunfight At The OK Corral”, Doc Holliday and his lady friend Big Nose Kate were here at the Feast. Presumably, they came to fleece the pilgrims.
Our friend, saloon keeper George Hand, mentions the festivities in his diary.
August 27, 1875. Fine day. The Feast of San Agustin opened splendid. Jerry and I went up, drank, ate, and walked around till one in the morning. Gambling was rather light, but chuso (similar to roulette), as usual, had a big crowd. Louise — $1.00. (Mr. Hand never tells us why one lady, such as Big Carmel, was worth $3.00 and others, such as Louise, were only worth $1.00.)
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To accommodate the growing community, the Catholic Diocese decided to build a larger church over on South Stone Avenue in 1897. This 3rd Catholic Church became St. Augustine Cathedral. The 2nd San Agustín Church building in these old photographs (above & below) became a hotel. When it failed, the former nun’s quarters became a brothel.
Just before it was torn down in 1937, this was an automobile garage and a Shell gas station. The front exterior was painted bright yellow. The elaborate facade surrounding the front doors of this 2nd church now graces the front of the Arizona Historical Society building on 2nd Street between Park and Euclid.
Later on this tour, you will be able to see the few remaining stones of the church foundation located in the park across Broadway from the Church & Broadway streetcar stop.
Tucson Trivia Question
What is the Arizona state gemstone?