Territorial-era Tucson was a wholly different world than what we know today, with a few thousand hardy souls back then kicking up dust on unpaved downtown streets waiting for the arrival of the Iron Horse that would begin the transformation of the town into the thriving metropolis it is today. That event, according to the state’s official historian, Marshall Trimble, happened when “Southern Pacific Railroad stretched its steel ribbons across Arizona in the late 1870s, finally reaching Tucson in March 1880.”
One of the early pioneers that helped move the community growth along was a company that has been providing power to Old Pueblo residents since 1892—two decades before Arizona even became a state.
The Electric Light and Power Company, now known as Tucson Electric Power, set up its first “power house” using mesquite wood as fuel to keep downtown street lights lit, then generated power with an electric lighting plant purchased from General Electric Company before also taking over Tucson Gas Company in 1896.
A few years into the 1900s, alternating current generators came into play and carbonized bamboo filament bulbs glowed in 300 homes and businesses. According to the TEP history web page: “The conservation efforts came early for the company as street lighting contracts stated expressly that lights didn’t have to be turned on whenever there was a full moon.”
Under parent company UniSource Energy, TEP hit $1 billion in revenues for the first time in 2000, the same year local voters approved a 25-year extension of the power company’s franchise agreement.
One of the early movers and shakers was real estate broker Roy Drachman, born in Tucson in 1906, who watched as a sleepy cow town grew into maturity. He chronicled that transformation in his series of vignettes called From Cowtown to Desert Metropolis when Campbell Avenue marked the eastern edge of the city limits and two dollars would buy a cord of mesquite firewood to keep adobe homes heated.
“The first of downtown’s skyscrapers, the Pioneer Hotel, went up in 1929 as Tucson stirred a bit, on the threshold of becoming a modern city, until the Depression hit,” he wrote.
Despite that economic setback, there were fledgling businesses that had already taken the plunge and opened their doors. Crescent Tobacco Shop and News Stand was a veteran business by then. Tucson Realty & Trust and Citizens Transfer and Storage had hung up their “Open For Business” signs. Garcia’s Tailor Shop was altering and cleaning clothes by 1910 and Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary was tending to the deceased by 1914.
In the early 1900s, virtually everything came into town by rail, to be wagon-hauled to its final destination. Citizens Transfer and Storage filled that need starting in 1907 as a cartage and drayage business delivering goods and produce to homes and businesses.
President and CEO John Belton said the firm has been in the family since the early 1920s, when his grandfather joined the company as a clerk. The secret to long-term success?
“Quality,” he said. “We want more than a one-time contract. Tending to business and doing it correctly pays off in the long run.”
And while citizens moved things, Garcia’s cleaned clothes and has done so for 109 years.
“I learned the washing and ironing business when I was a teenager,” said owner Barbara Carino, who has spent nearly 50 years on the job.
Still on display at their 22nd Street location is a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minority and Small Business Alliance of Southern Arizona for “a business owner who has demonstrated true entrepreneurial spirit that has lasted through the test of time.”
Another of the basic necessities in a small town growing larger was an undertaker and Arturo Carrillo occupied that niche in 1914 as Tucson Undertaking Company where he reportedly accepted tamales and chickens as payment from lower-income families for services rendered.
Now known as Carrillo’s Tucson Mortuary, the fourth-generation firm is run by Leo Carrillo Jr., licensed funeral director and embalmer, and continues to be of service to families who have been clients for decades.
Finally, if you’re going to light their homes, move their furniture, clean their clothes, and bury their deceased, you probably need to feed them in the meantime, and El Charro Café, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson—and the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family—has been doing so since 1922.
Home to their famous rooftop sun-dried carne seca, El Charro originator Monica Flin, whose family arrived here from France in the 1800s, is also credited with being the accidental inventor of the beloved chimichanga.