Fifty years ago this month, conservationists including Barry Goldwater came together to save Camelback Mountain from development.
The tram would rise from the base of Camelback Mountain to an “oasis” at the summit, the black-and-white sketch shows.
With a mountaintop swimming pool and restaurant, the “See Phoenix from the Camel’s Back” project “will be a feature every winter visitor will want to see,” reads the accompanying caption in a 1950 edition of the Scottsdale Gazette. The project never materialized, but an illustration published in the Arizona Republic 13 years later imagined another scenario: five roads slicing across the mountain, a grand hotel perched on top. Pocked with houses from base to summit, Camelback would resemble an Appaloosa, the paper quipped.
Either scenario, unimaginable now, could have become reality if not for the Preservation of Camelback Mountain Foundation, established 50 years ago this month. After years of unsuccessful efforts to protect the mountain, volunteers ranging from high school students to former Sen. Barry Goldwater ultimately helped raise the money to purchase Camelback’s “hump” from private owners and donate the land to the city of Phoenix.
Saving Camelback was a “no-brainer,” says George Hartz, a member of the Arizona Historical Society state board of directors and co-author of The Phoenix Area’s Parks and Preserves. “But it almost didn’t happen. It could have easily not happened.”
Before the 1960s, Camelback didn’t seem to need preserving; it was basically wilderness. In 1948, Phoenix city limits stretched just north of Indian School Road and east of 24th Street, and there weren’t a lot of residential developments in the Camelback foothills. But development was happening on the Paradise Valley side of Camelback, where Sanctuary Resort opened as the Paradise Valley Racquet Club in 1956.
“The town was really just growing out to it,” says Gary Driggs, a Camelback advocate in the ‘60s and ‘70s who later wrote two books about the mountain. “It didn’t seem like it was about to be swallowed up by millions of people.”
But as the post-World War II economy boomed, Phoenix’s population exploded from 106,000 residents in 1950 to 439,000 in 1960. Blocks of ranch homes replaced the citrus groves of Arcadia, and houses began crawling up the base of Camelback. The state had sold the last of its Camelback property in 1948, leaving 550 acres of mountaintop property under private ownership and without strict development regulations.
One of the first critics of Camelback construction had a preservation goal in mind: the view from her nearby home. After seeing a bulldozer dig into the mountain, Louise Woolsey rallied her fellow Garden Club of Phoenix members to file petitions protesting further development above 1,600 feet. “Inasmuch as the characteristic silhouette of Camelback Mountain has stood for millions of years, it scarcely seems that it should be the privilege of this generation to disfigure and destroy it,” she told the Republic in 1959.
The Garden Club’s activism caught the attention of local politicians, which led to a series of failed legislative efforts to protect the mountain. In 1962, when an Arizona congressman introduced a bill proposing the exchange of federal land for Camelback, federal officials deemed the mountain a local problem. The following year, nearly 13,000 high-school students petitioned the Arizona legislature – but bills that proposed swapping state-owned land for Camelback also failed. It became clear there was only one way to save Camelback. “It came down to raising money,” Hartz says. “And to raise money, you need a few big people with clout.”
The Valley Beautiful Citizens Council, led by Phoenix power players like Time and Life founder Henry Luce, took up the cause by starting the Preservation of Camelback Mountain Foundation in May 1965. The foundation found a natural choice for its chairman: Barry Goldwater, a lifelong nature lover, a neighbor to Camelback – and unemployed between Senate terms, having lost the 1964 presidential election. “It was kind of a fortunate thing that he lost the presidential race because it gave him the time,” his son, former Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., says now. “I think [Camelback] stood as a symbol for his respect for nature and love of the state.”
At the time, Goldwater said saving Camelback had become the most important goal of his life. “If we ruin Camelback,” he told the Republic in 1965, “ever afterward people will think of Phoenix as the city that made something ugly of the most beautiful thing it had.”
Goldwater poured himself into the foundation’s goal of raising $300,000 – equal to $2.25 million today – by December, hoping Camelback could be a Christmas gift to the city. He and his mother each contributed the modern equivalent of $185,000 to the campaign, and Goldwater mailed more than 4,000 letters to stir up neighborhood support and personally called landowners, urging them to sell or donate their property.
Community members chipped in donations ranging from 25 cents to $25,000. Students at 26 high schools formed “Save Camelback Mountain” chapters and raised money through can drives, car washes and a Christmas dance at the state fairgrounds. To earn a donation from his brother, Goldwater attended the dance in a Beatles wig and entertained the crowd by playing “Silent Night” on his trombone.
But by Christmas 1965, the foundation had met only two-thirds of its fundraising goal. For the next three years, the group explored more ways of financing the mountain’s cost – which, meanwhile, had risen to more than $555,000.
Finally, in 1968, the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation awarded a grant to the City of Phoenix that, combined with the foundation money, was enough to purchase the most pristine parts of Camelback: all the land above 1,800 feet. After presenting the federal check for $211,250, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird, visited Camelback to celebrate the occasion. “Let’s walk up this mountain,” she declared, heroically making it 200 yards in her heels.
Camelback was saved, but still not as we know it. Not until 1973, when the city acquired and opened Echo Canyon Park, did hiking trails open to the public – thanks largely to the efforts of Driggs and his brother, John, then the mayor of Phoenix.
In hindsight, Gary Driggs says, the greatest value of preserving Camelback has little to do with the mountain’s appearance. After all, how many more homes would have been built on its rocky slopes, considering the costs, steepness and practical matters like sewers and other city services?
But if Camelback were a mountain only to look at and not touch, Driggs says, a tangible part of the city would be lost – like New York without Central Park. “To me, the most redeeming and interesting thing about the Phoenix area is the access to incredible hiking. Next to a metropolitan area, you can literally feel like you’re in a wilderness,” Driggs says. “That gives us a character that is unparalleled in any other city in the world.”
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