Tucson is proud of its nickname, known throughout the world for more than a century. There are several big cities in the Southwest, but only one "Old Pueblo."
By Jim Turner, Arizona Historian
Published in Good News Tucson Magazine
It’s hard to pinpoint when most nicknames got started, since no one knows at the time whether something will catch on.
When Tucson was first founded in 1775, it was called the Presidio San Agustin de Tucson. A presidio is a walled city, not just a fort, but a place where families, craftsman, and merchants live as well. By 1800, there were enough civilian colonists in Tucson to begin calling the place the Pueblo de Tucson. The word pueblo usually refers to a nation or group of people, but in the Southwest idiom it refers to a village. In most cases it refers to Native American villages of northern New Mexico, but it was used in written documents to refer to Tucson. Sometimes it was referred to as the Pueblito de Tucson -- small village of Tucson. The term pueblito referred to the Pima Indian village on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River, not the presidio, which was on the east bank.
The railroad first came to Tucson on March 20, 1880, and Mayor R.N. Bob Leatherwood was so proud that he wanted the world to know. He sent telegrams to the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, the President of the United States, and even the Pope. The records show that he said:
“The Mayor of Tucson begs the honor of reminding Your Holiness that this ancient and honorable pueblo was founded by the Spaniards under the sanction of the church more than three centuries ago, [actually only one century] and to inform Your Holiness that a railroad from San Francisco, California, now connects us with the Christian World.”
Legend has it that somewhere down the line a smart-aleck telegraph operator wrote this phony reply:
“His Holiness, the Pope, acknowledges with appreciation receipt of your telegram informing him that the ancient city of Tucson at last has been connected by rail with the outside world and sends his benediction but, for his own satisfaction would ask where in Hell is Tucson?”
The joke telegram may never have been sent, but Tucsonans love a good joke on themselves, so we continue to tell it. But you will note in the first telegram by Mayor Leatherwood the use of “Ancient and Honorable Pueblo. Newspaper reporters adopted this phrase, and then shortened it to the “A. and H. Pueblo” for short. Some time soon after that, and it is impossible to tell exactly when, A. and H. was replaced with the simpler word, Old, to form the phrase we use today, the Old Pueblo.
The phrase really caught on in the 1920s, when the Chamber of Commerce created the Tucson Sunshine Climate Club and the Fiesta de Los Vaqueros rodeo to bring tourists to Tucson. The age of advertising slogans, jingles and brand names, coupled with the idealizing of a mythical Southwest begun with the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Company, learned how to capitalize on the Land of Enchantment, Indian Detours, and other catch phrases to lure Eastern tourists to a fictionalized romantic Wild West, as seen in movies and adventure magazines. Old Pueblo began to be used frequently to stamp Tucson with the Southwestern mystique and a mysterious ancient Spanish/Indian past to attract tourists to this exotic spot.
Spanish colonial soldiers lived inside the presidio wall for more than 80 years, protected against Apache raids.