Prescott’s buried secrets revealed

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

Behind Prescott’s macho past of gold, cattle and whiskey, lie some hidden gems. Local historian Elisabeth Ruffner tells The Raven Review about the women who took history into their own hands and offers a convincing perspective on the rumors of Prescott’s tunnels.

At the age of 91, Ruffner herself is a good example of an extraordinary woman. As she radiates energy, her passion fuels her work in historic preservation, open space conservation and supporting art and culture. In addition to being active in several foundations and committees, Ruffner is the chairwoman of the Capital Campaign preparing the purchase of the Elks Building, home of the opera house.

The Carnegie Public Library
Many people associate Western history with rough miners and gun-crazy cowboys. At the end of the 19th century, back in the heyday of horse racing, gambling and drinking, Julia Goldwater argued that there were no “innocent pleasures” for all the single men in town.

This history often conceals the dedicated movement for education and arts in Prescott. Ruffner expressed the importance of remembering that the initial Prescott settlers brought books and musical instruments to the community. They developed the arts, education and culture that became a staple of Prescott’s heritage.

Local women of the Monday Literary Society, led by Goldwater, opened a free public library with funds granted from Andrew Carnegie, among others.

Continuing the tradition, Ruffner was recruited for the library board soon after she arrived in Prescott in 1940. For women then, libraries were a means to education and a gateway to the outside world.

Ruffner remains adamant about the value of information and education. Last year, the Prescott City Council considered charging citizens to use the Public Library in order to balance the budget. Ruffner waved dismissively at the proposal.

“It cannot happen. The women of this place — the women of this country — will not let it happen,” she said.

Women in politics
Frances Willard Munds, another local woman who changed society, led Arizona’s suffrage movement. Willard recognized that many of these women isolated themselves in their cause by also supporting the prohibition of alcohol. As this often stirred men’s anger, she understood that she needed to find other allies. As a result, she teamed up with Mormon women, stressing “the future of our children.” Although the Mormon women had no interest in voting themselves, they agreed to help their sisters and convinced their husbands to support women’s suffrage. Willard’s scheme succeeded.  She became a member of the Arizona Senate more than five years before American women were granted the right to vote.

The Prescott tunnels
Besides strong women, Prescott’s history offers other surprises. Rumor has it that there are secret tunnels under the square. Some people say that they were built for smuggling illegal alcohol during the prohibition, to access the brothels on Whiskey Row or even so the judge could sneak over from the courthouse to have a drink at the bar. To these stories, Ruffner has one word to say: “rumors.”

She explained that after Prescott burned down in 1900, the town, rebuilt in brickwork, used roman arches to support the structures. The successive arches created an illusion of tunnels. Later, some of them were buried in the dirt to facilitate the development of the new streetcar line. The dirt was spread along the West Gurley and Montezuma Streets, burying basements of several buildings around the Courthouse Plaza, according to Ruffner.

“Around the hotel [St. Michael] the street was raised a whole story,” said Ruffner. “That’s where the myth of the tunnels started.”

There was also an illegal liquor store carved out some 40 feet deep into the solid rock, on South Montezuma Street where Moore’s Laundry is now located. Some people claimed it was actually a tunnel, but this turned out to be false.
Continuing preservation today

Few people dedicate their lives to preserve and improve their hometown like Ruffner has done. It has not always been easy. In her work to preserve historic buildings, some property owners were furious, since they opposed involvement by the government. In the 1960s, the mayor, whose wife owned an historic house on the square, fired the entire Preservation Commission. Ruffner refused to step down, as the mayor had no authority to do this. She was right.

“The [City] Council said ‘go ahead, do your work,’” said Ruffner with a proud smile.She does not see any immediate threats to the preservation of Prescott today.

“It’s a precious town. It’s getting better all the time.”

This article appeared in the April 2011 print
edition of The Raven Review.

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