A natural hot spring flows through faults between gneissic rock conglomerate sediment beneath the park, the area has probably been inhabited for thousands of years. There were originally two springs, a “Hot Spring” and a “Cold Spring”. The two springs produced a water flow of more than 500 gallons per minute (gpm). In the 1930s, the springs were blasted in an effort to increase the water flow. This had the opposite effect and reduced the water flow from 500 gpm to between 150 and 300 gpm and collapsing the two into one spring with a temperature of around 72 degrees year around. The spring was blasted again in the early 1960’s in another attempt to increase water flow, which unfortunately cut the water flow again down to around 100 to 125 gpm. Throughout the years, the area has had many different purposes, from ranching to a health spa. Most of the time the “ranch” term did not follow our traditional idea of a ranch but denoted an agricultural use in general
With the availability of water agricultural uses not typical of the Tucson basin could be implemented. An orchard contained at least 3000 trees of a wide variety of fruits. Other types of ornamental trees were also planted or encouraged. The huge mesquite tree east of the ranch house is estimated to be about 300 years old.
Pima County purchased the property in 1984 and Agua Caliente was opened to the public January 1985. The Friends of Agua Caliente (FOAC) was formed in 1993 in an effort to save the historic site in the Tanque Verde Valley. FOAC was successful in saving three of the park’s original buildings and remains an integral organization to preserve and protect Agua Caliente Park, and support Pima County uses. The Ranch House and Rose Cottage were dedicated April 2004 and the Park was placed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 9, 2009.
During the drought of 2003-4, the water flow from the spring fell as low as 14 gallons per minute, resulting in the drying up of ponds 2 and 3. Approximately 30%-50% of water is lost from the ponds by seepage through the permeable pond bottom. Pima County dug a well and installed a pump on the property to keep water in the main pond. Renovation of the Main Pond and Pond 2 at Agua Caliente Park was part of a Bond package in 2015, but voters did not pass this bond. In 2016 Pima County used portions of a flood control grant to install an impermeable liner to reduce seepage loss from Pond 2. Pond 2 now has water and will be used to house the waterfowl during renovations of the Main Pond.
The Main Pond was renovated in 2019-2020. The pond bottom was contoured to accommodate the various waterfowl. Cattails and other invasive plant species were removed and a liquid polymer emulsion liner was installed to significantly reduce water seepage loss. Although many palms will be removed, most of them will remain to better manage water usage. A new waterfowl/wildlife island was built and a new bridge installed to open the island to people. This renovation retained the oasis character of the park.
5500 Years ago (3500 BC). Archaic projectile points found within the park boundaries suggest that the site was used by hunters and gatherers.
1150 AD. A Hohokam village, later referred to as the Whiptail Site, was established that extended into a portion of Agua Caliente in the early Classic Period, about AD 1150-1250.
1853-1870s. The spring was used as an army encampment following the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. After 1854 there were reports of Army troops using the spring as an encampment while patrolling the area on the way to and from Soldier Camp in the Catalina Mountains.
1873. Peter B. Bain established a formal claim to 160 acres surrounding Agua Caliente Spring. The first Adobe house was built at Agua Caliente (possibly what is now the Ranch House dining room) and the first pond was built.
1874. James P. Fuller purchased “Agua Caliente Rancho” for $300 and established an orchard and cattle ranch on the property.
1877-1882. Fuller’s Springs Health Spa was advertised as a medicinal and recreational destination. Fuller also raised fruit trees and other commercial crops during this time period. The fruit trees were not limited to the typical citrus, but included fig, pomegranate, quince, and apricot. This enterprise was operated with others of his family, most notably his sister and her husband and children. It was known throughout Tucson as a weekend Vacation spot. Meals were better than most of the time period because of their access to fresh produce grown on the property. Mineral content of the water was assessed and found to be comparable to Harrow Gate in England (still a well known spa today). They hosted about 100 people at a time at the resort. Accommodations were noted to be single room adobe structures with cactus strip roofs. Fuller’s orchard survived into the 1960’s.
1875-1891. The area was part of the Camp Lowell Military Reservation. Property ownership was not allowed but preexisting residents were allowed to stay and continue to use the property.
1880s-1920s. Various owners operated the ranch as a cattle ranch and resort. Most of this time period it was operated to be accessible to the public as a spa or resort (although not in the fashion thought of today as a resort). Photo from 1897 shows a bridge to the island constructed of posts and a single plank; it was replaced by newer construction in the 1930’s.
1916-1962. During this period it was privately owned and operated for various purposes. There were many celebrity guests, but all hosted by the owners. Some use in movies which were attracted to the water. Cattle were run on surrounding land.
Early 1920s. Agua Caliente property was purchased by Willard W. White. He was one of the wealthier owners and probably developed most of current iconic elements of the property. Plans to build a resort on the site surfaced in 1922 but were never implemented. The Bunkhouse was built, reportedly with redwood lumber from dismantled railroad cars. Around 1925, a bedroom wing, living room, and library were added to the main house. The kitchen was also remodeled. The date palms were probably planted between 1920-1930. Photos from 1951 show the date palms still to be quite small.
1930. The ranch was sold to Joseph Blake. Blake was a New York surgeon who spent a few winter months each year on the ranch. Between these visits 5-6 full time ranch hands kept up the property. It operated as a working cattle ranch and still produced hay and fruit. Grace Johnson (cook and housekeeper with two young children) lived in a two room adobe house just to the east of the main house. The adobe house was not cooled and had no kitchen, so the family took its meals in the main house and in the summer the children slept under the old mesquite tree. The children attended the Tanque Verde School. The main house had a kitchen in the northeast corner, a large living/dining room, a bathroom and 2 or 3 bedrooms. Two generators provided electrical power. The bunkhouse was covered in corrugated metal and had one open room with an open porch.
1935-1947. Gibson DeKalb Hazard purchased the property in 1935 and operated it as a working ranch while also growing fruit and alfalfa. The Hazard’s converted the patio south of the living room into an Arizona room and constructed a zaguan (Spanish for entrance) that was later enclosed and made into the entrance hall. It was during this time that the first dynamiting of the spring reportedly occurred. The ranch had no telephone at this time; they traveled over unpaved roads to the Tanque Verde store to make calls. Famous guests included William Holden, Monty Montana, rodeo performers and barnstorming pilots. In the summer of 1945 novelist Erskine Caldwell and his wife June rented the main house. Erskine was an American author noted for his realistic earthy novels of the rural South including “Tobacco Road” (1932) and “God’s Little Acre” (1933). His short stories appeared in many collections. June Caldwell Martin was a writer for the Tucson Daily Star. The Hazard’s sold the ranch (440 acres) to Agua Caliente Ranch Company for about $100,000.
1947. Chesrow brothers Eugene, Albert, and David operated the Agua Caliente Ranch Company. They added a concrete block room to the east side of a one room adobe structure (now know as the Rose Cottage) used at the time as a guest cottage. Telephones were installed at the ranch. Some of the well known guests during this time include: Tom Mix, Rex Allen, Leo Carroll, Duncan Renaldo (Cisco Kid), and Mo Udall (politician).
1951 – 1959. Art Filiatrault and his wife , from Wisconsin (with four children ranging from 12-19 years old) took over the ownership of the Agua Caliente ranch consisting of three large lakes (a picture of the property at this time is on display in the Ranch House). The Filiatrault’s added four smaller lakes going toward Soldiers Trail, raising the total to seven. They grew alfalfa for their cattle and horses and maintained the fruit orchard J.P. Fuller established in 1875. The ranch at this time was about 1200 acres in two parcels. One was 540 acres with the north boundary being Agua Caliente Wash (the park is in the northeast corner of this piece). The other parcel of 600 acres was near Molina Canyon. Spring water flow varied from 80 – 350 gal/min. The water was used for household use, irrigation and livestock. The household water was via a water tank on the hill east of the park (no longer there). Water was pumped from the spring to the tank when about half full and gravity fed it to the homes. Crops were irrigated from the main pond (orchard) and the now dry pond to the north of the rose cottage (alfalfa field). Irrigation was by a pipe system with valves that were in place when they bought the ranch. Excess water went into retentions ponds, which in wet years then went into Agua Caliente Wash by various routes. They remodeled the Ranch House including the kitchen (much as it appears today), living room, and added additional bedrooms and bathrooms. A sliding glass door replaced a bay window in the living room. A pool with a walled patio, bathhouse (by pool), bar, laundry room and carport were also added. In 1951, the housekeepers residence burnt down and the Ranch House was singed but not seriously damaged. In 1952, a two bedroom, two bath block structure on the east end of the Ranch House (now the Caretakers Cottage) was built to replace the burned down structure with a screened-in breezeway connecting the additional bedrooms to the original structure. the three smaller houses/cottages were rentals. All of the houses/cottages had electricity and were cooled by evaporative units. Noted renters during their time include: Artist Phil Paradise rented the Rose Cottage 1951-1953, famous astrologer Carl Payne Toby, his wife Libby and son Chip rented the Redwood Cottage (now known as the bunkhouse) 1952, and Ed Eggers and M.G. (who later founded the Bookmark) rented the Green Cottage. The Filiatrault’s sold the property in 1959 with a desire to keep it out of developers hands. Subsequent owners sold the property to developers.
In 1962, the Ranch was sold to Myriad Research and Development with plans to build a $15 million, 300-home development beside the ponds, which luckily never happened as they were not able to get the zoning variance . It was during this time the main pond and swimming pond were combined. 1963-1979 Corey family (Myriad investors) resided as caretakers. The property was no longer a working ranch. It was during this time period that the pond to the north lost its seal when the Corey’s attempted to remove the cattails. Myriad sold the property to Geodecke Development in 1979. Geodecke intended to develop the site as a guest ranch or housing development called “Fantasy Island”; these plans never materialized. Geodecke defaulted on the mortgage and Myriad repurchased the property. A 1980’s photo shows much the current configuration.
1984. Tucson City Council looked into the site as a park. Because the ranch was outside the city limits, the council deferred to the county. Pima County purchased the 101 acres for $1.6M (including a $200,000 gift from Roy P. Drachman Sr.). The donation provided the incentive for Pima County to proceed with the acquisition. The city assumed control over Ft Lowell Park and James Thomas Park freeing up money for the purchase and maintenance of the park. Agua Caliente Park, a Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Facility, opened on January 19th, 1985. This was the counties first “Natural” park. First master development plan created in 1988, looked like a version of the Desert Museum (very controlled environment). This plan has destruction of the ranch house and other historic buildings.
1995. Another county master plan created with much of the current design.
October 1993. Pete Filiatrault (youngest son of Art Filiatrault) along with three others formed the Friends of Agua Caliente (FOAC) in an effort to save the historic site in the Tanque Verde Valley. FOAC was successful in saving three of the park’s original buildings and remains an integral organization to preserve and protect Agua Caliente Park.
1994. Machine shed, pool, pool house, block wall, carport, and water tank were demolished.
Late 1990’s. Agua Caliente’s expansion areas were opened for public use. The park improvements included a paved entry drive and parking lot, accessible trails, interpretive signs explaining the waterfowl and history of this unique park, and a new maintenance building. In 1997, the Bunkhouse was renovated as staff and volunteer offices.
July 2000. Spring stopped flowing for the first time. Flow resumed with monsoonal rains.
July 2002. Spring output measured at 47 gal/min.
2003. Last time ponds 1, 2, and 3 all had significant water.
April 17, 2004. The grand opening of the newly restored Ranch House and Rose Cottage.
2004. Well installed to allow adequate water for the main pond. Input from well limited to quantity county has water rights to.
July 9, 2009. Agua Caliente Ranch Historic Landscape was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
2014. The spring quit flowing for a extended period.
Fall 2016 – Spring 2017. Pima County (with a flood control grant) restored Pond 2. They converted the single pond into three with a liner in two of them. Removed palm trees and planted new native vegetation. Modified trails to allow access to the island and paved the trail around the ponds. A dedication ceremony was held April 7, 2017.
Jan 2017. Severe storm damaged park vegetation. It was determined to be a microburst, which damaged local homes as well as the park. Most of the park damage was localized to the entrance and parking lot. The most significant damage was trees down at the entrance (tamarisk near entrance blocked entrance road) and in/around parking lot. Palm fronds were down all over the park. The park was closed for several days to clear entrance and safely allow heavy equipment needed to remove downed trees. None of the structures were damaged by the storm.
Jan 2019. Main pond temporarily opened for fishing. This is a one time event to allow removal of the fish in preparation for a pond renovation for the summer of 2019. Plans include removal of some of the fan palms, dredging and recontoring the pond to restore a variety of depths to the pond to allow for wildlife use and appropriate vegetation, containerize cattails allowed to remain (to help control their spread), create a wildlife island, install a liquid polymer liner in pond and new bridge to the island. The overriding goal is to make the pond more sustainable over the long haul by reducing the loss of water to evaporation and seepage while maintaining its historical nature.
March 2019. Spring producing some water. Fall and spring rain/snow much greater in Tucson and local mountains than it has been in recent years. Too early to see if long term effect.
June 2019 – July 2020. Main Pond Restoration. The pond was drained, cleaned, contoured, and a polymer-amended soil was used to seal the bottom. A wildlife island was built. The Park was closed during the Fall 2019 and into early 2020 while construction continued. Workers began refilling the pond January 28, 2020 and the Park reopened February 28th. A new bridge was installed to the main island and the island opened July 2020.
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