In 1899 a small chunk of Pima County along the Mexican border was carved out to become Santa Cruz County. Then and now it is the smallest county in the state of Arizona, 1,238 square miles, roughly a rectangle bounded by a 60-mile southern border with Sonora, a 30-mile western border with Cochise County and northern and eastern borders with Pima County. In 1900, Santa Cruz County had 4,545 residents.
Why did this small piece of land with relatively few residents become its own county? In many ways it was the typical story – taxes too high, little or no public services, and considerable inconvenience for citizens to do their public business. However, there is always a backstory to political decisions and several local newspapers at that time reported on it.
Pima County, one of Arizona’s four original counties, was established in 1864. It included most of the land in southern Arizona that was acquired from Mexico in the Gadsden purchase. Cochise County was carved out of Pima in 1881.
By 1899 many residents in the southeast corner of the Pima County were lobbying for their own county too. The Border Vidette (Nogales) reported on February 4, 1899 that three influential businessmen, W.P. Harlow and Edward Titcomb of Nogales and J.S. Tebbets of Washington Camp were in Phoenix lobbying for the creation of a new county named Papago County in Southern Arizona.
They claimed that the people of Nogales and those living in mining camps along the border were strongly in favor. “Harlow said that within the boundaries of the proposed county they had been paying over $1M per year in taxes and have been doing so for a number of years. Not a cent has been spent on road improvements or any other purpose. I dare say that within the last twenty years there has not been enough money spent by Pima County within the boundaries of the proposed Papago County to buy a new hat!”
Further, because of the prohibitive travel costs between Nogales and Tucson ($ 10.30 for a one-way train ticket Nogales to Tucson), residents in the southern Pima County lost considerable time and money traveling to Tucson for public business.
Soon after Harlow, Titcomb, and Tebbets visited the Arizona State Legislature in Phoenix, a bill was introduced to create Papago County. The Tucson Board of Trade published some erroneous tax information suggesting that if Papago County was formed, the tax rates in both Pima and Papago would increase significantly. Opponents of Papago County, who were largely from Tucson, successfully added enough amendments to the original bill to make it unpalatable to even its proponents who helped kill it.
Within a week a second bill was introduced to create a new county with the same boundaries but a new name, Santa Cruz County. By that time, some legislators had visited Nogales and became convinced that the new county was the right call. On February 25, 1899 the Oasis (Nogales) reported on the errors that inflated the Board of Trade’s tax projections. The stage was now set and the Arizona State Legislature voted on March 15, 1899 to create Santa Cruz County.