The main entrance and parking lot are located at 409 W Riordan Rd., two blocks east of Milton Rd. next to the NAU parking garage. 

Period History

The Riordan Families Played a Central Role in the Growing Flagstaff Community

by Kathy Farretta, M.A., Former Assistant Park Manager and Nikki Lober, Park Manager

As business leaders and the largest employers in Flagstaff, the Riordan brothers were known for their efforts on behalf of the community. Their priorities revolved around supporting the business and economic development of Flagstaff. In a new and growing frontier environment, this meant securing government services, attracting industry to diversify the economy, and making technological improvements for the community. In keeping with their Catholic faith, middle-class origins, and Progressive era values, it also meant establishing medical care, churches, schools, and the infrastructure needed for a healthy community.

Medical Care

Monthly Report from the Milton Hospital shows records of each hospitalized employee's occupation, diagnosis, enter and discharge dates.Milton Hospital Patient Register

Medical care for their employees was always a priority for the Riordan brothers. When the local newspaper issued its New Year’s edition celebrating the new century in 1900, the editor lauded the Arizona Lumber & Timber Company (AL&T Co.) for providing regular medical care to its employees. As early as 1887, a doctor had been listed on their payroll, and in 1888, Mrs. W.H. (Mary) Carroll, a practical nurse, opened the first care facility for the lumber company in her boarding house. From 1889, the AL&T Co. had collected a dollar each month from each employee for “the Physician in charge, for medicine furnished to and medical treatment of sick and injured employees. By 1903, the monthly fee ranged from fifty cents to one dollar, depending on the daily wages. For employees at work in the woods, it was a straight one dollar a month charge. Michael explained,

“We have no regular hospital, but have a house where we take care of any of our men who are seriously sick, or we arrange for them with a private hospital run in connection with the county hospital. In all cases we bear the expense of the board and nursing of the patients and employ a doctor, who has full charge of all cases and visits our mill, going through all its departments every day. Two-thirds of all the funds derived from medical fees is paid to the doctor, this being his sole source of revenue from us. The remaining third of the fees are held by us for the purpose of defraying a part of the nursing and boarding of patients. This third does not by any means cover the cost to us, but the balance we make up ourselves without calling on the men. We also take care of the funeral expenses following upon the death of any of our men. This system has worked very well with us and the men have gotten very good results and seem perfectly satisfied.

Sisson home which later become Milton Hospital.Sisson home, later Milton Hospital

When Tim and Michael’s business partner, F. W. Sisson, died in 1908, the makeshift company hospital, Milton Hospital, moved from the boarding house to his then empty company home. Although the hospital was intended for the benefit of their employees, it also served the residents of Flagstaff. In 1928, a local doctor spoke before the Flagstaff Rotary Club about the need in Flagstaff for an emergency hospital. At that time, the lumber company facility, by then called Mercy Hospital, was still providing services to the community at company expense. Its patients included an average of two tourists per week injured in automobile accidents. Mercy Hospital continued to serve the Flagstaff community until 1936 when the non-profit Flagstaff Hospital was opened.


Church of the Nativity, the first Catholic Church in Flagstaff.Church of the Nativity, the first Catholic Church in Flagstaff

In 1887, Michael called together a group of Catholic citizens to discuss the need for a priest and a church building. They appointed him to write on their behalf a letter to the bishop to request a priest and for authorization to raise funds for a Catholic church building for Flagstaff. He indicated to the bishop that there was sufficient interest in the community and he was confident they could raise the money. Michael also explained,

“Many along the line of the Atlantic and Pacific railroad will most gladly lend a helping hand as the building of a church here will afford them all an opportunity of going to their duties at least once or twice a year. You are aware that there is not a single Catholic church along the entire line... from Albuquerque to Mojave, Cal., and yet there are many Catholics in this great extent of country.

Although the bishop had no priest to send, he authorized the community to raise funds to build themselves a church. In time for Midnight Mass on Christmas 1888, the Church of the Nativity was complete; it was the second church built in Flagstaff. 

Close up of gargoyles on Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Photo by Tony Schierl.Close up of gargoyles on Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Photo by Tony Shierl)

The Catholic community shifted to the neighborhood north of the railroad tracks and by 1910 they were using the chapel inside the newly built St. Anthony’s school. During World War I, many immigrants from Mexico moved into Arizona to fill the jobs left behind by young American men headed off to war. To serve this growing Spanish-speaking population, around 1916 the AL&T built a small church next to their small satellite mill east of town. Eventually, many Mexicans and Basques settled in the older section of downtown, south of the railroad tracks, and built Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in 1926 largely themselves, but with some assistance from leading Catholic families like the Riordans. Finally, in 1930, the impressive Gothic Revival style Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was completed for the English-speaking Catholics. Michael Riordan oversaw the design and construction and the family says that Michael designed the gargoyles.

Education for All 

As middle-class families like the Riordans moved west, they brought their values and social structures with them. Schools were one way for citizens to transfer their ideals to the next generation. As with much of the country, many of the early families in Flagstaff were first or second generation Americans whose immigrant experience also gave strong incentive toward the establishment of schools. Access to education would be one more step their children could take toward a prosperous future.

The Riordan brothers were especially interested in the cultivation of science in Flagstaff because it provided educational opportunities for their fellow citizens. Science was also important because it could provide a diverse economy for the community, was essential to properly manage the natural resources in the area, and promoted the growth of Flagstaff. Ultimately, the Riordans would play a role in encouraging traveling scientists to come to Flagstaff, and establishing some of the most important institutions in the community: Northern Arizona University, Lowell Observatory and the Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station.

Public Schools

Emerson School nearly completed, 1895. Photo courtesy of Cline Library, NAU.Emerson School, 1895 (Photo courtesy of NAU Cline Library)

Even though the Riordans educated their children in Catholic schools, they still worked in support of the public schools. In 1890, the AL&T donated the lumber for the sidewalk from the business district to the schoolhouse. In March 1893, the townspeople voted to issue bonds to finance the building of a new school, but the financial “Panic of 93 made it impossible to sell the bonds. The trustees in place resigned, and Matt Riordan was one of the newly appointed trustees. At a meeting in May 1894, he successfully argued the school should be built twice as big as would be needed for current enrollment. Matt also took on the job of finding a buyer for the bonds and succeeded a few months later. The following Spring, Matt was elected to the school board despite a contentious campaign which included some anti-Catholic rhetoric. At the laying of the cornerstone of the new Emerson School in April 1895, he gave a speech urging religious tolerance as an important part of the town’s value system. That Fall, when school term began in the new building, enrollment was up by fifty percent. Matt Riordan’s planning for future enrollments was already paying off.

At the same time the town was trying to strengthen the public school situation, the Catholic community was hoping for a school of its own. When they were ready to establish a parochial school in 1895, the bishop did not agree because he was afraid the little parish would not be able to support the nuns needed to run the school. Since the plans were in place and everyone so eager to have the school, Alice Metz, the younger sister of the wives of Tim and Michael Riordan, volunteered to teach the first year without compensation. 

Self-Improvement Through Education For Adults

Adults were also interested in education for themselves and public libraries were an important resource for self-improvement. Matt and Michael Riordan were particularly interested in establishing a library. It was started in the reading room at the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1890, Matt donated 600 volumes from his personal library, while his wife, Celiné, served as the organizer and director of a fund-raising event for the Flagstaff Free Library Association. Michael served as the president of this organization. 

In the late 1880s, 90s, and the early 1900s, the land all around Flagstaff was still being surveyed and mapped. Great interest in geology, biology and anthropology prompted a never-ending flow of scientists to pass through the little logging town. And the clear mountain air made wonderful viewing for telescopes. The idea of personal intellectual enrichment was perfectly suited to the blossoming of science as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century.

In Flagstaff in 1888, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was organized. One of the active members was Celiné Riordan, Matt’s wife. This organization was a home grown version of a movement which began in New York in the 1870s, near Lake Chautauqua. Chautauqua lecture topics often combined social issues with Bible studies. Sessions were devoted to public health, labor problems, women’s issues, and social services, as well as literary, scientific and religious ideas and knowledge. Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles were organized across the country, and some provided curriculum by correspondence. In Flagstaff, a Literary Society organized in 1884 along similar lines, and later the local Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle disbanded and reconstituted itself as the Flagstaff Musical and Literary Association. These societies were especially popular in rural areas and provided an opportunity for people to participate in intellectual developments, something previously reserved to specialists. They served as a way for people to discuss and debate topics of the day within a society that emphasized education and self-improvement.

Lowell Observatory 

A.E. Douglass sitting in the doorway of the dome for the 24-inch Alvan Clark refracting telescope at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, circa 1897. Photo courtesy of Lowell Observatory Archives.Lowell Observatory (Photo courtesy of Lowell Observatory Archives)

Into this growing and active community accustomed to traveling scientists and literary discussions, came astronomer A.E. Douglass. He was looking for a place to put a telescope for a wealthy man from Boston, Percival Lowell. In 1894, Douglass had been wined and dined across the Territory, and Flagstaff welcomed him with open arms. He was looking for a combination of qualities which would be suitable for telescope viewing: high elevation which would limit atmospheric interference, distance from the cities with their smoggy skies, and accessibility by transportation. Matt Riordan immediately recognized the benefits that an observatory could bring to the community, so he invited Douglass to stay in his home while conducting his experiments. As soon as it was announced that the decision had been made to choose Flagstaff in April 1894, Matt gathered together leading citizens who drafted a document offering Lowell ten to fifteen acres of his choosing for the sum of one dollar. They also pledged to build and maintain a wagon road from the railroad station to the new observatory. Although scientists had been traveling through the area long before a town was established, this was the first permanent scientific research facility to be established in Flagstaff.

Summer School of Science & Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona Normal School, under construction, 1898. Photo courtesy of Cline Library, NAU.Northern Arizona Normal School under construction, 1898 (Photo courtesy of NAU Cline Library)

The establishment of Lowell Observatory in 1894 generated considerable excitement, and citizens felt Flagstaff could be identified as a place of science and learning. The Territorial Governor recognized this and suggested to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in his report of 1895 that Flagstaff should host a “Summer School of Science.

“I deem it my duty to call the attention of your Department to a wonderful cluster of unparalleled natural phenomena located in northern Arizona. Within a small radius are located the Grand Canyon … San Francisco Mountain...groups of extinct volcanoes, Montezuma’s Well, and the petrified forests. Added to these are the cliff and cave dwellings and other striking evidences of a prehistoric race, making this point of much interest to scientists. … Many scientists from not only the United States but from the Continent of Europe visit this region to study these natural wonders.

Arrangements are now in progress to establish a summer educational resort for not only the benefit of our people but of the adjoining States and Territories; also with the hope that the Federal Government will be led to feel the importance of establishing a national summer school of science for the benefit of the scientific world.

A local committee, led by Matt Riordan, was organized and plans moved forward rapidly. But in March 1896, Territorial funding was cut. Undeterred, Matt held a series of free lectures that summer anyway. Capacity crowds filled the Coconino County courthouse to hear important scientists including: Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the Division of Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Percival Lowell, founder of Lowell Observatory; and Dr. Bernhard E. Fernow, chief of the Division of Forestry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The following year in 1897, Fernow published “The Forests and Deserts of Arizona in National Geographic Magazine, giving Flagstaff exactly the kind of scientific publicity it desired. When the first lecture series sold out, a second series which charged one dollar per lecture was arranged in late Fall.

For some time, Flagstaff citizens had wanted a normal school to be built by the territory for their community. A normal school was a teacher training facility which would benefit the town in several ways. The school would provide teachers for the community. Students unable to relocate to the normal school in Tempe, often due to distance or family obligations, would be able to pursue a teaching vocation in Flagstaff. The construction and operation of a normal school would bring government spending to Flagstaff. And finally, the normal school could serve the higher grades of Flagstaff students at the expense of the Territory rather than the school district.

After years of political maneuvering, Michael and Tim Riordan, and their business partner and friend, F.W. Sisson, traveled to Phoenix for two weeks to lobby for the Normal School (the future Northern Arizona University) bill, which finally passed in March 1899. Over the years, both Michael and Tim served on the board of the school as it grew from a two year teachers’ school to a four year college. Later, Northern Arizona University’s School of Forestry would specialize in scientific research in an area the Riordans specifically needed; how to best sustain the Ponderosa pine forest.

Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station

G. A. Pearson, first director of the Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station. His cutting edge research on the Ponderosa pine still forms the basis of modern forest studies. Photo courtesy USFS Fort Valley Experimental Station Archives.Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station and G.A. Pearson (Photos courtesy of USFS Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station Archives)

Timber harvesting and regeneration were crude sciences in the United States in the late 1800s. Some people, such as Dr. Bernhard Fernow, were beginning to advocate for responsible harvesting techniques. The Riordans also recognized that maintaining forest health was crucial to their lumber business. In 1907, the U.S. Forest Service under Gifford Pinchot was considering the establishment of experimental stations to study forest health. Pinchot’s attention turned to Flagstaff when the Riordan brothers contacted him with their concerns regarding the regeneration of Ponderosa pine in northern Arizona. In 1908, the first U. S. Forest Service facility dedicated to Forest Research was established just northwest of Flagstaff. The Fort Valley Experimental Forest Station is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There's lots more to read in Community Builders: The Riordan Families of Flagstaff which is available for sale in the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park gift shop.

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