Native Peoples lived in and around the Santa Rita Mountains for thousands of years. Artifacts of early O’odham tribes, including grinding holes or morteros can be seen in Madera Canyon. Father Kino’s missionary travels in the late 1600s passed by the Canyon, bringing cattle to the area, which became the genesis of large Mexican cattle ranches.
Large changes began after the Mexican-American war of 1848 and the gold rush of 1849.The land was ceded to the United States with the Gadsden Purchase and the great Western migration began. Madera is the Spanish word for lumber and, as ranchers and miners swarmed west, the first commercial undertaking in Madera Canyon was a lumber camp. A road was built from the Canyon to the main Tucson/Tubac road to haul the lumber.
The Civil War, however, quickly reversed the migration. As the U S soldiers left to fight in the East, Apaches descended on the new Territory, causing a majority of settlers to flee. Many stories are told of Cochise, Geronimo, and their braves in the Canyon. Soon after the soldiers returned from the war, the Apache was repressed and the population again grew. Ranching and prospecting in the Madera Canyon area resumed.
The oldest known permanent structure in Madera Canyon is believed to have been built by a sheepherder around 1880. A few years later, it was used by a Tucson Merchant as a summer retreat. He is thought to have whitewashed the adobe structure and the Canyon became known as Whitehouse Canyon. The house later was the home of the Morales family for about 30 years. Remains of the building can still be seen.
In the early 1900s, prospecting was rampant in the Santa Ritas. Over a dozen mines were operating in Madera Canyon. One was operated by a colorful character who had been a gun for hire and served as a Marshal in Dodge City, Tombstone, and other Western towns. He built a home in Madera Canyon and was later elected sheriff of Pima County. His wife became the County Superintendant of Schools.
In 1905 Madera Canyon and the Santa Rita Mountains became a part of the new National Forest System. In 1911 another Tucson businessman formed a group of backers who built a number of cabins in the Canyon on land leased from the Forest Service. Over the next few years, the roads were improved, automobiles came into use and Madera Canyon became a popular summer destination. In 1922, the Santa Rita Trails Resort was built. The original lodge burned, but in 1929 it was rebuilt as a year-round resort with cottages, cabins, restaurant, general store, gas station and post office. In the 1930s, Madera Canyon was home to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Many of the rock walls they built still exist.
The Forest Service continued to develop utilities and improve roads, but eventually the impact of people in the Canyon led to erosion, sewage, and water supply problems. It was decided that the houses on leased land must be removed. Over 50 cabins were torn down between 1984 and 1991. The few homes left in Madera Canyon are on private land. Today, Madera Canyon plays host to visitors from nearby communities and from around the world who come to hike, bike, walk, picnic, camp, view the amazing variety of plants and wildlife, or just to experience the joy of nature. An enlightening book. “A History Of Madera Canyon” is available in bookstores and on this website.