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Charles Strauss, once mayor, significantly shaped Tucson

Citizen Staff Writer



When Charles M. Strauss brought his family to Tucson from back East in 1880, he came heavily armed – with financial expertise.

And, though he seemed much more adept at making enemies than friends, Tucsonans grudgingly agreed that his use of those skills here did much to transform the appearance of the community of 7,000.

Strauss, born into a Jewish family in New York City on April 15, 1840, is credited during his abbreviated term as Tucson’s mayor with shepherding construction of a city hall, a firehouse, a “pest” house (infirmary), a library, a building and loan association, graded roads, and ultimately – in partnership with Jacob Mansfeld – with thwarting an effort to stop the University of Arizona before it could become reality.

When he was a boy, his family moved to Boston, and young Strauss was taught the nuances of major finance. He went into business there, and eventually became a financial agent for the Poughkeepsie Bridge Co., which built the bridge across the Hudson River.

His success was such that he once was nominated as secretary of state of Massachusetts.

The loss of his eldest child to diphtheria prompted him to move his family to Arizona, where the climate was said to be beneficial. His father had a financial interest in Tucson’s major mercantile operation, L. Zeckendorf & Co., and Strauss was hired as its business manager.

He put the business’ accounting and stocking procedures in good order and ordered the store closed on Sundays.

A man of sophistication, he almost certainly was struck by the lack of same among many of the rough-edged pioneers of the Old Pueblo – perhaps a factor in his butting heads regularly with other local officials.

According to C.L. Sonnichsen in his book, “Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City,” he was elected mayor in 1883, and promptly arranged for the city to sell bonds, enabling construction of a variety of much-needed public facilities here. The library, when completed, was the finest in the Territory.

During Strauss’ term in office, Apaches under Geronimo bolted from the reservation at San Carlos, fled to Mexico and then proceeded to raid into southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Army troops under Gen. George Crook pursued them into Mexico, returning with 325 Apaches and Geronimo’s promise to surrender his remaining small band within a few months.

Tucsonans, convinced the raiding was at an end, were jubilant, and when word leaked from Fort Huachuca that Crook and his officers were to arrive by train in Tucson on June 19, 1884, Strauss arranged an elaborate fĂȘte for them.

Crook, who usually shunned the limelight, graciously submitted, but spoke only briefly at the gathering.

As it turned out, it would not be until Sept. 8, 1886, that Geronimo and his followers finally surrendered.

Strauss’ two-year term as mayor abruptly ended after only 18 months when other council members failed to support his veto of a measure. Angered, he resigned.

He later served as Territorial superintendent of education. During his tenure he was made aware that the Legislature was having second thoughts about its decision to grant Tucson $25,000 to establish a university here – and that some members of the governing body were trying to build support to repeal the act that created it.

Working quickly, Strauss and another prominent Tucsonan, Jacob Mansfeld, rushed to sell bonds and find a site for the school. They succeeded, and construction was under way before opponents could derail the project.

Strauss and his supporters, who wanted an imposing two-story university structure (today’s Old Main) that could be seen from town, were at odds with the university chancellor, Dr. J.C. Handy, who favored a more modest, single-story building.

Strauss, as usual, “dug in his heels,” and he and his supporters won out. Handy resigned.

The former mayor died at his home here at age 52 on March 13, 1892, of “consumption” – lung and kidney problems.

His obituary noted, in part, “He was baffled with many obstacles, he has made enemies, and was not without his faults, yet let justice be done him.”

Despite the not overly laudatory obituary, Strauss left an indelible mark on Tucson.

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