Echo of History by Axel C. F. Holm
–In 1691, Father Eusebio Kino began exploring the northern frontier of New Spain to Christianize the native tribes. Captain Juan Mateo Manje who accompanied Kino kept a diary of seven of nine of Kino’s explorations covering 4,675 miles in 200 days in a region Kino called the Pimería Alta . Two hundred years later, the story of Kino’s travels intersected with Nogalian Harry Karn’s insatiable curiosity.
Born in 1880 in Jamestown, NY, Harry J. Karns followed his father into the oil drilling business in Pennsylvania. When a rig burst into flame, Harry Karns fought the searing heat and flames to rescue men overcome by the fire which seriously disfigured Karns. Nursed by his fiancé, Mollie Nash, Harry began his slow recovery.
About 1904, Harry and Mollie Karns headed west to California and Nevada, and eventually Nogales in 1907 to assume a post as a mining engineer. A year later, he brought the second automobile ever to Nogales (the first purchased by lawyer Walter McCurdy in 1902). Harry didn’t get paid for his mining work and decided to use his two cylinder automobile as a taxi between Santa Ana and the mines at Altar and Boludo.
Harry Karns was a born adventurer, entrepreneur and historian. His automobile, mining skills and engineering talent combined with his unrelenting motivation, formed the nucleus of a business. His brothers Charles, Robert and William joined Karns Brothers, Inc. (about where Auto Zone on Grand Avenue is located today) consisting of the first Ford dealership and an engineering design and construction firm.
The Border Vidette, September 23, 1911, reported that “The city fathers met last night and received bids for sinking test wells on the Santa Cruz River. Several bids were presented, the lowest of which was that of Karns Brothers.” Thus began Nogales’ first water system.
By 1913 at age 33, Harry J. Karns was a rising star in Arizona and featured in Who’s Who in Arizona. At 34, Harry J. Karns was elected senator to the Arizona State Legislature. There Harry Karns secured passage of a bill to provide funding to build a bridge over the Santa Cruz River on US 82. Upon completion of the bridge on February 17, 1917, Governor Campbell arrived for the opening ceremonies urging that the bridge be named the Karns Bridge and as yet unbaptized.
Harry Karns’ curiosity, love of Santa Cruz County and passion for history led him to Herbert Bolton‘s seminal three volume history of Kino’s diary, Kino’s Historical Memoir of Pimería Alta. Karns noted Kino’s references to a traveling companion, Captain Juan Manje. In 1919 Harry obtained a copy of Manje’s diary which he studiously examined to understand the extended travels by the first Europeans in southern Arizona. Karns decided Manje’s work had to be translated into English. But the extent of his task was not only the translation from 18th century Spanish to 20th century English, but the identification of the locations described by Manje which necessitated physically locating Kino‘s routes.
With his young grandson, Joseph Cumming, Harry drove his 1935 Ford pickup over faint trails of Kino‘s Pimería Alta . Karns engaged the noted Arizona cartographer, Donald Bufkin, to map Kino’s routes. Harry Karns’ passion and perseverance kept him working on this project until completion and publication of 1,500 copies of Manje’s diary in 1954 including a map of Kino’s Pimería Alta under the title, Luz de la Tierra Incognita.
Harry Karns made Nogales his home until he died in April 1955. His ample accomplishments were not confined to installing the first Nogales water system, building a bridge, serving as a legislator and publishing a book. Harry Karns also served as Mayor of Nogales from 1927-1933 during which he covered the drainage ditch from Nogales, Sonora that ran down the center of Grand Avenue and lined the arroyo system between Grand and Morley Avenues with concrete. He also paved those streets for the first time. Harry Karns negotiated the purchase of Camp Little from the U.S. government after the U.S. Army closed operations in Nogales in January, 1933. His fascination with history led Harry Karns to others who shared his interest, including publisher of the Nogales Herald, H. R. Sisk, and U.S. Forest Ranger, Albert Abbott. In February 1948, the three formed the Pimería Alta Historical Society so that footprints of men and women from Kino forward would not fade but remain as lasting impressions for generations to come.
About 1909, Mollie and Harry Karns built an impressive home and large swimming pool on north Grand Avenue. When Harry traveled, he collected seedlings of trees for his yard, making a lush mini-forest. He opened his magnificent swimming pool to the public on weekends for a few pennies to defray the costs of weekly draining and refilling. The Karns home and pool became a social center for Nogalians. Today, the great house still stands north of the former Walter Holm & Company building, once the Karns Warehouse, across the street from City Hall. Many years ago, the pool was filled and covered, the trees cut down and discarded, and a warehouse constructed in the back. But the stalwart old house survives.
The Karns legacy continued through his two daughters, Helena and Glena and their children and grandchildren, one of whom is , a young man who today walks in the footsteps of his great-grandfather’s pathways of civic pride and community leadership. There have been and will be many outstanding Nogalians. But few can match the accomplishments and character of Harry J. Karns who had the curiosity to learn, the adventurousness to explore, the motivation to persevere and the intellect to know that our future resides in our past.
Nogalians owe a debt to Harry Karns. A partial payment on that debt could be the preservation and restoration of his home and tree filled garden. The Karns house is a grand and eloquent image from Nogales history and deserves to show as brilliantly as Harry J. Karns’ efforts radiated for Nogales.
(Holm is a state and local historian. To contact him, email email@example.com or call (520) 287-7524)
Kino and Karns
Echo of History by Axel C. F. Holm