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'Lake Elmira' Absolutely Arizona for 84 years

Posted at 3:47 PM, Jun 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 18:47:27-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — It's Tucson tradition that dates back to the 1930s -- the flooding of the Stone underpass during monsoon storms -- affectionately called "Lake Elmira."

"It's a unique underpass and when we get some really good monsoon storms, summer thunderstorms, it's been known to fill up rather quickly," said Mike Graham with the Tucson Department of Transportation.

He's seen just how quickly the underpass can fill up during his 12 years with TDOT.

KGUN 9s traffic reporter Allen "Big Al" Kath has been dealing with the flooding there even longer.

"I got to KGUN in 1990 and every year we've had someone come out and shoot somebody, or somebodies, stuck in the wash," said Big Al. "Sometimes one northbound and one southbound. It's pretty embarrassing if you get caught in that. I know a couple of people personally who have gotten caught. One of them left town. He's back east now."

The historic railroad bridge over Stone Avenue was built in 1936. The underpass immediately began flooding during heavy monsoon storms.

One year later, in July of 1937, a young Arizona Daily Star reporter was desperate for a story. Howard O. Welty penned an article chronicling 13-year old Elmira Doakes. He claimed she was the first to swim across the pond that forms in the Stone Avenue Underpass.
She successfully swam from the Toole Avenue Landing to the Northern Shore.

Lake Elimira forms during heavy monsoon storms in downtown Tucson

According to Tucson Folklorist "Big Jim" Griffith, the story was so good locals started calling the flooded area Lake Elmira.

"Lots of people read it and it was great. It was a great story," said Griffith. "It's a darn good story."

A terrific storyteller himself, Griffith explains that today we might use the name Joe Blow when referring to someone we don't know. Back then, people would use the name Joe Doakes.

The fictional Elmira Doakes was said to be the daughter of Tucsonan Joseph Doakes -- another clue that the story was made up.

"Circumstance, timing, everything right," said Griffith.

The story took off, and the name Lake Elmira stuck. The Daily Star even making reference to the name in a July 1957 front-page photo caption.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the installation of a plaque, remembering the fictional history of Lake Elmira. "Big Jim" Griffith has firsthand knowledge of an unnamed sculptor and his tall friend who installed the plaque under the cover of darkness.

As far as I know, it's still there. People say it's gone but it has been painted over now. So, I think it may still be there," said Griffith.

The plaque does still exist. It has been painted over but is still visible from the pedestrian walkway heading north.

Lake Elmira plaque at Stone Avenue Under

But Lake Elmira may soon no longer exist. The city of Tucson is busy installing a massive new drainage system under the north and south ends of Stone.

"It's purpose is to alleviate the underpass from flooding," said Graham. "So, we certainly hope to have this section done before we get our first monsoon storm and see how it works."

Stone Avenue Underpass

Soon, Lake Elmira will be no more. The annual lake will disappear and so might the legend of young Elmira Doakes.

"It's actually going to be kind of sad seeing it go away. Not from a driver's perspective, which is where I live, but from a person that wants to get the flavor of Tucson," said Big Al. "They won't probably ever see that again."

Even if it's the end of Lake Elmira the legendary story will live on as being Absolutely Arizona.

TDOT's drainage project to alleviate Lake Elmira is part of the larger aviation parkway project. Big Al points out this final piece has been 45 years in the making.