Dorothea Lange photographed Eloy during the Great Depression.
Before interstate highways, ubiquitous McDonald's and sprawl, there was that unique creature of the American Southwest: The small desert town. It was not like Bisbee, Globe or Prescott, growing rich from mining or ranching, or Flagstaff with its sawmills, cool weather and available water.
Nor were desert towns like Phoenix, sitting in one of the great fertile river valleys of the world. Instead, these were precarious footholds of human effort to conquer, or at least exist, in a deeply hostile wilderness. I think of places such as Casa Grande, Gila Bend, Eloy and Kingman. Wickenburg almost fit the description, but it benefited from mining, then dude ranches and proximity to fast-growing Phoenix on the main highway to Los Angeles.
Nineteenth century Arizona was a badlands in which only the most visionary dreamer, swindler or madman could see much potential beyond the mining country and the old Spanish outpost of Tucson. Going west from Tucson to California was only for the toughest or most deranged immigrant. A few tribes such as the Mojave knew how to live in this parched, poor land of eerie basins, rugged bare mountains and, in the south, the fickle Gila River. The European-Americans did not, even as they disparaged the natives as "digger Indians" and sometimes set out across the alien terrain.
One famous example was the Oatman party in 1851, traveling from well to well, until an encounter with (it's speculated) Yavapais 80 miles east of Yuma went wrong and most of the party were killed; young Olive was abducted, traded to another tribe and eventually returned to the whites, living out her life with tribal tattoos on her face. This was the world into which the desert town was planted.
One dreaming pragmatist was Jefferson Davis, who as Secretary of War encouraged surveys of a southern route for a future transcontinental railroad and pushed for the Gadsden Purchase (otherwise, Mexico would begin just south of Phoenix). It was the railroad that gave these Arizona desert towns their initial life. Sometimes they had water; other times it had be brought in by rail, but the steam locomotives of the Southern Pacific Railroad subsisted on a string of water towers along its route (the same was true of Kingman on the Santa Fe). One is still standing at Red Rock north of Tucson. From the water towers came towns. A few even survived.
The Red Rock water tower today (Gary O'Brien photo)
The federal government cleared the natives and subsidized the railroads. In some places, its reclamation projects boosted the desert towns through agriculture. Eloy, for example, became a cotton center. Yes, these are the same places that now claim their loud "rugged individualists." That Wild West is a myth. Even with Uncle Sam's help, isolation was the dominant characteristic of the desert town. Its denizens loved it, or left. I still remember descending through the night to a tiny cluster of light, surrounded by implacable darkness: The desert town.
I'm young enough to remember something close to the pure desert town. I rode through them by car, grateful for each refuge in a hostile country, or I passed by in greater comfort on the train. More than once, I nursed a sick car into one, barely making it. The desert town was familiar and yet strange for a young man from Phoenix, which at that time was the ultimate oasis, very different from any other place in the Southwest.
Most were still dependent on the railroad, even though diesels now powered the trains. Two-lane highways connected them to the outside world. The town was invariably compact, with a small business district, grade school, high school, surrounded by houses. Local eateries usually lined the highway, along with a drug store, hardware store, motel, feed store — all locally owned — and offices of a handful of professionals. And this was not Old Scottsdale or even what Wickenburg has become, but completely authentic. By then, rural electrification (big government action again) had allowed these places to enjoy air conditioning.
But their essential character was unchanged. For example, the streets were empty during the day in high summer. Only a fool or an easterner would be on the highway with the sun out, but if he or she was, a small local filling station or two was there. These often became crowded with broken-down cars, defeated by the desert heat. Trains blasted through or stopped to drop off or pick up rail cars. Life emerged at night. Most of these towns also had at least one park with grass and shade, heaven for the traveler. The sky overhead was huge. When a sign warned that it was a hundred miles to the next gas and water, one took stock. A short drive and suddenly the town fell away and the desert was all around you, making you feel so tiny and vulnerable. Even if you weren't a believer, you appreciated the desert as metaphor in the Bible.
At the same time, each town was distinct, many proud. For example, even now the surest way to get in a fight with a native of Casa Grande is to say, "Oh, you're from Gila Bend, right?" Casa Grande became relatively prosperous and built a real downtown, including some of the toughest bars I ever entered. The SP erected a handsome art moderne depot — the stations were always the center of life in any American town — even though all but one passenger train, the Argonaut, had been routed to the northern main line through Phoenix which opened in the 1920s. Even now, Gila Bend seems to hang on with its fingernails and the military Keynesianism of the nearby bombing range. Casa Grande had a welcoming vibe; Eloy always seemed a little sinister.
These memories were made in a state with little more than 1 million people, most concentrated in Phoenix and Tucson.
Now most Arizona desert towns are dying or being absorbed into the Borg of Phoenix sprawl. Casa Grande is especially tragic, its downtown so full of potential but neglected (the train depot was allowed to deteriorate and then burn) while the highway connecting it to Interstate 10 has become a horrid specimen of fast-food outlets, mega gasoline stations and minit-marts, big boxes and cheap tract housing sprawl. The buildings are the same free-standing "brand" billboards one would see outside Akron or Atlanta, perhaps with some cheap stucco applied. Most of the local economy is gone. On the hottest day, the highway is busy. Casa Grande claims an absurd 109 square miles and Eloy 112 — larger than Seattle. Kingman is another abortion. Needless to say, almost all of the passenger trains are gone, few towns have Amtrak stations and the wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III, nominally one of the state's U.S. senators, repeatedly tries to kill Amtrak. Life revolves around long, single-occupancy car trips, plentiful air conditioning and cluelessness too moronic to justify the relatively noble word "hubris." This, apparently is the promise of the "Sun Corridor," only more, more, more of the same.
"The desert always wins." I keep hearing that, but it's taking some serious blows from humanity right now. And sadly, the authentic desert town lost.
Just rolled in from the Midwest and keep hearing the people in your gated "community" lament that Phoenix and environs lack history? Read the Phoenix 101 archive and roll like a native.