Washington Street in Phoenix, 1890. The trees and adobe buildings of 1870 were mostly gone from this view.
My grandmother, Sarah Ella Darrow, was born in 1889 in the Chickasaw Nation, Cumberland, Indian Territory. Her parents had come to I.T., as the postal address read for today's eastern Oklahoma, as Presbyterian missionaries. Then they ran a small store. Earlier, on the Texas frontier, her mother (my great-grandmother), Emma Caroline Hulse, had been scalped as a baby during a Comanche attack after troops were withdrawn for the Civil War — she survived and went on to marry my great-grandfather, Francis Marion Darrow. Indian Territory, home of the Five Civilized Tribes, was fine country for farming and timber, well watered, with growing towns and new railroads. But whites couldn't own land and that was Darrow's dream. The Chickasaw governor (chief) loved my great-grandfather and wanted to adopt him, but, Darrow declined. Then the store and their home were destroyed by a tornado.
They went west, to Arizona, to the Salt River Valley. They and hundreds like them came for relatively cheap land and good farming. Like much of the West, Phoenix was heavily publicized to draw settlers. One thing was even true: This was one of the world's great alluvial valleys, fanning out in mostly flat, irrigable land from a river that flowed year-round, or so it seemed. Here the Hohokam had created the most advanced irrigation system in the New World, with 200 miles of canals, before that civilization faded. The Pima, likely the descendents of the Hohokam, had moved south to the Gila River and beyond, partly to escape raids by the Apache. In the late 1850s, Charles Trumbull Hayden noticed this vast, mysterious valley with its tree-lined river while hauling freight to Tucson. He would be back. He would name his son Carl.
By the 1890s, the phoenix was stirring from the ashes. The Apache had been subdued by the U.S. Cavalry. Thousands of acres were under cultivation, especially for wheat, barley and fruit trees. Anything would grow in this soil, provided water was added. The project of clearing out and extending the old Hohokam Canals was well along by then. Phoenix as a settlement was more than 20 years old. The first railroad had arrived on Independence Day, 1887. In 1890, the Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed. By the time my family arrived, the chance to start fresh and live the Jeffersonian dream of yeoman farmer was fading most places. Not here.
Looking east along Melinda's Alley, near First Street and Monroe in the 1890s.
It had been more than 25 years since Jack Swilling, a former Confederate officer, began cutting hay in the valley to sell to the cavalry at Camp McDowell on the Verde River. Most of the westward migration into the wilderness of Arizona Territory was drawn to the more established town of Tucson or to the mining districts, especially around the territorial capital of Prescott. Like Hayden, with whom he would do business, Swilling was drawn to the river valley. In addition to cutting hay, he grew corn, barley and wheat near today's 32nd Street and Van Buren. With the Swilling Irrigating Canal Co., he began cleaning out and using the Hohokan canals.
A cohort of pioneers, opportunists and misfits followed. Phoenix, named by "Lord" Darrell Duppa, was assigned a post office in 1869, with Swilling as postmaster. In 1870, a new townsite was laid out three miles west of the original settlement and in the first auction 61 lots were sold. Flour mills were among the first larger businesses. By 1872, Phoenix boasted two saloons and a bakery, four stores, a hotel, law office and Methodist church. Shade trees lined a dusty Washington street. Hayden's Ferry, which would become Tempe, has been established slightly before Phoenix. Mormon pioneers began settling Lehi/Mesa in 1877.
By the 1890s, when my family arrived, Phoenix was a thriving town of more than 3,000 people. But this would be the decade that nearly killed the towns of the Salt River Valley (and it did take my great-grandfather's life). First came a record flood in 1891 destroying crops and canals, followed by more than a decade of drought. Nationally, a depression lingered through much of those years. Phoenix now had railroads to haul its agricultural commodities to new markets, but credit was difficult to obtain. People began to leave. Fields fell fallow. It seemed as if a repeat of the Hohokam calamity was at hand.
Phoenix was saved by the Newlands Act, passed by Congress in 1902 and a president in Theodore Roosevelt, who saw himself as a Westerner and was fascinated by the idea of reclamation. The first fruit of the Newlands Act was Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911. More dams and modern canals followed. The Americans possessed technology that the Hohokam had lacked. The territory's center of gravity started shifting unstoppably to Phoenix. It didn't have copper or silver, nor did it enjoy the historic primacy of a presidio and trade center as did Tucson and Tubac. Phoenix possessed the most valuable treasure in the desert: Water.
Agriculture and its associated industries, along with the railroads, made Phoenix multicultural from the start. Along with Indians and Mexicans, came Chinese, Japanese, Greeks and Middle Easterners, notably the Basha family. The Greeks cornered the restaurant trade. The rise of cotton farming attracted African Americans from Texas and Mississippi. With its Southern heritage, Phoenix was a white supremacy town, but not as harshly as in the true South. As it grew, it was both a trade center and wide-open place to relax for cowboys and miners. Jacob Waltz (of the Lost Dutchman gold mine) died in Phoenix.
By 1909, Center Street (Central) was graced by the fanciest hotel in the state, the Hotel Adams. It would burn a year later and was replaced by a five-story reinforced concrete building. The hotel lasted until the early 1970s.
Even with water assured, life was very hard. Air conditioning had yet to arrive, even in the form of swamp coolers. Helen Humphreys Seargeant's evocative The House by the Buckeye Road is the best memoir of these years. While the richest farmers could send their families to California or Iron Springs in the summer, most people suffered through the heat. For all the aspirations of Phoenix's Victorian and brick buildings, farm work was horrendously difficult, irrigation a tricky technique and the valley consisting of many microclimates and soils that challenged, and often ruined, farmers. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, my great uncle, Charles Rector Darrow, left Arizona to become a farmer in a less harsh place. My great-grandmother stayed, remarried Jackson Thomas and lived until 1944, long enough to see the desert bloom, the Phoenix rise and more.
By the 1920s, Phoenix was selling itself as a winter resort and trains pulling Pullman sleeper cars would deposit tourists at Union Station. Resorts were established and dude ranches experienced some years of popularity. With dry, clean air, Phoenix for decades became a magnet for people with respiratory ailments. Later, millions would come for the climate, the sunshine, new houses in subdivisions, championship golf. It would become a megalopolis where people turn on the water without a second thought or worry, where air conditioning keeps the rising heat at bay. Agriculture has been pushed toward extinction and doesn't figure in the daily lives of Phoenicians. Today, no one asks why people come there other than as a commentary on the city's problems and limitations.
It was not always that way.
Around 1880, an elderly Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was traveling on the Southern Pacific Railroad when his train was met at Maricopa by a delegation of Phoenix boosters. Among them was Capt. William Hancock, one of Phoenix's pioneers and probably more of an actual town-builder than Swilling. Sherman exclaimed, "What a hell of a country!" Hancock said, "Why General, it is not such a bad country; we have to the north a rich agricultural valley and mines. Possibly Arizona is a bit warm, but all she needs is more water and better immigration." Said Sherman, "Huh! Less heat! More water! Better society! That’s all hell needs!"
Learn more about Phoenix history in the Phoenix 101 archive.