For hundreds of years this sustained the Hohokam, who created the most advanced irrigation civilization in the New World. They built hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles of canals to bring water from the Salt River to their fields. After the Hohokam left in circumstances that are still debated, the valley lay empty for 400 years. Waiting.
Jack Swilling may get too much credit among the founders of Phoenix. But one thing that's certain is this soldier of fortune immediately grasped the valley's agricultural potential when he arrived after the Civil War to help John Y.T. Smith farm hay for the Army at Fort McDowell.
He saw the Hohokam canals, the seemingly flat ground and rich earth, and knew it was farming country. In some cases, old Hohokam canals were simply cleaned out by the Swilling Irrigating Canal Co. His passion in selling what "Lord" Duppa would aptly name Phoenix attracted men from Wickenburg and Prescott. Swilling's Ditch was built in 1868 from today's 40th Street and ran west beside Van Buren Street.
No other place in the West between the 100th meridian and California and the Pacific Northwest was so hospitable to farming. Three rivers met here and the soil was alluvial and priceless. Unlike the future Dustbowl, with its shallow topsoil and dependency on fickle rainfall, the Salt River Valley alone had almost all the makings of a major agricultural empire.
By 1870, 200 Anglo settlers had arrived and laid out the townsite, land was platted from the Gila and Salt River Baseline and Meridian, and more ditches were dug. Wheat and grains were the early crops. Former Union officer William John Murphy led building of the 41-mile Arizona Canal between 1883 and 1885. In the late part of that decade, the Rev. Winfield Scott, an Army chaplain, acquired 640 acres. With his brother George, he planted the first citrus trees, along with growing dates and figs and other tree crops.
Yes, tony Scottsdale is named after this chaplain-farmer. (So is Winfield, Kan.). But other farm villages preceded it: Mesa (1878), Tempe (1879), Glendale (1887) and Peoria (1897).
An 1892 map of the Salt River Valley showing the Salt River, canals, and towns.
By 1890, more than 125,000 acres were under cultivation. The ability to move crops beyond the territory grew exponentially with the arrival of a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1887 and the Santa Fe Railway in 1895. The railroads led an aggressive promotion of the region to potential settlers and capitalists back east.
The valley went by many names, "Garden Spot of the Territory," "Grain Emporium of Arizona," "the American Nile," and "the American Eden."
As Bradford Luckingham points out in his Phoenix history, the Desert Land Act of 1877 further enhanced the area's appeal by expanding the acreage allowed under the Homestead Act from 160 to 640. In reality, land and water rights proved problematic and a source of dispute for decades.
What was undeniable was that the settlers had achieved an astonishing rebirth of this Eden. The Hohokam would recognize its backbone: canals taking advantage of gravity. But there were also the beginnings of more sophisticated delivery, including the "laterals," ditches that that ran every mile north and south from the larger feeder canals. Veins carrying lifeblood. Below is an 1893 U.S. Geological Survey photograph of where the Crosscut Canal met the Arizona Canal. All around are fields:
The alluvial soil would grow almost anything provided water was available. For example, the photo at the top of this column shows grape vinyards with Camelback Mountain in the background. Wheat, barley, oats, and alfalfa were early practical and profitable crops. Farmers grew vegetables and fruits for their own consumption and then to sell. Beet fields spread out from Glendale. Cotton would prove especially influential.
An 1881 report to the territorial Legislature in Prescott said that it:
...produces the finest vegetables in the Territory. Pumpkins, squashes, onions, turnips, cabbages, watermelons, and everything in the vegetable line, are raised in large quantities, and are in market by the first of March.
The soil is peculiarly adapted to the raising of sugarcane, and some of the stalks attain a height of over twelve feet. It has been estimated that an acre of this cane will yield 200 gallons of syrup, of an excellent quality; it also makes a nutritious food for horses and stock. There are about 1,000 acres of this valuable plant now under cultivation, and the area is being steadily increased, many farmers finding it more profitable than the raising of grain.
Yet the settlers encountered the Hohokam's nemeses, drought and floods. The 1890s, when my family arrived, proved especially disastrous. First came the February 1891 flood, which not only destroyed canals but also crops. It was followed by years of drought. Many farmers gave up. Still, the canals were repaired and new crops planted. The county's population doubled, to more than 20,000.
The Americans had technological magic that their predecessors lacked. Even before the turn of the century, John R. Norton, William Breckenridge and James McClintock identified a canyon in the Tonto Basin 80 miles northeast of Phoenix as the ideal place for a modern dam.
In 1902, the Newlands Act was passed, providing federal money for reclamation. The first project was the dam on the Salt River, named after the president who championed and signed the bill. Theodore Roosevelt Dam was built between 1905 and 1911. It remains the world's highest masonry dam.
Thus began the Salt River Project. Valley farmers famously used their land as collateral, forming the Salt River Valley Water Users Association, to qualify for the federal loans under the Newlands Act. Other dams on the Salt and Verde rivers followed, ending the worst of the flooding and ensuring the valley with a stable, year-round supply of water as well as cheap hydropower. That electricity allowed for pumping stations that made the irrigation system much more efficient.
This success led Arizona into a long fight to win the federally funded Central Arizona Project. Throughout the legislative and court fights, the CAP was sold as essential to maintaining and expanding agriculture — not as a way to bring 4 million people to the valley with the nation's sixth most populous city.
These water projects represent among the grandest engineering achievements in American history.
The Newlands Act also began the most widespread attempt at "socialism" and overt "central planning" in the nation's experience. Leaders in Washington hoped reclamation in the Salt River Valley would draw people from the eastern cities — and not coincidentally defuse the rise of a dangerous industrial proletariat — and make them into Jeffersonian yeoman farmers.
Another technological breakthrough was the refrigerated railroad boxcar, originally kept cold by ice blocks stuffed into bunkers of the cars. This allowed Phoenix produce to be sent across the nation. With the completion of the Southern Pacific's Northern Main Line through the city in 1926, agriculture vied with copper as Arizona's most valuable export. Long trains filled with citrus, lettuce, cabbage, and other farm products were loaded in the city — especially in the Produce District downtown — iced at giant ice houses beside the tracks, and dispatched on the SP and the Santa Fe. SP's Pacific Fruit Express, run jointly with the Union Pacific, was an especially powerful player in extending markets for Salt River Valley farmers.
Citrus, melons, and vegetables traveled in wooden crates decorated with colorful labels to distinguish the farms or growers associations. Among them: Miss Phoenix, Big Town, Barbara Lee, Desert Brand, Pride of Arizona, Phoenix Desert Glow, Desert Miracle, Salt River Brand, and Arizona Maid.
In addition to planting and harvesting, agriculture created what economists now call an "ecosystem" centered on Phoenix, with seed companies and other vendors, banks, insurance companies, equipment makers and sellers, and many other businesses that supported the farm economy. Closeness to feed and railroads also turned Phoenix into a major livestock center, especially with the Tovrea Stockyards, one of the largest feed lots in the world, and nearby slaughterhouses.
By the 1940s, 360,000 acres were under cultivation. This would rise to nearly 520,000 by 1959 and increase to more than 600,000 — 937 square miles — in the 1960s. Phoenix moved to the rhythms and totems of a farming region. The beloved Masque of the Yellow Moon celebration was essentially a festival to mark planting and harvest. From 1948 to 1955, a college post-season game was held at Montgomery Stadium — the Salad Bowl.
The iconic Japanese Flower gardens that ran for miles along Baseline Road.
Although Phoenix grew into the territory's largest city, was named the capital in 1889, boasted the largest business, professional and retail sectors, and began marketing itself as a "health" and then tourist mecca, its economy was most dependent on agriculture for the first half of the 20th century.
Although minorities came for a variety of reasons, most were farmers or farm workers. In town, until the late 1950s, jobs in the produce sheds were among the few open to non-Anglos, aside from working the fields. African-Americans moved west from Texas to pick cotton. Japanese proved especially adept at farming in some of the microclimates of the valley where Anglos failed. Before their flower gardens became beloved, they endured racism, attacks, and, for those south of U.S. 60, internment during World War II.
Whatever the skin color of the farmer, the work was murderously demanding. Although the dam system saved Phoenix farmers from worry over rainfall, they still faced the age-old problems of the business: debt, over-supply, and changing markets. Much of the diversity of valley farms was lost in the Great War when demand soared for extra long staple cotton. This unique fiber grew well in the Nile River Valley — and in the American Nile. Soaring prices caused many farmers to switch exclusively to cotton, a practice that continued even after prices crashed in 1919. Citrus was another highly profitable crop.
By 1939, cotton accounted for nearly 27 percent of the crop acreage in Maricopa County. Citrus — grapefruit, oranges, lemons, limes and tangerines — was 5.1 percent but set to grow. The valley still accounted for a remarkable diversity of crops and more. Seen another way: In the distribution of farmland, grazing took up nearly 43 percent.
The cotton crash, Great Depression, and movement of Americans off the farm and into towns and cities dashed the hopes of Phoenix as a Jeffersonian model. Although a few smaller farmers persist to this day on the metropolitan fringes, by the 1940s a few families assembled large farms and wielded significant power. Among them, the Rousseaus, Nortons, Killians, and Corpsteins. The Goldwater and Martori families owned Arrowhead Ranch, site of a 1977 strike by migrant workers.
By the time I was a child, Phoenix had 400,000 people and a more diverse economy than today. This was a result of efforts to move beyond agriculture after World War II, recruiting "clean industry" (some of which, alas, polluted the city's aquifers). Even so, agriculture was omnipresent.
The street grid was laid out on the old laterals and square miles of farm fields, not as a result of urban planning. Old Phoenicians called avenues "laterals" long after they were absorbed into the city and given names. For example, 27th Avenue was the old Lateral 14.
The abundance of water and the rich soil made the old city an oasis, a garden city. Acreages were still widespread, including that of my great-aunt, Eula Darrow Street, a magical place of shade and memory that one reached by crossing the narrow irrigation ditch (lateral) off Seventh Avenue. Into her eighties, she would go out on Sunday night to "take her water." This legacy of flood irrigation makes the North Central district and Arcadia so inviting.
Real farms and groves were nearby, even if one lived near downtown. Phoenix got regular frosts in the winter, so propeller aircraft engines sat on poles in the groves to keep the air circulating when it was cold. Roadside stands sold citrus. A weekly trip to the Japanese Gardens for flowers was within the means of almost everyone. Railroads still hauled the valley's bounty, although in newer mechanical "reefer" cars. The Produce District was busy with commerce.
When I went to high school in Scottsdale, fields were being tilled near Coronado High. Everywhere one could find the remnants of farm houses, some impressive haciendas and others small but still upright years after they had been abandoned. By the late 1970s, despite sprawl, a person could drive for miles east of Mesa and never leave the citrus groves. For awhile longer, the city retained its pleasing bands of farms, groves, horse pastures, and finally desert:
It's almost all gone now. Most Phoenicians have no idea of what this good earth once brought forth. Yet everywhere in the old city memories can be found. Arcadia was built in citrus groves. Park Central sits on the site of the old Central Dairy. Laterals run along part of shady north Central. When you smell the citrus blossoms in late February and early March, you imbibe the enchanting scent of history. Condos on Seventh Avenue north of Glendale crowd the once-enchanting acreage of my great-aunt.
The debate over the sustainability of flood irrigation on this scale is legitimate but academic now. Someday we might need to feed ourselves and will regret paving over and polluting this rich soil. The wisdom of turning the valley into a megalopolis is examined frequently here.
So I will end on a Saturday in the mid-1960s. My mother, grandmother, and I were driving north on one of the narrow concrete rural roads that is seven lanes wide today, on one of the regular pilgrimages past the old family farmhouse, which still stood even though the land had been sold in the late 1940s.
It had been cloudy and sprinkling for most of the day, yet the sun broke through and the most vivid rainbow I have ever seen emerged. "It looks like you could touch it," my mother said. She pulled to the dirt shoulder, and, as my grandmother and I remained in the car, she stepped out and walked into the field. And into the foot of the rainbow.
They were both wonderfully alive then. And so was this American Eden.