Phoenix Was Both
Oasis and Mirage
Part One: A Flowering Paradise
Reclaimed From the Desert
Soon after Arizona Territory was created from the western half of New Mexico enterprising individuals were drawn to the fertile soil of the Salt River Valley and the remains of ancient canals built there by Native Americans. In 1865, John Y. T. Smith located a hay cutting camp to supply Fort McDowell where 40th Street now meets the airport. About two years later a group of investors from Wickenburg led by Jack Swilling had two of the old canals cleaned out to irrigate wheat fields and supply a flourmill located on high ground about a mile east of where the downtown is today. Both Swilling and a friend named Darrell Duppa likely named the collection of farms and worker houses around the mill “Phoenix Settlement,” predicting a great civilization would rise from the ruins of the ancients. In May 1868, Yavapai County created the Phoenix election precinct in the valley.
Wickenburg and the Colorado River towns of Aubry, La Paz and Castle Dome were experiencing a gold rush at the time and supplies for miners were in great demand. Fresh fruit and vegetables were very expensive or just not available. But with irrigation, the Salt River Valley could grow enough grains, fruit, vegetables and beef to supply the entire territory. A number of individuals recognized this and came to Phoenix Settlement with big dreams of creating a lush oasis in the desert, growing enough wealth to rival any mining town in the territory. The climate would permit more than one harvest in a year. With the Verde, Salt and Gila rivers all coming together nearby, there would be water in abundance. And the central location would make for economical transportation of goods to every corner of the territory. And wealth buys political power. With Prescott and Tucson vying to be Territorial Capital, Phoenix could offer a compromise location half way between the two.
In October 1870, those with money to invest got together and voted to establish a new city called Phoenix west of the Settlement. Streets were surveyed, those running east and west named after US presidents with north-south streets named after Indian tribes. It would be a rigid grid plan based on the axis formed by Washington and Centre Streets. The first street west of Centre was Cortez, conqueror of the Indians, while the first street east was Montezuma, the conquered. Two blocks were reserved for the public, a plaza at Washington and Montezuma with a courthouse square at Washington and Cortez. Oh yes, the following year Phoenix became county seat of the newly created Maricopa County, though the county court would have to rent a room in Phoenix for a few years. Swilling’s settlement, now known as Mill City or East Phoenix, just couldn’t compete. The new Phoenix went straight to the head of the line.
In 1885, when this lithographic birds-eye-view was published in San Francisco, Phoenix was still a small village though promising a big future. The Maricopa County Court House (1884), No. 1, occupies one public square, while the Plaza, No. 13, fills another. The two-story brick Central Grammar School, No. 4, is at upper left, with a public swimming pool, No. 15, near a source of water, the “town ditch,” No. 6, that used to run along Van Buren Street until it was channeled underground in 1927. The first church in town, Centre Street Methodist Church (1871), is marked No. 5 and there is another Methodist Church (No. 3) on Washington Street. The first store in town, Hancock’s (1871), No. 10, is located on the NW corner of Washington and Montezuma. The Irvine Block (1879), No. 14, second brick structure built, is on the SW corner of Washington and Montezuma. The first brick building faces the opposite corner of the Plaza, on the SE corner of Jefferson (next street south of Washington) and 2nd Street. Sacred Heart of St. Louis Catholic Church (1881), No. 19, is at 316 E. Monroe. J. Y. T. Smith’s steam-powered flourmill is No. 12 on Jefferson Street. Notice the telegraph line. Electric power for lights would be available the following year. Much of the north side of Washington Street’s business district burned in 1885 and then again in 1886.
The 1885 lithograph was framed with pictures of important buildings, like this view of the first hotel in town, John J. Gardner’s Phoenix Hotel. Constructed in 1871-1872 of adobe surrounding an inner court with a swimming pool, it typified the early “Mexican style” buildings that were more comfortable in the heat and cheaper to build than wood construction. But brick buildings gave the impression of solid Anglo prosperity so a kiln opened in 1879.
In 1873, a nationwide economic recession dried up investment money and slowed growth in Arizona. Still, the population of Phoenix rose from 240 in 1870 to 1,708 by 1880. Nine years later Phoenix became the capital of Arizona Territory. By then the town of about 3,000 was surrounded by thousands of acres of field crops, cow pasture and orchards. Canals and laterals brought water everywhere. A rail line connecting with Maricopa carried boxcars of grain, dried fruit and fresh vegetables to far away markets. Land development and tourism grew as fast as crops in the field. The Salt River Valley “offers rich inducements to the Capitalist, the Home-seeker and the Tourist” promised a promotional ad (Pacific Monthly November 1906). “The mild winter climate of this valley brings great relief to those who are tired of cold winds, snow and ice.” The dry air also cured lung diseases, giving rise to sanitariums amongst the citrus groves.
A steam powered tractor runs a threshing machine as out in the field a reaper continues to cut, in this postcard view published about 1909. At the time, there were about 125,000 acres under cultivation in the Valley. Roosevelt Dam was nearing completion with the promise of much more water for irrigation. By 1925, more than half of all land under cultivation in Arizona was located in the Salt River Valley. And Arizona ranked first in the nation for acres of domesticated hay (mostly alfalfa), and first for production of grain sorghums per acre.
Construction of this City Hall was completed in 1888 in the middle of the Plaza on Washington between First and Second Streets. City government had been incorporated in 1881. The bell tower was a 1905 addition. Behind the building and to the right you can see the bell tower of the fire station on the SW corner of the Plaza. The City Hall building was a powerful inducement to bring the capital to Phoenix in 1889 since the legislature and the Governor were offered the upper floor until a capitol building could be completed. Economic hard times put off the start of capitol construction until 1899 and it was completed in 1901. City offices moved into one side of a new City-County building in 1929 and old City Hall was demolished. What had been a public square was sold for business development. Fox Theater was built on the NW corner of the block. Years later a new J. C. Penney store was built on the NE corner.
Phoenix had been a fairly controlled city from its inception. Appearance and reputation were important to satisfy investors, property buyers, government officials and visitors. Soon after it became territorial capital, residents looked toward statehood. The wild west image stood in the way. Phoenix formed a vigilance committee in the 1870s to deal harshly with lawlessness. By 1896, the New York Tribune noted that the city of 10,000 required “in the daytime only one policeman, and hardly requiring him.” Multi-story brick commercial buildings and landscaped homes with wide verandas presented a prosperous and peaceful appearance. “The old adobe of the early pioneer is fast disappearing before the march of progress,” reassured Meyer’s Business Directory in 1888. It concluded that “Phoenix has fairly entered upon the road which leads to prosperity,” quoting a report in the Albuquerque Democrat. “Sustained and supported by the vast tract of rich and productive soil which surrounds it on all sides, with abundance of water and a perfect climate, she can look to the future with serene confidence.”
The intersection of Washington and 1st Avenue is shown here about 1907. Without air conditioning of any kind, only electric fans, shopping and working heavily clothed in brick and wooden buildings, Phoenix residents spent most summer days very uncomfortably. Awnings over the sidewalk and on the upper floors of the Fleming Building, and the shades hanging from the front of the Monihan Building balcony were necessities. Parasols shield passengers in open carriages. A few automobiles appeared about this time, but horses were everywhere until after 1910. By 1914 there were 400 automobiles registered in Phoenix.
The first Adams Hotel building (1896), of brick with wooden porches all around, is on the right, a block away, in this view from about 1907. On the left side of the street with blue roof and white spire is Center Street Methodist Church (1871). The Goodrich Building (1886) is at left (with awnings) when it was only one story tall. The business district ended at Van Buren, where the trees are, and a prime residential neighborhood extended a few blocks north.
The 1879 brick schoolhouse visible in the lithograph above, on the block bounded by Van Buren, Monroe, Center and 1st Avenue, was expanded in 1893, again in 1899, and is pictured here about 1908 or earlier. Before the brick building, the first classes were held in one room of an adobe building constructed in 1871 on First Avenue south of Washington and rented by the county court. In 1873 an adobe schoolhouse was built, visible in the lithograph just east of the brick building. An 1889 postcard shows two more school buildings by then, East End School and West End School. The central building was the High School. A high school district was organized in 1895 with high school students sharing Central School with elementary school students, but in 1897 the Churchill mansion on Fifth Street just north of Van Buren was donated. It became Phoenix Union High School. The school district did not maintain the Central School building well and it was demolished in 1920. In 1928 the San Carlos Hotel and the Security Building were built on the site.
This is Washington at First Street, looking west about 1911. The corner of the Irvine Block is at left, with the plaza farther left out of view. At right is the Anderson building, former home of B. Heyman Furniture Company, but now housing the Berryhill Company, stationers. Minus the two towers, the building survived into the 1980s. The site is now occupied by Phelps Dodge Tower. Streetcars made suburban living possible. In 1887, the first horse-drawn streetcars began bringing shoppers to Washington Street at a time when there were few sidewalks and streets were unpaved. Electricity replaced horses in 1893 but the streetcars were still small, four-wheeled conveyances. By the time this photo was taken, larger streetcars were in use. The main line north went up First Street (where one car is turning). Streetcars stopped running in 1948, replaced by buses. Now, after great effort and expense, they are back.
By 1900 Indian street names had been replaced with numbers, Avenues on the west side of Center, Streets to the east. Centre Street became “Center” and finally Central Avenue. This view of Washington (with streetcar) and First Avenue (with mid-street parking) looks northeast from the courthouse cupola about 1918. The Fleming Building (built in 1893, raised to 4-storys in 1896, demolished 1970), with Phoenix National Bank, is at left with a flag. Across the street is the Monihan Building (1889) and at the east end of the block is the 4-story Goodrich Building (raised to 6-stories in 1921). The white building seen above the Monihan Building is the Adams Hotel (rebuilt 1911 after a fire) with “wireless” antennas (2-way radio) on the roof. Panning to the right, you can see St. Mary’s Catholic Church (1915) in the distance, and closer, on 1st Street, Dorris-Heyman furniture store (white, four-story) and part of top floor of Korrick’s (1914) department store (tan color). Postcard published by A. O. Boeres, Phoenix, through Curt Teich American Art company.
Ethnic diversity added value to Phoenix from the start. Clemente Romo and Jesus Otero were among the first businessmen, constructing adobe buildings for their stores. In 1877, half the 300 residents were Hispanic. Jewish merchants, Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs came early. The first Chinese residents in 1872 opened a laundry. By 1888 there were five Chinese stores and ten Chinese laundries in town. Hachiro Onuki established the first steam electric plant in 1886 (sold in 1889). Isaac Rosensweig opened a jewelry store in 1895. The list of Jewish-owned stores includes firms that led the local economy until the national chains moved in, Diamonds (became Dillard’s), Goldwater’s (became Robinson’s), Korrick’s (became Broadway/Macy’s) and Hanny’s (closed 1986, but 1947 building has reopened as a restaurant). Despite early success for some ethnic families, “gentiles” still pulled a lot of strings, though some spoke with a noticeable British, German or Italian accent. “Mexicans comprise about 10 per cent of the population,” reported the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce in 1897. “Most of the common labor is done by them.” They built the first canals and the first buildings for Anglo owners. African Americans arrived in numbers after 1900. There were 400 by 1911, and their number continued to increase.
The interior of the soda fountain and ice cream parlor established in 1887 by Italian fruit vendor Charles Donofrio is shown when it was in the Ellingson building (1899) at 21 East Washington. Donofrio’s actually used an address for the alley running on the east side, called Cactus Way. The business also sold candy (in the case at left) and flowers and was famous for its crystallized cactus candy. Charles sold to his brother Dominick in 1905. After a 1928 fire, the popular confectionary and lunch counter relocated on Central, between the Hotel San Carlos and the Security Building. The floral business expanded into its own store in the block just south. Donofrio’s food service business closed in 1956, but there is still a florist by the name.
In early Phoenix, residential neighborhoods were developed north, west and south of the business district. The east side was mostly industrial. Land speculators and developers designed the city and controlled growth. As the town grew, someone with money would create a residential subdivision that would soon be added to the city limits. After floodwater reached up to Jefferson Street in 1891, Anglo families moved north, leaving south Phoenix for ethnic minorities. Residential development was dependent upon streetcar transportation. “Home seekers can find no better place than this,” boasted the Chamber of Commerce. “Think of a climate that allows you to live in a tent the year around.” Many of those living in tents were recovering from upper respiratory infections like tuberculosis. But clean fresh air and outdoor living were considered healthful for most anyone in those days.
Bungalow style and mission revival style were all the rage after 1905. This home, pictured in the 1920s, includes elements from both. Though lacking shade trees, it still exemplified the coveted image of suburban life just a short streetcar ride from the downtown shopping district. Streetcar lines crossed Willeta at 5th Avenue, 3rd Street and 10th Street, so the resident of this home would only have to walk two or three blocks to get on a car to the downtown. There is also a garage in back for an automobile.
Roses bloomed in Phoenix every December, but not without thorns. The 1890s brought another economic recession and extended drought. It should have become obvious why the ancients had abandoned their canals. Confident Phoenicians turned to technocracy for a solution. They formed the Salt River Valley Water Users Association in 1903 and successfully lobbied the federal government to fund a “reclamation project” with Valley farmland as collateral. Just as Roosevelt Dam began to rise on the Salt River, the drought ended and floods returned. The dam stored water for irrigating more land and provided electricity to pump ground water where canal water might not be available. More floods were met with more dams on the Salt, Verde, Gila and Agua Fria rivers.
The population of Phoenix passed Tucson between the 1910 and 1920 census, finally making the capital city the largest in the state. After recovering from the post World War One cotton price slump, Phoenix experienced a building boom. And after the stock market crash of 1929, several of those construction projects already on the drawing board were nevertheless completed. But soon, hard times led to a period of stagnation and deterioration from 1932 to 1941. Commercial construction would wait nearly 30 years for another boom.
Central Avenue at Adams Street, looking south, as seen from Adams Hotel (1911), about 1926. A guest is lounging on the hotel veranda. The ten story Luhrs Building (1924), Central & Jefferson, is the tallest two-tone structure in the distance. The Goodrich building, heightened to six stories, is on the NW corner of Central & Washington. The building with the two towers is the Nicholson Building. The gray building in right foreground, on NW corner of Central & Adams, is the Gooding Building (with Santa Fe ticket office). Seen above the Gooding Building, in the background, is the very top of the County Courthouse cupola with flag, rising over the top of the Monihan Building roof. The taller brown building, with the blue roof, to the right of the Monihan, is the Fleming Building. Of all these buildings, only the Luhrs Building survives today.
At least nine tall buildings were constructed during the 1920-1931 building boom before the Great Depression halted that type of development. This postcard view published in 1929 of Central Avenue at its intersection with Monroe shows the San Carlos Hotel (1928), the taller Security Building (1928), and the still taller Hotel Westward Ho (1929) about three blocks up the street. Like the postcard above, this view is also from a balcony on the Adams Hotel. The two buildings at right (red & green) were soon demolished to make way for construction of the Professional Building (1931). The Westward Ho remained the tallest building in Phoenix until 1960. Shortly after issuing this postcard, publisher Harry Herz moved from Phoenix to Los Angeles.
Thomas Edwin Farish, History of Arizona Vol. 6 (1918)
Kathleen Garcia, Early Phoenix (2008)
Judy Hinz, Phoenix How It All Began (1989)
Bradford Luckingham, Phoenix. The History of a Southwestern Metropolis. (1989)
Herb & Dorothy McLaughlin, eds., Phoenix 1870-1970 In Photographs. (1970)
Robert A. Melikian, Vanishing Phoenix (2010)
Paul Scharbach & John H. Akers, Phoenix Then & Now (2005)
Stan Watts, A Legal History of Maricopa County (2007)