10 Defining moments in Phoenix history

As the state of Arizona continues to celebrate 100 years of statehood, the events  that shaped the history of Arizona are recalled in great detail. Long forgotten facts and figures return to the forefront, providing a detailed look back into the evolution of the state, and how it came to be. The tales of Arizona history are often violent, often amusing but mostly fascinating. As every city in Arizona began to take shape, they each contributed their own anecdotal history to the formation of the state as we know it today. Phoenix Arizona is certainly way up on the list when it comes to contributing fascinating and significant defining moments in the state’s history. That also happens to be one of the attractions to Phoenix, the rich and diverse history of this ever changing city, and the state capitol. Here are ten significant moments in the history of Phoenix. Moments that defined the city, and contributed to the history of the state.

The green valley that was to become Phoenix is irrigated by a series of complex canals and aqueducts that provide water from the Salt River. Created by the Hohokam Indians, the once sprawling area inhabited by the Hohokam people is mysteriously abandoned around 1450. It is believed years of severe drought caused the collapse and demise of the original inhabitants of Phoenix.

From the foot of the White Tank Mountains, Jack Swilling peers across the still green, yet largely uninhabited valley in 1867. Swilling seizes upon the idea of farming the fertile valley. Following the ancient aqueducts created by the Hohokam, Swilling begins irrigating the valley and the popularity, as well as the crops in the area, begins to grow. After undergoing several name changes, such as “Pumpkinville” and “Swillings Mill,” the ‘Lord’ Phillip Darrel Duppa came up with the name of the city. Depending on which version you hear, Duppa decided on the name when pointing out that the city was borne of the ashes of the Hohokam, and that the original people of the valley would rise again, in the form of the new city of Phoenix.

County elections are held for the first time in 1871, electing Tom Barnum as the first sheriff of Maricopa County. During the election, two other candidates for sheriff; J. A. Chenowth and Jim Favorite, were involved in a shoot-out with each other that resulted in Favorite’s death and Chenowth’s inevitable withdrawal from the race. Phoenix’s youth began attending the first school in 1871, with classes conducted in the courtroom of the county building. About 20 children attended the first classes taught in the courtroom. By October 1873, a small adobe school building was completed on Center Street (now Central Avenue), a short distance north of where the San Carlos Hotel now stands. Miss Nellie Shaver, a newcomer from Wisconsin, was appointed as the first female schoolteacher in Phoenix.

After having to take a back seat to Prescott and Tucson, Phoenix was finally made the State Capitol in 1889 by the 15th Arizona Territorial Legislature. The city now has horse-drawn streetcars, and a population of over 2,400, a school enrollment of 379 pupils, an ice factory and a new brick sidewalk in front of the Tiger Saloon. Maricopa County conducts its first ‘legal’ hanging on November 26 of that same year.

With the railroad now arriving in Phoenix, the growth of the city explodes exponentially. The Salt River Valley Water Users Organization (later changed to the Salt River Project) is formed, paving the way for increased commerce, agriculture and modernization. Construction on Roosevelt dam begins in 1906, and on May 18, 1911, the former president himself dedicates the new and innovative dam, constructed to provide hydroelectric power as well as water for agriculture. The dedication of Roosevelt dam is considered the pivotal moment in Phoenix history, and the entire state as well, paving the way for Arizona to be recognized as a state by President William Howard Taft on February 14, 1912.

After only eight years as a state, Phoenix was not a little western town in the valley any more, it was now a bustling city of 29,053 people. By 1920, Phoenix Union High School had two thousand students in attendance. That year, a total of 1,080 buildings went up in downtown Phoenix. Among them was the first skyscraper in Arizona, the Heard Building. The 1920 were transitional for America, but this decade also brought to light a prevailing proclivity for corruption that would continue to plague the city for many years to come. Beginning with the $1,300,000 bond issue of 1919 to build a redwood pipeline from the Verde River to Phoenix, the pipeline was completed it 1920, but didn’t even work.

As Phoenix entered the 1930’s, it was far from immune to all of the ills of post industrial America. The great depression meant a major downturn in the US economy, while the size of Phoenix nearly doubled again with a 48,118 census count. With a public library sporting a collection of 51,000 books, and a police force of 70 men, the City of Phoenix pressed on. After the Redwood Pipeline scandal of the 1920’s, Phoenix gave it one more shot and another pipeline was built – this time constructed with 48 inches of concrete, which still carries Verde River water to this day.

The outbreak of World War II was another defining moment for the city, perhaps as significant as the completion of Roosevelt Dam. So much happened in Phoenix during the 1940’s to re-shape, re-define and re-establish the city that optimism and fear seemed to waver from one extreme to the other on an hourly basis. Before the start of the war, Phoenix seemed stuck at standstill, as both agriculture and product distribution had both gone as far as they could (at the time) neither growing at a significant rate, or showing signs of diminishing either. When America became involved in the war, Phoenix suddenly found itself thrust into a massive and emerging industrial city. Luke Field, Williams Field and Falcon Field, added with the giant ground training center at Hyder, west of Phoenix, brought thousands of men into Phoenix. Phoenix businesses flourished overnight, providing for the military and personal needs of the huge influx of soldiers.

After the war, many of the young men who were sent to Phoenix decided to stay, and many who passed through the state as a result of the war decided to return and become permanent residents. Thus began a post war renaissance like no other. The City of Phoenix in the 1950’s bustled with young mean eager to work, settle down and raise a family. Agriculture had reached its epoch, so manufacturing and technology poured into the city, building manufacturing plants, industrial centers, shipping and distribution. With such a young labor force, and completely new and innovative methods of manufacturing and technology suddenly thrust upon the city, plans were drawn up to accommodate this new lifestyle and changing face of America. Perhaps the 1950’s were a pivotal moment in the city’s history in both a good way and a bad way. Urban growth continued at an unprecedented pace. The farms that had defined the city were being paved over, with new, energy efficient suburbs to replace them. The city quickly drew up plans for what Phoenix would have to become in the next 10 years in order to meet the demands of the economic boom.

Where did it begin? When did it end? It’s hard to say precisely, but the boom of the 1950’s would cast a pall over the city for many decades to come. Still blinded by the unparalleled economic growth and success of the previous decade, Phoenix began demolishing much of the old city in order to make way for what was perceived at the time would be the city of the future; with new, space-age architecture and skyscrapers to rival that of any major metropolitan city that also happened to be an economic hub. Phoenix of the 1960’s through the 1980’s was far more than a city in transition. It was an eager and often overzealous city, where corruption would be  vanquished one day, only to return on another, the cycle repeating over and over. A city where progress would be maintained at all costs, regardless of whatever happened to be in the way. Phoenix of today is a vast tapestry of contrasts, a city still eager to continue in its forward momentum, yet reserved in its approach after the painful lessons of the past. A city incorporating the best of what is new, while tenuously embracing its vanishing past.