A very brief history of Phoenix, Arizona

The U.S. territory of Arizona was officially organized on February 24, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. During the Civil War on February 14 1862, Jefferson Davis had created by proclamation the Confederate territory of Arizona—exactly 50 years to the day before Arizona was to become a state. Pres. William Howard Taft approved Arizona’s statehood on February 14, 1912.

Indian raids were still very common in the territory, so in an effort to protect the growing number of prospectors and miners that were coming into the newly formed territory, U.S. Army Post Camp Verde (changed to Fort McDowell in 1879) was established on the west bank of the Verde River approximately 6 miles above its confluence with the Salt River. John Y. T. Smith (Y. T. stood for Yours Truly) is credited with seeing the wild hay growing and setting up a hay camp along the north bank of the Salt River approximately 35 miles from Camp McDowell in 1867. John W. “Jack” Swilling saw the potential of the prehistoric canal system and started to develop it in the winter of 1867—1868. In 1870, the 240 residents in the area voted to establish a town on the site we now know of as downtown. It was on cleared, flat ground, elevated above the seasonal floodplain just enough to protect it from flooding, and located about a mile north of the Salt River. The town of Phoenix was initially I mile long, a half mile wide, and contained 96 blocks and 320 acres. According to the 1892 Phoenix city directory, Phoenix got it’s name when resident Darrell Duppa, a Cambridge graduate, reportedly said: “Let’s call it Phoenix, for here, on the ruins of the old, a new city will arise.” By 1874, lots were selling for $7—$1l each, and there were 16 saloons, 4 dance halls, 2 Monte banks, and 1 faro table.

At first, the buildings were principally constructed of adobe. Then a local brick kiln was established in 1878 and brick became the material of choice because of its strength and fireproof quality. Completion of the railroad to Maricopa in 1879 and the transcontinental railroad through Arizona in 1883 and 1884 made wood, plate glass, stone, prefabricated items, pressed and cast metal available for use in constructing Phoenix’s early buildings. According to Gerald A. Doyle and Associates in the Roosevelt Neighborhood Historic Buildings Survey, Phoenix residents wanted to provide themselves with the comforts of the cities from which they came and to create the appearance necessary for a “real” town, so the new settlers hastened to discard the use of native materials to create architecture that resembled the rest of America. Thus, architecture in the Queen Anne, Eastlake, Shingle, High Victorian Italianate, and late Second Empire styles began appearing, albeit in simpler versions than their eastern counterparts. Floods, which occurred in 1890 and 1891, changed the pattern of growth, which from then on went north for those who had the money.

Despite occasional natural disasters and setbacks in the national and local economies, Phoenix began the growth that has continued to this day. There were many early events that laid the foundation for this growth. Some of the most notable events that helped Phoenix thrive as a city: The completion of the 44-mile Arizona Canal, which opened up an additional 100,000 acres of desert to potential agricultural development. Also, construction of a railroad to Phoenix in 1887, an urban railway system started in 1887 and a prosperous local agricultural economy that produced products in commercial quantities. The passage of the National Reclamation Act in 1902, and the organization of valley farmers as the Salt River Valley Water Users Association (later known as SRP). Were two crucial events which led to the construction of Roosevelt Dam, and solved the valley’s water problem. The economy of Phoenix was initially based on agriculture. Businesses and industries were then created to serve the booming agricultural interests and were dependent on the success of irrigation farming. These included hardware and building supply companies, mercantile establishments, real estate firms, banks and loan companies, hay and grain storage warehouses, agricultural implement and machinery companies and railroads.

The need for diversity became apparent after a series of droughts. Boosterism began to focus on the local climate and health, then tourism. Phoenix began to attract people and grow: an estimated 29,000 people lived in Phoenix in 1920; 48,000 in 1930; and 65,000 in 1940. When the war hit the United States, Phoenix turned rapidly into an industrial city. Luke Field, Williams Field, and Falcon Field brought thousands of men into Phoenix. When the war ended, many of these men returned to Phoenix looking for work. Large industry began discovering this labor pool and started to move branches of their companies to the area.

The 1940’s marked the end of agriculture’s role as the area’s chief provider. It was the beginning of greater prosperity than Phoenix had ever known through industry and skilled labor. In 1950, Phoenix had 105,000 people, with thousands more living in adjacent communities. In 1970, the population was 584,303 people, almost six times the 1950 population. The most recent estimates place the current population of Phoenix at over 1.44 million.


Vanishing Phoenix
Robert A. Melikan
Arcadia Publishing 2010
Charleston, S.C.

Phoenix: 1870 – 1970
Herb and Dorothy McLaughlin
Arizona Photographic Associates 1970
Phoenix, AZ.

Google Public Data
Phoenix, Arizona Population
Data from U.S. Census Bureau
Last updated: May 16, 2012