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Ancient, historic, and modern canals of Phoenix, Arizona

The best place to start learning about the history and geography of the Phoenix, Arizona area is with the canals. If you drive around Phoenix, you cross over canals all of the time. No, they're not sewers or storm drains, they are the water of the Salt River, which is channeled for use as irrigation and household water. And yes, there are fish in them. If you studied Phoenix history in school, it was probably a confusing tangle, as most classes start with the most complex system, the ancient canals. But I would like to start with the modern canals north of The Salt River:

• Modern canals. Those are the ones that are still in use every day.

The Arizona Canal, which brings in most of the water to Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale and Peoria. It starts way upstream on the Salt River, north of Apache Junction, goes through the Pima Indian Reservation, curves just south of Camelback Mountain, goes up along the foothills of The Phoenix Mountains (Piestwa Peak) and ends near The Agua Fria River, just south of Arrowhead Mall in Glendale.

Grand Canal runs roughly parallel to that, but further south. When you cross Central Avenue right by Central High School, there is a sign that says "Grand Canal", but usually the canals are not prominently labelled. It ends just west of the Cardinals Stadium, on the west side of the 101 Freeway, in the Agua Fria River.

The canal that connects these two canals together is called The Crosscut Canal. It runs north to south at about 64th Street. It's function is to bring the water from The Arizona Canal down to the Grand Canal. Grand Canal starts where the Crosscut ends, around 44th Street and Washington.

• Historic canals. These are the ones that were built by the Phoenix pioneers beginning in the 1860s and are no longer in use as canals today. To be fair, even the "modern" canals were built over 100 years ago, but this distinction is made to indicate an old canal that has been taken out of use. The most famous historic canal is The Salt River Valley Canal, which was also known as "Swilling's Ditch", built by Jack Swilling. Other historic canals include The Maricopa Canal, the Old Crosscut Canal and The Dutch Ditch.

• Ancient canals. The ancient canals were dug many hundreds of years ago by a group of people that we call the Hohokam. The best place to learn more about this system is to visit Pueblo Grande at Washington and 46th Street.

The image at the top of this post is from the 1909 booklet "The Salt River Valley"

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