This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Whatever happened to the historic canals of Phoenix?


If you're a history buff, like I am, and you look at old photos of Phoenix, Arizona, you know that one of the major features of the landscape was the canals. There are still a few canals left, such as Grand Canal and the Arizona Canal. But there was a time, only a few decades ago, when many of the old historic canals could still be seen. And by historic, I don't mean Hohokam, I mean those built by the pioneers in the 1870s and 80s.

The good news is that the historic canals are still there. The bad news is that they're all covered up. But if you have a little bit of the detective in you, a Google satellite view, and some patience, you can find them. And the reason they are still there has to do with the difference between bringing water into the valley and taking it away.

Phoenix pioneers like Jack Swilling dug canals to bring water from The Salt River into the valley in order to experiment with growing crops. It was a successful experiment! They named their new settlement "Phoenix" as they had seen that there had been a large city here at one time (the Hohokam) and, in a fit of poetic inspiration, they declared that their city would "rise from the ashes" of the ancient one.

By the 1880s, Phoenix had a lot of canals. In fact, if you look at maps of that era, it seems like it would be difficult to travel around without running into one. Eventually most of these canals were shut down, and the function of bringing water to Phoenix was mostly handled by the Arizona Canal.

The historic canals, such as The Maricopa Canal and the Salt River Valley Canal (Swilling's Ditch) were converted to storm drains. No, they're not sewers - they only flow rainwater off of the streets. They are now managed by the flood control district. It makes perfect sense - why fill in the old canals when they could be used as storm drains?

My favorite historic canal to visit is the Old Crosscut Canal. It still functions as a storm drain, but it also has a wonderful park built above it, running north to south from Indian School Road to McDowell at 40th Street. It was built in 1888 and "de-commissioned" as a canal in 1914. It was an open storm drain until the park was built in the 1990s - for over 80 years. Right now, on a beautiful morning like this, people are walking a few feet above one of the original historic canals of Phoenix. That's it up there in the photo when it was still a canal, and if you go there, turn around, look at Camelback Mountain, and time travel.


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