Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona, just for fun. Advertising-free, supported by my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

What the Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain is, and how to see it

If you've heard of the Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, but haven't seen it yet, don't worry, you will.

To find it, look for the camel's nose. And if you don't know what I'm talking about here, step back. The mountain gets its name simply because it looks like a camel lying down. The nose faces west. Someone once explained to me that the hump and the nose are two different types of rocks, but I wasn't paying close attention, so to me it's just a camel.

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The Praying Monk is an outcropping of rock on the camel's nose. It's best viewed from the north side of the mountain, like the photo in the postcard at the top of this post, but you can also see it very clearly if you're traveling east on Camelback Road approaching the mountain.

Since I collect old photos, having a landmark like that gives me very clear idea where the photo was taken. Look over Hugh O'Brian's right shoulder in the photo below and you can clearly see that he and his friends were in Paradise Valley.

Hugh O’Brian (on the right) and friends at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in the 1950s, now the Sanctuary Resort, at 56th Street and McDonald, Paradise Valley, Arizona

Looking east at the Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain over the Arizona Canal by the Bitmore.

My favorite view of the Praying Monk is from the Arizona Biltmore, which is on 24th Street between Lincoln Drive and Camelback Road. There are a lot of old photos that show Camelback Mountain in the background, and the Praying Monk is always clearly visible there. It's best seen from the Arizona Canal, which hasn't changed since it was built in 1885, like in the photo above from the 1940s.

Yes, there are a lot of new buildings nowadays, but Camelback Mountain is still quite prominent, and the Praying Monk is still very visible. I never get tired of looking at it, and all of the mountains of Phoenix, which are the faces of friends to me.

Visiting the Fry Building, 1885, Phoenix, Arizona

Yesterday, after a day of history adventuring and time traveling with friends, I visited the Fry Building, which was built in 1885, and is on the northwest corner of 2nd Street and Washington in downtown Phoenix. If you've been downtown, you probably have gone past it several times, and you may have even stopped in for a burger at the Sports Bar, Majerles. It's owned by Dan Majerles, a former Phoenix Suns basketball player, and now the coach of the Grand Canyon University Antelopes basketball team.

Dan's place, of course, doesn't occupy all of the Fry Building, but to me it's in the most interesting part. Elsewhere the Fry Building is just a typical old building in Phoenix, with the original bricks covered up ("modernized" is what it's called), but at Majerles, you can see the history. There are "ghost signs" on the bricks, and yes, they're real.

If you go there, sit in a booth on the south edge of the restaurant. That's where you can get up close to the original bricks. As a history adventurer, I try to imagine Phoenix in 1885 when those bricks were laid. You can see that maybe they were in a hurry, or that the people stacking the bricks weren't all that good at their job, or maybe the bricks have settled. The line of bricks is irregular. I always like to imagine that the people working may have been have a nip or two of whiskey. And I'm not trying to be funny here, in those days being slightly intoxicated all of the time was kind'a common. No different than people lighting a cigarette in the 1950s, or looking at their Smart Phones nowadays.

Ghost signs at Majerles, 1st Street north of Washington

Before you leave, take a moment outside to look at the ghost signs. When Dan started his restaurant, in the 90s, he had the bricks revealed. I remember thinking how amazing that was. And there are other buildings in downtown Phoenix, like Steineggers, which have the same 1800s bricks covered up, which would be nice to see.

Thanks, Dan!

Image at the top of this post: the Fry Building in 1908. You're looking west down Washington from 2nd Street. Majereles is just to the right (outside of the photo) of where the guy in the hat is leaning on the telephone pole.

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A desert city designed around intelligent water use - Phoenix, Arizona

Back when I lived in California, I remember the bumper stickers that said, "Save the world, shoot yourself". And to me that sums up what a lot of people think about whether humans belong on this planet. I disagree. I think that humans do belong here. As a species, we have as much right to share the big blue marble as anything else. There are, of course, places where isn't isn't all that wise to be, such as where food and water isn't readily available, for example. And since I live in the desert, in Phoenix, Arizona, I'm where my species really needs to be intelligent to survive, and thrive.

Unlike a lot of desert cities, like Los Angeles, Phoenix knows that's it's in the desert. The first priority has always been to make sure that there is plenty of water. If you know your Phoenix history, you know that Phoenix was built by a river which flooded every year and supplied an enormous amount of water. Water has never been piped in from hundreds of miles away.

If you're puzzled about where the water in Phoenix comes from, look at the Salt River. But don't look at the big dry gouge that's south of the airport. Find the Salt River where it's dammed northeast of Phoenix. Then follow the canals. That's the Salt River. And that water was there for the Hohokams, and it's still there, always flowing in the canals.

I live just south of the Arizona Canal, which was built in 1885, and goes from east of the Pima Indian Community (which is east of Scottsdale) to Peoria, which is west of me. The next time you're out driving around Phoenix, stop and take a look at one of the canals. If you never noticed them, well, that's the point. There are also enormous systems for storm drainage. Take a look at Thunderbird Paseo Park, and Tres Rios. Yes, they're all about water control. And not only are they beautifully engineered, they are designed to just kind'a disappear into the landscape.

Phoenix is, and always has been, designed around intelligent water use. I often compare it to Minneapolis, where I grew up, which is designed around snow removal. When other cities are panicking, these cities just keep doing what they do best.

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A desert city designed around plenty of water - Phoenix, Arizona

I visited friends in Los Angeles last week and believe me, you can really see the effects of the California drought there. And of course, just about everyone I talk to, including people in Arizona, think that the water in Phoenix comes from the Colorado River. You know, Hoover Dam. It doesn't. But since that's the lifeline for places like Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, it's critical for them, and it's natural to think that it's also for Phoenix.

Now don't get me wrong. Phoenix, Tucson, and other places in Arizona use CAP (Central Arizona Project) water, which is piped in for hundreds of miles from the Colorado River. But Phoenix, which was platted in 1870, has never relied on water from hundreds of miles away. It was built where there was plenty of water, and there still is, the Salt River.

Anyone who has lived in Phoenix for a few years knows about the tremendous amount of water that comes crashing through the valley every year. That's the water that starts as snow in the uplifted areas northeast of Phoenix. The biggest problem Phoenix has had was to control that flooding, and to catch that water. That's what the Salt River Project was all about. And it has been a successful project!

The Hohokams knew this. They didn't bring water into the valley from hundred of miles away in aqueducts. They built canals, and caught the water that flowed right through the valley in yearly floods. The Phoenix pioneers knew that, too. The canals that they built in the 1800s are still being used today. I like to ride my bike along them. I live near the Arizona Canal, which was built in 1885. For reference, that's more than fifty years before the dam on the Colorado River was built.

Now waitaminute, just because there's plenty of water doesn't mean that I'm not recommending conserving water. The water itself may flow for free, and there may be plenty of it, but it costs a lot to store it, and to deliver it. And besides, I'm an old Minnesotan, and we don't waste stuff. My landscaping at my house is all xeriscape, and it has been since I moved in here.

If you know your Arizona history, you know that Arizona never had any interest in building a dam on the Colorado River. Governor Hunt never signed off on it, but it was pushed through, anyway. And it is very important to Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. But Phoenix has the Salt River.

Image above: the watershed for the Salt River

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Phoenix, Arizona, a place to regain your health, and to live a long time

If you live in the Phoenix area, like I do, you will see a lot of elderly people, and a lot of hospitals. I live in Glendale, which isn't very far from Sun City, and believe me, I see a lot of people with grey, and white, hair. And Phoenix is where people have been coming for over 100 year to regain their health, and live longer. If you want to see evidence of that, just look around.

There are so many stories of people who came out to Phoenix to live out their last few years and then lived a long life that it's practically a cliche. My favorite is John C. Lincoln, and his wife. She had been diagnosed with tuberculoses, and they moved to Phoenix to help her to regain her health, which she did, and lived to be over 100 years old. John died in his 90s.

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From the Sister's Hospital (which became St. Joseph's) to John C. Lincoln Hospital to the Mayo Clinic, Phoenix has been a place of compassion, and hope. If you read old articles about how confident the boosters of Phoenix were about the health-giving aspects of the area, it seems a little silly. But they were right. And combined with state-of-the-art technology, which Phoenix has had for over 100 years, it does more than just give hope. It works.

So, if you live in the Phoenix area, settle in and prepare yourself for a long, long, life. It's a healthy place to live, for a long time!

Image above: 1918 article about the new St. Joseph's Hospital, which was on 4th Street and Polk, next to the old one. The new, new one was built in 1953.

What the Code of the West was, and is

If you like old Western movies, like I do, you have seen reference to the Code of the West. And like so much fictionalized stuff, you may have wondered if it was just in the movies, or if it actually existed. Rest assured, it did, and does, especially in places like Phoenix, Arizona.

The Code of the West, of course, was never written down. And it was open to a lot of interpretation. But it's a chivalry code, an expectation of how a man should act, whether he was a Knight, a Don, or a Cowboy. It led to some serious confrontations in the Old West, and it still does. If it puzzles you, it has to do with whether you see yourself as a good guy or a bad guy. And yes, it does have to do with men.

Historically, men have had a tendency to kill each other. Getting men to not kill each other has been quite a challenge over the centuries, and has led to things called "laws". That is, if a crime is committed, society punishes. Of course, laws like that need to be enforced, and in many places in the world there just hasn't been enough lawmen. And the wide-open places like Arizona were that way up until fairly recent times, the 20th Century.

I grew up in Minnesota and have spent most of my adult life in Phoenix, Arizona, and I'm a western man. My handshake is my contract. If I promise something, you can count on it. I do not steal, I do not harm the innocent. In the movies, this character always wore a white hat, remember?

I've known a lot of people who are good guys. And some of them have been women. The Code of the West can seem corny, but in a world of bad guys, it's nice to see someone tip their hat.

Image above: Gold Alley in 1915, Phoenix Arizona.

The story behind Indian School Road in Phoenix

I've always found it fascinating that the names of streets in a city can be a clue to its history, and Phoenix, Arizona is no exception. And one of the most fascinating "windows into the past" is Indian School Road.

Yes, Phoenix had a school that was only for Indians. It was established in 1891 by the United States Government for the Pima people. Eventually, it was opened up to many different tribes, from many states, including California. It closed in 1990, and even for people who lived in Phoenix during that time, it was mostly a place of mystery.

I am reluctant to share what I am learning about the United States Indian School at Phoenix. It seems to bring out what I call "all of the convictions of the uninformed". It seems that the less people know about it, the louder they are. And there are some people who would like to erase this part of history. But, to me, it's an important part of the history of Phoenix, of Arizona, and of the Southwestern United States, including California.

Understanding the history of Indian peoples in the United States is no place for shortcuts. If you're curious about it, that's a good start. And if you hear a simple answer, chances are that it is very wrong. And I can't help but wonder if some city council or other would like to rename Indian School Road, and erase it. But fortunately, they can't. It's woven into over 100 years of Phoenix history, and it deserves its place.

Pictured above: The United States Indian School at Phoenix in 1909, Central Avenue and Indian School Road. Now the location of Steele Indian School Park.

Understanding the Phoenix Indian School

Understanding the alliance of the Pima, Maricopa, and Papago Indians with the Phoenix pioneers

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The history of Van Nuys, California

I recently spent about a week housesitting for a friend of mine in Calabasas, California, which is just west of the San Fernando Valley. That is, near Los Angeles. For those of you who are familiar with the greater Los Angles area, I was just on the other side of the Santa Susana Hills, west of the Valley, in Las Virgenes Canyon, north of the 101.

And by "the Valley", I mean the San Fernando Valley. I lived there in the 1980s and always thought that it was funny that although there are a LOT of valleys in California, there is only one "the valley". I lived in Canoga Park, which was just west of Van Nuys. You know, the Valley - like Valley Girls, etc.

If you know your California history, you know that communities like Van Nuys were annexed to the City of Los Angeles after the Owens Valley Aqueduct was completed in 1913. In fact, that's the story of political power in Los Angeles - whoever controls the water, controls the political power.

Now, waitaminute, don't get all confused with fictitious stories about water in Los Angeles. Yeah, there are great books, and movies, like "Chinatown", but that's fiction. Sorry, the real story isn't filled with excitement and intrigue, it's just about a place that was dry and dusty and in need of a steady supply of water at the turn of the century. Yep, just real estate. Well, maybe real estate is exciting to you! It certainly made a lot of people a lot of money!

Before 1913, only crazy "desert rats" lived in the San Fernando Valley. Sure, little towns were there, like Canoga Park, but they weren't exactly thriving places - more like little rat holes. Just think of any place way out in the middle of nowhere, with no steady supply of water. People live in these places, but not many. And there were farms there, but it was tough going without a steady supply of water.

November 5th, 1913. Water arrives to Los Angeles, through the San Fernando Valley

When the water flowed over the Cascades in 1913 and city of Los Angeles Engineer William Mullhollad gave his famous speech ("there it is, take it"!), everything changed overnight.

Isaac Van Nuys

Isaac Van Nuys didn't live to see the change. He died in 1912. The farmland he owned changed into suburbia just about overnight. So the story of Van Nuys is the story of all of the small towns that were annexed to Los Angeles. They really aren't their own towns, they don't have their own mayors and their own police forces. But they have stubbornly held onto their names, and it gives people who live there a real place of identify. If you lived in places like Canoga Park, or Van Nuys, you know what I mean. Even after over 100 years, it's still not Los Angeles to the locals!

Image at the top of this post: the San Fernando Valley in 1909.

How flooding created, and almost ruined, Phoenix, Arizona

If you've lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area for a few years, like me, you know that every summer there are torrential thunderstorms and every spring the snow melts in the mountains northeast of the valley. What this all means is that Phoenix floods.

When I was attending ASU, I saw some incredible flooding. Several of the bridges on the Salt River were knocked down. At the time, they were called the “100-year flood” and the “500-year flood”. And that's when I first started getting suspicious about how easy it was to deny that a desert city like Phoenix had any flooding problems. I was typical of most people, being a newcomer, I imagined that I was seeing something unusual. You know, something that only happened every 100, or 500 years.

The important thing to remember is that Phoenix wouldn't be where it is without the huge amount of water it receives from the Salt River Watershed. Take a look at a map. Phoenix isn't out in the middle of the desert, it's at the bottom of a massive floodplain. The Hohokam knew that, as did the Phoenix pioneers. They built canals and dams.  The water didn't have to piped in from hundreds of miles away, it came right through the valley. The trick, of course, was to get the water as it rushed by, bring it over to crops, and try to avoided getting washed away by floods.

1891 flood, Phoenix, Arizona.

I'm not much of a “it's a conspiracy, man” kind of person, but, well, you can imagine that Phoenix didn't exactly want to advertise that the valley had a problem with flooding. If you do some research on the 1891 flood, you will find that there was a lot of pressure by local investors to discourage the newspapers from reporting on it. Which the local newspaper did, by the way, to their credit.

Laughing off yearly catastrophic flooding as “unusual events” must have driven the old-timers crazy. They had seen Cave Creek Wash flood since territorial times. Of course, who's going to listen to old-timers when the real estate investors are denying the flooding? And really, if you're new to Phoenix it's hard to imagine that a desert city suffers from too much water! Sounds pretty crazy, right?

Of course, eventually Maricopa County had to start dealing with the flood problem. They built dams to hold back the water, they installed storm drains. The original Crosscut Canal was disbanded in 1913 and turned into a storm drain, and still is. A massive diversion channel that runs north of the Arizona Canal, and which was completed in 1994, carries flood waters away to the Agua Fria River.

The Maricopa County Flood Control District was created in 1959. And the better they do their job, the more people wonder "why would Phoenix need to spend money on flood control?" Thank you MCFCD!

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