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

Driving on the old highway in 1940s Phoenix


Ride along with me, and let's drive along the highway all the way through the greater Phoenix area in the 1940s. I'm going to just call it "the highway" because it had a lot of names. In fact, if you tried to follow the signs, it would have been a confusing muddle, but since there was no other road anything like that road anywhere near that road, you knew that you were on the right road.

Take a look at a map and run your finger between the town of Buckeye all of the way to Apache Junction. If you've chosen a perfectly-straight route, or a freeway, you aren't really in the 1940s in your imagination. The first thing that you need to think about is the need to have reliable auto service just about every few miles.

One of the things that we take for granted today is how reliable our cars are, and how little maintenance they need, as compared to the cars of the old days. So, just jumping in your car, getting on a freeway, turning on the A/C, and plugging in your iPhone to listen to a podcast may be the way to go now, but it would have been unthinkable in the 1940s. Even the most reliable of cars didn't have steel-belted radials, and computer sensors that kept the engine running smoothly. Those cars needed a lot of expert attention.

Let's start waaaaayyyyyy out east in Apache Junction. Out there, the old highway still kind'a looks like it did in the 1940s - just a big stretch of road in the desert with gas stations along the way. Of course in the 1940s, gas stations wouldn't have been enough - these would have been Service Stations. If it seems mind-boggling now to imagine how much effort it took to keep cars running back then, you have to remember that many of these people could remember when horses were all that they had for personal transportation.

OK, we're headed west on the highway (nowadays it's called the Apache Trail there) at about 25 miles an hour. And that's pretty darn fast! If grandma is riding along with you, she probably never saw a speed like that in her life before then, maybe in a galloping horse, or in a train. And although there was a highway, the pavement wasn't smooth - it was more like driving over a washboard than anything else. So a top speed of 25 would be pretty good. Some "speed maniacs" would push it to over forty!

As we enter Mesa, the name of the highway changes to Main. Now we're seeing a lot more businesses. We've been on the road for quite a while now, and the car could use a quick inspection, and we should probably grab a bite to eat. There are a lot of diners! While we're eating a leisurely meal, the Service Station is changing a tire, and doing some other small repairs.

In Tempe, the name of the highway changes back to Apache. We're still going west, but we're going to need to cross the Salt River in order to get to Phoenix. So at 8th Street (now called Terrace Road), we angle over to Mill Avenue, and turn north at 5th Street. We stop at the Laird and Dines Drugstore and have a chocolate malted - to keep our strength up! The Mill Avenue Bridge, which was built in 1931, takes us over the river. We stay on Mill Avenue, going north,  and it starts to curve and turn into Van Buren (which was originally called the Tempe Road). We're heading west again.

We've been on the road for quite a while now, and it's getting dark (it's winter - we aren't crazy enough to be doing this in summer - our car doesn't have air conditioning!). Luckily, there are a LOT of motels to stay at on Van Buren.

In the morning, we continue our journey towards Phoenix. When we get close to downtown, we can see the "skyscrapers", such as the Heard Building, the Professional Building, the Security Building, the Title and Trust Building, and the tallest one of them all, the Westward Ho Hotel. Since we're in Phoenix, we stop for a while to look around. We decide to splurge and have a nice meal at the Adams Hotel. Then back on Van Buren, headed west. We can have the mechanics at the Paul Bennett Service Station on 2nd Avenue take a look at the car before we get back on the road. While we wait, we walk over to the Buick/Chevrolet dealership on 4th Avenue and admire the new cars. The used cars don't look so bad, either!

At 16th Avenue and Van Buren, we stop to ask directions from a man who is standing in front of the Park Lane Motor Hotel with his little daughter. We ask how he likes it here, and he says he likes it just fine, but the summers are miserable. We look at the State Capitol Building, which is right nearby, and he mentions that his family often goes over to the grounds, sometimes to have a picnic.

Now this is where the highway gets kind of strange. The highway (Van Buren) takes a sharp turn south on 17th Avenue. Nowadays, of course, this area just looks like a regular intersection, but in the forties, it would have been very clear that this was the main road. Luckily, there's an underpass at 17th Avenue and Buchanan, so we don't have to wait for the train.

At Buckeye Road the highway curves again to the west, and we're off to Buckeye. This has been a fun trip! Thank you for riding along with me!

Paul Bennett Super Service Station in the 1940s, 2nd Avenue and Van Buren, Phoenix, Arizona


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