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

Why the rivers are so easy to see in the Phoenix area


A man from Phoenix visits a town back east and his friend asks him if he's seen the river. He says that he can't because there was water in it all of the time!

Every time I think about the rivers in the Phoenix area, like New River in Peoria, pictured above in the 1940s, I think of that goofy story. And it really tells me a lot about what the optimistic people of Phoenix call "rivers". I grew up in Minneapolis, right nearby a real river (the Mississippi), so I still kind'a expect rivers to have water in them.

It's probably because people see signs like "New River" that they imagine that there was actually a flowing river there, that had dried up in the last few years. Because, after all, a river has water in it, right? No, not in Phoenix.

If you know your Phoenix history, you know that those things that the pioneers named "rivers" are actually riparian washes. That is, dry in the summer, flooding in the winter, and muddy the rest of the time. And no, it's not a conspiracy, man, it's the desert. If you've done much hiking in the desert you've seen a lot of washes. If you put a sign on them as "rivers", it doesn't change a thing, they're still washes.

My fascination with Phoenix history makes me see stuff that many of my friends don't, like New River. I can see the river just fine! And I can see Skunk Creek, and the Agua Fria River. So, if you're looking for these places, don't look for flowing water (except in the winter), but they are easy to find. Look for bridges where you think there's really nothing to bridge over. Look for riparian vegetation (that just means plants and trees that are growing in the river bed). The Hassayampa has some awesome riparian trees, by the way!

I've lived nearby New River for over twenty years now. And if you've ever gone by that river with me, you know that I have been doing the same joke for just as long - it's been New River as long as I can remember, it was New River for the pioneers, when does the name change to Old River?

Thanks for history adventuring with me.

The Agua Fria River as seen from the Lower Buckeye Road bridge. Can you see the river behind me? Sure you can!

Skunk Creek, 83rd Avenue and Greenway, Peoria, Arizona. A riparian wash.


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