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

How people transformed the Salt River Valley from a desert to an oasis


I've lived in the Phoenix, Arizona area for a long time now. And days like today, with the temperatures getting over 110 degrees, is a reminder that we are in the desert. This is the Sonoran Desert, the Salt River Valley. And if you're wondering why it's so hot, and if it's because of the freeways that were built here, or the buildings, unfortunately, you have it backwards. People didn't make the Salt River Valley hot, it's always been that way. It's in the Sonoran Desert, which has been brutally hot since the last Ice Age ended, about 10,000 years ago. People didn't make a desert here, it already was one, people made an oasis. When people get it backwards, it's a disservice to the people who created this oasis, from the Hohokams to the modern engineers.

The first people who did it, hundreds of years ago, we call the Hohokam people. They knew that all they had to do was to catch the water that came crashing through the valley every year, store it, and lead the water to places where they could grow crops. Their engineering was magnificent, traces of their old canals were still very visible up through the 1930s in Phoenix, and were much larger than the modern ones we see now. Why it failed, we will probably never know. It could have been a drought, it could have been massive flooding. The number of people living there may have caused the collapse. While it flourished, the desert was transformed from cactus and dirt to crops which supported a gigantic city, Pueblo Grande, which stretched from where Tempe is nowadays up all through the valley, to where Peoria is now, and much further.

Arizona Canal in 1896


1877-1887

June, 1896

But my fascination with Phoenix history really starts with what is called the "Pioneer Era". It's mostly neglected, as if Phoenix just magically appeared. But if you look at the people who dug the Grand Canal, and the Arizona Canal, you can begin to appreciate how amazing their achievements were. Personally, I wouldn't have invested in Phoenix land in 1870, looking out across miles and miles of desert. But there were people who imagined an oasis, and they made it happen.

Thank you to all of the people who have made this happen, and continue to make living in my favorite city a pleasure! I know that you're out there, keeping the electricity on, keeping the water flowing, keeping the oasis alive.

And for the people who have it all backwards, all I ask is that you look again.


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