This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

Why Phoenix changed so much after 1887

If you've lived in Phoenix for a while, I think you'd agree that it changes a lot. Old buildings are torn down, new buildings spring up. For the past few years I've noticed that the street corners that I used to know so well all seem to look the same, as they're either a Walgreens or a CVS. And people who have lived here longer than me have seen it over and over again. At the risk of sounding poetic, Phoenix really is like the legendary Phoenix Bird, which was reborn from its ashes over and over again.

So, it fascinates me to how many times Phoenix has been reinvented. I like seeing the things that remain the same, like the mountains and the streets, but the buildings tend to disappear. And what fascinates me the most is trying to visualize what happened after 1887, when the railroad finally arrived in Phoenix.

Time-travel with me to the 1870s. Phoenix was platted in 1870, and the town started growing right away. I guess it had the things that people wanted, like cheap land, and, well, cheap land. It had a steady supply of water, from "Swilling's Ditch" - the canal that ran along Van Buren, and it had, let's see, oh yeah, cheap land. It certainly didn't have a railroad. Phoenix would have to wait eighteen years for the arrival of the railroad.

And without a railroad, it wasn't easy to transport building materials to Phoenix. And no, the rivers didn't flow enough to float ships on them, in spite of modern-day fantasy about it. Building materials had to be hauled in by mule train, or found right there.

So the local building material was mud, reinforced with whatever could be found locally, mesquite, cactus, whatever. If you had a LOT of money, you could bring in some timber from up north, with a mule train. In fact, some of the pre-1887 buildings were so crude that after they were abandoned, people thought that they were very ancient. They were just mud, rocks, and a little bit of timber.

Then in 1887 the railroad arrived, and everything changed. Building materials suddenly became much cheaper (although they were still expensive!) and buildings made of brick started to pop up. The old adobes were abandoned, or knocked down (which didn't really take much, they tended to melt in the rain).

If you lived in Phoenix before 1887, and went away for a few years, your city would have become almost unrecognizable when you got back. That's what Phoenix does.

Image above: Washington between 1st Street and Central in the early 1880s. After the railroad arrived, this would all change very suddenly, and the old adobe buildings would be left behind.

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