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

What the Phoenix metro area looked like before people started building dams

If you like Phoenix history, like I do, you've probably wondered what the area looked like in its virgin condition, before people started building dams. You know, before the Starbucks, and the freeways, and all of the stuff we look at all of the time. Luckily, it's easy to see.

Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, Arizona. Saddle Mountain, near Tonopah.

No, you can't see it where the dams are. But you can see it anywhere else in the Sonoran Desert where dams were never built. It's just called the desert, and the areas where water flows are called washes. If you see a wash going through an area that has canyon walls on each side of it, there you go. That's what the Salt River looked like before it was dammed. Or you can pick any dammed river you want and go where a dam wasn't built, and see what it looked like for the past ten thousand years (after the end of the ice age). One of my favorite places to go is Saddle Mountain, near Tonopah.

Except for beavers (and I'm no expert on wildlife!), people are the only animals that dam up rivers. They do it so that they can have water for agriculture, or just so that they can have water stored up when it gets hot and dry. And it gets hot and dry in the Phoenix metro area!

Time-travel with me to the days of the Hohokams. No one really knows exactly when they started damming up the Salt River, and building canals, but it was many hundreds of years ago. When the Phoenix pioneers first started thinking about living in the Salt River Valley, in the 1860s, the gigantic canals of "Those Who Have Gone" (the Hohokams) were there, dry and empty. Their dams had long since failed, but there was clear evidence of the hand of man.

I can see the desert before people arrived. I see it all of the time, and I'm already getting anxious to get back out there and see it again. I spend too much time on my computer! If you want to see it, don't worry, there's plenty. Just get on any Arizona highway.

Image at the top of this post: Pueblo Grande, one of the places that the Hohokam lived, and farmed. They dammed the Salt River and built canals. You're looking southeast towards where Tempe is nowadays. On the right is South Mountain.

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