Reclamation and Arizona
The good ol' days: development of the salt river valley
Decade Summary

After the Civil War, newcomers are drawn to the Salt River Valley because of its fertile desert soil and available water. They develop a fledgling irrigation system on the remains of prehistoric canals built some 1000 years earlier by Hohokam farmers. A new town called Phoenix is founded as the irrigation system expands and more people move to the Valley. Periods of flooding and drought frustrate farmers and temper agricultural growth, reinforcing the need by Valley residents for a dam on the Salt River to provide a reliable supply of irrigation water and control flooding.


Too Much Water, or Not Enough

The largely arid American West receives a distinctly small share of the Earth's fresh water, and not surprisingly, water dictates where people live. Like pioneering settlers throughout the West, settlers in Arizona Territory understood that there was water, but it was not always available when or where they needed it. They developed small-scale storage and irrigation projects, and soon created a complex water ... more

A 1905 view of Tempe looking southwest from Tempe Butte.  Linear alignments of trees usually indicate open canals and ditches. (Reclamation photograph)A 1905 view of Tempe looking southwest from Tempe Butte. Linear alignments of trees usually indicate open canals and ditches. (Reclamation photograph)

The Salt River Valley

Arizona Territory was created in 1863 and a provisional capital established at Fort Whipple in the Little Chino Valley near Prescott. A year later, a detachment of officers and soldiers, along with the first territorial governor John Noble Goodwin, departed the fort to explore lands adjoining the Salt River. What they saw excited them—a river running through a wide, long, fertile plain dotted with remnants of ancient Indian irrigation canals and ruins. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Federal Government began developing and settling its Western territories, and in 1867, surveyors started mapping the Salt River Valley. They were amazed by the soil's fertility, general levelness, lack of heavy vegetation, and water availability—ingredients necessary for frontier settlement. Deputy Surveyor William Ingalls also saw the huge potential for irrigation-based agriculture, as did John W. "Jack" Swilling, one of the first Anglo settlers to call the Salt River Valley home.

Swilling, a Mexican War veteran, headed west in the late 1850s to work as an ox-train teamster. After the Civil War, Swilling, remembering the Salt River Valley's agricultural potential, acquired financial backing and formed the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company. After one unsuccessful try, in 1868 Swilling and his workers diverted Salt River water through a ditch, and successfully raised wheat, barley, and corn. A small settlement was founded that Swilling and his partners named Phoenix, an appropriate name considering they were attempting to fashion a new town from old ruins. Within a year, nearly 100 people settled in the area around today's 32nd Street and Van Buren, and as more ditches were cleared, more settlers arrived to exploit the valley's farming potential. By 1870, over 200 people were working ... More

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