Beyond its modern skyline and bustling urban life lies a rich tapestry of unique history that has shaped the vibrant character of this desert metropolis. Steve Schumacher, the Mayor's Office Official Historian, sat down with us to talk all about Phoenix's past. Read on to peel back the layers of time to uncover the fascinating stories, events, and landmarks that have defined Phoenix throughout the ages.
From its ancient Indigenous roots to its emergence as a thriving city in the American Southwest, Phoenix's history is as diverse and colorful as the desert landscape that surrounds it. As Phoenix has evolved into a hub of commerce, technology, and innovation, it has retained elements of its past, fostering a deep sense of pride and connection among its residents. Through preserving historical sites, commemorating important events, and honoring cultural traditions, Phoenix embraces its past as a source of inspiration for shaping a vibrant and inclusive future.
1. Phoenix's present-day canals were dug by the Hohokam people.
Phoenix exists thanks to the sophisticated irrigation system created and maintained by the Hohokam tribe. The indigenous prehistoric Hohokam people had a thriving metropolis in the region from around 800 A.D. to 1450 A.D. The advanced canal system they built supplied water throughout the Sonoran Desert. The Hohokam disappeared in 1450 A.D. and there's no definite answers as to why. Some historians believe it may have been because of a drought, disease, or perhaps they may have been overrun by another group. Many remnants of the Hohokam civilization have been preserved and are observable at the S'edav Va'aki Museum.
2. One of Arizona's Governors is entombed in an above-ground pyramid in Papago Park.
The longest serving governor of Arizona, George Hunt, is buried along with six of his family members.
Governor Hunt's pyramid tomb was built in 1932. As one of the recognizable landmarks of Phoenix, people often ask, why a pyramid? When Hunt completed his term as governor, he was appointed as an ambassador to Siam by President Woodrow Wilson. King Tut's tomb had just been discovered around the same time so there was a big frenzy around pyramids and Hunt wanted to capitalize on that; he requested to have a tomb built for him and his family in Papago Park.
Located next to the Desert Botanical Garden and the Phoenix Zoo, Papago Park is a popular recreation area that offers unique hikes and views of the city. Some people have even said they've seen the pyramid from the airport when they were landing or taking off from Sky Harbor.
Visit: Governor Hunt's Tomb
3. To stay cool at night, Phoenicians moved their beds outside.
Homes were built with porches designed to accommodate beds outside (sleeping porches).
Prior to the advent of air conditioning, people in Phoenix would move their beds out into their yards or build sleeping porches on the outside of their home. To make a sleeping porch or sleeping room, you had to have some kind of screen (to keep bugs out). People would wrap themselves up in wet sheets and stay cool with the help of a breeze. It was a DIY version of a swamp cooler.
Hotels at the time had sleeping porches for guests. The hotels built balconies that extended out from the sides of the hotels and historical photos from the time period shows they moved the beds out to the balcony for a sleeping porch for the summer so guests could sleep outside.
Rosson House, a fully-restored 1895 Queen Anne Victorian house museum, used to have a sleeping porch before it was restored. The porch is enclosed now but you can see where they had open air porches where people had their beds in the summer. Heritage Square, where Rosson House is located, was part of the original townsite of Phoenix.
Located in downtown Phoenix, Heritage Square is a collection of preserved 19th- and 20th-century homes — some of which have been repurposed for restaurants and bars — as well as some of the city's best museums. You'll find the best pizza in all of Phoenix in Heritage Square at Pizzeria Bianco. Along with Pizzeria Bianco, there's an assortment of other great restaurants and cafes, such as Latha, Stemistry, Que Sazón, and Bar Bianco. Heritage Square and Rosson House both offer tours.
4. Arizona’s state capitol moved four times before settling in Phoenix.
Can you imagine the state capitol being in Prescott? Or Tucson? Well, it once was. When the U.S. designates a new territory, they need to assign a capital. Given that Prescott was a booming community at the time, Prescott became the capitol in 1864. Leaders changed their mind in 1867 when the capital was moved to Tucson. In 1879, it was moved back to Prescott. There were plans to move the capital back to Tucson again, before it was decided to move the capital to Phoenix in 1899, where it's been since.
Visit: Arizona Capitol Museum
5. Present-day Melinda's Alley dates back to a legendary hotel from 1911.
The walls of the basement speakeasy in Downtown are from the second iteration of The Adam's Hotel.
Around 1895, J.C. Adams, an attorney from Chicago, settled in Phoenix. He saw the potential of Phoenix, as a lot of people did, and built a massive hotel—The Adams hotel. Phoenix was still just a little town—all dirt roads, no pavement, and it had a trolley car.
A lot of dignitaries, state government officials, senators and representatives stayed there when they visited the capitol. The Adam's Hotel was the place where a lot of decisions were made, over cigars and whiskey. It was a central place not only to stay but to hangout and talk about issues and politics.
Prior to the construction of the Adams Hotel, most buildings in Phoenix were made out of adobe. It caught on fire in 1910 and burned to the ground. To this day, it's the largest fire in Phoenix.
The first Adams Hotel had been so popular that within a year, J.C. Adams had another one built and this time he made sure to advertise it as “fire-proof." The second iteration of the hotel survived until 1973 before it was demolished. It was located where the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel now stands.
In the basement of the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, there's a speakeasy called Melinda's Alley. So, now you know, next time you're in Melinda's Alley, you're experiencing a little bit of Arizona's history.
6. Phoenix was almost named Pumpkinville.
When the early pioneers led by Jack Swilling settled in Phoenix, they realized they needed to find just the right name for the city. Names that the pioneers threw around before deciding on Phoenix were Pumpkinville (wild pumpkins grew in the Valley), Salina (translates to salt), Stonewall (a nod to Stonewall Jackson), Mill City, Jack Swilling, and Swilling's Mill, among others. Darrel Duppa, one of the pioneers in the group, was familiar with the Greek myth of the Phoenix—an immortal Phoenix bird burns and then rises from the ashes ad infinitum. Aware that there was once a thriving community of Hohokam indigenous people in the area, Duppa suggested naming the city "Phoenix" because they were building a community on top of a former thriving community that had built and then abandoned a complex canal system that set the foundation for the city of Phoenix.
The pioneers believed Phoenix was going to "boom" and they needed a name that represented a sign of renewal and rebirth. On a practical level, the pioneers also needed a name so they could get a postmaster and receive mail and do all the things other cities do.
Visit: Arizona Heritage Center
7. There once was an airport at 31st Ave. and Indian School Rd.
It's a Costco now.
Air Haven opened in 1946 in West Phoenix, which was mostly farm land in those days. The airstrip was a private airport that was mostly used by people who had their own planes and by crop dusters. The crop dusters would fly out over the farm fields and spray their crops before returning and doing the same over again. There's a Costco where Air Haven once was.
Most people when they think of Phoenix and the airport, they only think of Sky Harbor. But the first official city airport was at 59th Ave. and W. McDowell. It was called Christie Field. Up until the city bought Sky Harbor in the 1930's, Christie Field was the city airport. Sky Harbor was a privately-owned airport used to take people to the Grand Canyon and back. It was known as Scenic Airways before it became Sky Harbor.
8. The first building in Phoenix was on the northwest corner of 1st St. and Washington.
It was an adobe building that was a store, a meat market, town offices, and county offices.
The Hancock Store, as it was known, was a combination meat market and general store. Since it was the only building in town, all town and county businesses was conducted in the Hancock Store. All the people coming and going made it the busiest place in town. No photos exist of the place, but it was known to be made from adobe and a straw roof. The store was on the northwest corner of 1st St. and Washington. It was built by Capt. Hancock who was the town surveyor. He helped to make the first survey of the townsite and lay out all the lots in Phoenix.
The corner of 1st St. and Washington is a busy part of present-day downtown Phoenix. CityScape, a popular shopping center with restaurants and bars, is located in the vicinity of where the Hancock Store once stood.
Visit: CityScape (located at 1st St. and Washington)
9. South Mountain Park is one of the largest city parks in the country.
South Mountain Park is spread out over 16,000 acres. It is one of the largest municipal parks in the country and features three mountain ranges: the Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe. There are over 50 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. For reference, New York City’s Central Park is only 840 acres. South Mountain is almost 19 times the size of Central Park.
The indigenous Hohokam people used South Mountain to hunt and for recreational purposes. There are over 30,000 petroglyphs dating back to the Hohokam civilization at South Mountain park. Take one of these trails at South Mountain to view the petroglyphs.
10. Phoenix was almost going to be located by "A" Mountain in Tempe.
If the pioneers’ first attempt at building a community would have been successful, Phoenix would be where Tempe is today.
The early Phoenix pioneers who came from Wickenburg tried to settle the city of Phoenix across from "A" Mountain in Tempe. They wanted to dig out the canals across from the Salt River but when they tried, they encountered a big wall of limestone underground. It's not known whether they didn't have the explosives or if they didn't want to try, but they decided instead to just go up the Salt River. Had they been successful, the first community would have been on the north side of the Salt River, right about where Tempe Town Lake stands. That would have been the beginning of Phoenix.
Visit: Tempe Butte or "A" Mountain
11. The first school in Phoenix was a one-room adobe building.
"Little Adobe" as it was called was located on the corner of Central and Monroe, where the Hotel San Carlos stands today.
In the early days of Phoenix's founding, as more and more residents settled in Phoenix, newcomers realized they were missing a school for all the new, young offspring. The very first school building in Phoenix dedicated to education was a one-room adobe school. It was built in 1873 on the same property where the Hotel San Carlos stands today.
For those curious about spooky history, you'll be interested to know that both employees and guests of Hotel San Carlos, which opened in 1928, have heard and seen ghosts at the hotel. The most common ghost sighting is thought to be that of Leone Jensen, a woman who jumped off the roof - some say because of a broken heart. Check out more haunted places in Phoenix here.
Visit: Hotel San Carlos