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Pastoral Phoenix

Two couples enjoying a day on the Salt River.

Two couples enjoying a day on the Salt River.

These two photos were taken in 1915; one from a field on Sixth Avenue near what is now Chase Field, the other, somewhere on the Salt River.  In 1915, Phoenix was enjoying the last years of the “Gilded Age,” an opulent time that was vanishing everywhere else in the world. Europe was engulfed in a war, Mexico was in a revolution and President Woodrow Wilson was preparing to run for re-election on the ill-fated slogan, “He Kept Us Out Of War.”

During this time, Phoenix was considered a verdant and spacious oasis surrounded by a wilderness that provided just enough of a stimulus to keep everyone challenged.  During summer months, people slept on porches, swathed in wet sheets. They placed jelly jars on their bed’s legs to discourage scorpions from climbing up to join them.  If it rained, streets turned to mud and if the wind picked up, dust storms would make traveling impossible. Nevertheless, Phoenix was considered a near paradise; a land of fruit, pastures and trees.

The photo below points north on Sixth Avenue past a line of cottonwoods, a tree once emblematic of Phoenix. The cottonwoods were considered tall and luxurious for desert vegetation and were only able to survive if planted near water.  Fortunately, canals, sub canals and ditches ran by or through every residence and business in Phoenix, allowing the shady trees to thrive.

Cottonwoods lined Phoenix’s streets for decades until the city decided that too much water evaporated from the open laterals and ditches and replaced them with culverts.  Without the open water, the cottonwoods died.

In the background of the photo stands one of Phoenix’s most commanding edifices at that time, the new St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Monroe Street between Third and Fourth avenues.  The Mexican Revolution was raging only a few hundred miles away, and St. Mary’s Church was a haven for many Mexican immigrants who fled the horrors of their country’s war and crossed the border to settle in Phoenix.  However, by 1915, most of St. Mary’s Mexican congregation had a falling out with the church’s pastor, Father Novatus Benzing, over where Spanish language masses would be held.  As a result, Immaculate Heart Church on Tenth Street and Washington became the Mexican national church.

The photo above captures two couples enjoying a boat ride on the Salt River.  In those years, the Salt River was the source of life and recreation for the new town.  Until the Salt River Project finally tamed the Salt, it ran unchecked past Tempe and Phoenix, and flooded at irregular intervals, sometimes sweeping away farms, inundating parts of downtown and occasionally overwhelming the unwary traveler.

Before bridges were built, locals had to float across the river or ford it.  Tempe solved the problem with Charles Hayden’s cable barge system. Along other parts of the river, farmers had to use the fords, and developed a careful technique for doing it safely. They made sure the current wasn’t too strong or the flood too deep before urging their horses into the stream.

Given the size of the Salt River and human impatience, it was inevitable that the occasional traveler unfamiliar with the river would meet with an accident.  One of the river’s victims was John Wirer, who died while trying to ford the river in a horse-drawn carriage in 1915.  When St. Mary’s stained glass windows were installed in 1915, his sister and brother-in-law memorialized John Wirer by dedicating a window, “The Return From Calvary” to him.

— Gary Weiand.  Photos courtesy of Tom Killeen.

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