WATER IN THE WEST – A MINI-INTRO

by Patricia Grady Cox

October 14, 2015

Jack Swilling and his adopted son Gavilan. 1870

Jack Swilling and his adopted son Gavilan. 1870

With all the news about discovering running water on Mars and the drought in California, I thought it would be fun to provide a simplified history of the origins of water supplies in Arizona.

The Arizona Territory, created in 1863, consisted primarily of prospectors and gold miners, various American Indian tribes who wanted them to leave, and the Army which was sent to protect those gold mining enterprises.

Soldiers need to eat, so farmers began to settle near the forts. One of the most fertile areas lay along the Salt River in what is now the metropolitan Phoenix area. The land was productive, the climate allowed a long growing season, and there was water readily available from the river.

One famous Arizonan saw even bigger possibilities. Jack Swilling’s previous employment included soldiering, mining, ox-cart driver, and more. But during his employment as a mail delivery express rider, delivering mail between Prescott and Tucson, he happened to travel through the Salt River Valley and noticed the ghostly remains of the Hohokam irrigation ditches.

Those ditches had supplied water to the Hohokam from 700 A.D. to the mid 1400s.

The horseman is riding in a prehistoric Hohokam irrigation canal near Mesa, 1907. (Bureau of Reclamation photograph)

The horseman is riding in a prehistoric Hohokam irrigation canal near Mesa, 1907. (Bureau of Reclamation photograph)

Around 1450 A.D., the Hohokam abandoned the region. In 1868, Jack-of-all-trades Swilling may not have understood all the anthropological nuances, but he recognized the engineering marvel for what it was. In 1868, the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company successfully irrigated crops with water transported from the Salt River. In 1870, Swilling incorporated with partners and formed the Phoenix Ditch Company. The canals, built along the remains of the ancient irrigation system, would someday become the Salt River Project.

More farms sprouted up, irrigated by the water flowing from the Salt River through Swilling’s ditches, onto land now made fruitful. Swilling named the small settlement Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the Hohokam civilization.

Coming to Arizona from the east, I had no idea that water was such

This rudimentary irrigation system is similar to what Esther Corbin is trying to finish in my novel CHASM CREEK. Esther and her missing husband bought their land under the 1877 Desert Land Act for 25 cents an acre, but they must irrigate it and grow crops within 3 years.

This rudimentary irrigation system is similar to what Esther Corbin is trying to finish in my novel CHASM CREEK. Esther and her missing husband bought their land under the 1877 Desert Land Act for 25 cents an acre, but they must irrigate it and grow crops within 3 years.

an important issue. No idea that those westerns where gunfights ensued over blocked streams and water rights were based on truth. Now there is no gunfire, but even into the middle of the 20th century, there certainly continued to be wars over water – fought (for the most part) in Congress and in courts! I thought I’d had my fill of rain when I moved here, but now I realize how precious it is.

Is there something you used to take for granted that has become precious to you?

Please visit me at patriciagradycox.com. Thank you!

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2 comments

  1. I grew up in eastern NE in the fertile Platte County. In my 30’s we moved to the western panhandle and I miss the Oaks, Maples and Cottonwoods that grew so big! I miss TREES!

    Like

    1. That is very interesting! I grew up in New England and was (and still am) happy to be where I can see all the way to the horizon. I just love the wide open spaces. But there is nothing to compare to a maple tree in the fall. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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