Arizona State University. Mill Avenue. Arizona Mills and Tempe Marketplace. These are some of the places and institutions most associated with Tempe today. While ASU and Mill Avenue both have deep roots in our town’s history, there is much more history to this desert city than we see at first glance.
The Tempe we know today was established not long after the close of the American Civil War. Freight outfits like that run by Charles T. Hayden often crossed the Salt River in the area that became Tempe to supply ranches, forts, and mining towns in central and northern Arizona. Other enterprising businessmen like William Kirkland and James McKinney worked with Mexican farmers in the area to build canals that would form the core of Tempe’s irrigation and water system for decades to come. By the early 1870s, Hayden decided to invest in the community by building a flour mill, blacksmith and carpentry shops, and a mercantile business. For times of high water on the river, Hayden provided a ferry service that gave the town its first name — Hayden’s Ferry. Eventually, a friend of Hayden pointed out that the area reminded him of the Vale of Tempe in Greece, and the name Tempe stuck.
The focus of Tempe’s early history was on agriculture. Irrigation and farming had been practiced in the area for at least 1,500 years prior to the establishment of Tempe in the 1870s. The early Native American farmers were known as the Hohokam and were ancestors of the present-day Akimel O’odham (also known as the Gila River Pimas). These Native American farmers grew a variety of crops, including corn, squash, melons and cotton. By 1450 A.D., most of these Native American communities relocated south along the Gila River, but traces of their old canal systems remained. When American and Mexican settlers arrived to the area in the late 1860s, they were aware of the potential to farm based on the old Native American canals and the success of farmers along the Gila River. Tempe grew slowly at first, but a number of factors would lead to major growth booms later on. The arrival of the railroad in 1887 was a major boost for the town. Now agricultural goods and livestock could be shipped out to wider markets and new settlers and manufactured goods could be brought in. Just a year prior to the arrival of the railroad, the Territorial Normal School opened in Tempe in February 1886. From a single building that taught teachers for the territory, the school grew over many decades and name changes to become Arizona State University, one of the largest universities in the country today and one heavily driven but cutting-edge in high-tech research. In 1911, the completion of Roosevelt Dam led to a more secure and abundant water supply for farming. As a result, agriculture soared as never before, especially with the introduction of long-staple cotton around that time. Eventually, citrus packing plants and other agricultural businesses came along to speed agricultural goods to markets around the United States and beyond.
With the economic and infrastructure groundwork in place, Tempe was poised for the most massive period of expansion the city had even seen. From a population of 2,906 in 1940, Tempe more than doubled by 1950 and the number of people calling Tempe home reached 24,897 in 1960. Two decades later, Tempe had well over 100,000 residents and by 2012 the population reached 166,842. From an incorporated area of 1.9 square miles in 1940, Tempe has reached over 40 square miles today. Although much of this growth centered on residential subdivisions, retail centers, and the infrastructure to support those places, Tempe’s expansion included the industrial sector with steel mills (like Marathon Steel), textile plants (PennMor Manufacturing Corporation), and construction industry businesses (Superlite Builders Supply).
As with its past, much of Tempe’s future seems likely to include growth and reinvention. With the completion of the light rail through Tempe in 2008, connecting the city with Mesa to the east and Phoenix to the west, the old frontier farm town was ready for yet another transformation to a more commuter-friendly urban corridor. As far back as the 1970s, Tempe had begun a process of redevelopment that profoundly impacted its historic downtown. As many of Tempe’s territorial buildings disappeared, a newly envisioned city sprang up that eventually culminated in the massive Tempe Town Lake project, the construction of the Tempe Arts Center, and the appearance of high-rise residential and commercial development around the edges of the urban lake along the Salt River. Along with ASU’s continued expansion into the downtown area and even other cities in Arizona, Tempe’s future will continue to be one of redevelopment and reinventing itself for many years to come.
• Jared Smith is with the Tempe History Museum.