Tempe is a buzzing urban city, with plenty of business and social activity, but how did the city get where it is? The Salt River has been and continues to be a source of life for Tempe. Over time it has allowed the area to develop and grow into the vibrant city it is today.
Tempe’s Origins in Agriculture
The Tempe area was first inhabited by the ancient Hohokam people, who had used the Salt River to irrigate their crops through a system of canals.
These ancient settlements were abandoned in the 15th century and it was with the establishment of the military base Fort McDowell in 1865 that Tempe’s story really begins.
The US military personnel and Hispanic workers who were brought in to supply the fort with food and animal feed established two settlements located to the west and east of Tempe Butte (now more commonly referred to as A Mountain). One settlement was known as Hayden’s Ferry, due to Charles T. Hayden having established a ferry service in the location. The other was called San Pablo. The ferry was a key form of transportation across the river. Charles Hayden also built a flour mill at Hayden’s Ferry site, remnants of which can still be seen at the base of A Mountain from Mill Avenue to this day.
Charles T. Hayden’s house is another iconic structure still standing in Tempe. From the 1950s until 2014, the house was home to one of Tempe’s premier restaurants Monti’s La Casa Vieja, whose owners preserved and actively showcased the history of the listed historical building as part of the dining experience.
In 1879, the area merged into a single town and became known as Tempe. The name is said to have come from Lord Darrell Duppa, an Englishman who helped establish Phoenix. He found the sight of the butte next to the river surrounded by the green valley comparable to that of the Vale of Tempe in ancient Greece.
Urbanization and Expansion
Tempe became a center for education and learning back in 1885 when the Arizona Territorial Legislature decided to make Tempe the site of their Territorial Normal School. All the teachers in the Arizona area were trained in Tempe. Over time the city’s reputation as an educational hub has only grown as Arizona Normal School grew into Arizona State Teachers College, then Arizona State College and finally Arizona State University with its growing campus and large student body.
The building of the Maricopa and Phoenix Railroad in 1887 meant that there was transportation across the Salt River that connected up with the rest of America’s growing transport system. The diversification of farming and agriculture practices in Tempe meant that their products were supplied throughout the surrounding area. The town was thriving and the demand for land was on the increase. This saw the Tempe Land and Improvement Company form, which sold of plots of lands as the town’s population began to expand.
The completion of the Roosevelt Dam in 1911 helped ensure that Tempe continued to develop as a popular place to live and work, as it ensured there was enough water for the growing city. In fact, Tempe’s success was foreseen by President Theodore Roosevelt himself, where on his way to dedicate the dam, he applauded the accomplishments of the people of central Arizona and predicted that their towns would grow to become prosperous cities. Less than a year later, Arizona became the 48th state, and the Salt River Valley was well on its way to becoming the new population center of the Southwest.
Modern Day Metropolis
After WWII Tempe started to change farming land into a more industrial and service orientated economy as an influx of people came to live, among them many veterans. Through annexation the city reached its current boundaries by 1974. The city became a modern thriving center for business and commerce with a wide range of retail, restaurants, manufacturers, tech companies and others all coming together in a community of more than 160,000 people.
These vibrant business and social climates help ensure that it remains one of the best places to live, learn, work and play in the entire southwestern United States.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Tempe in a hands on environment visit the Tempe History Museum at 809 E. Southern Avenue.