Phoenix ( /ˈfiːnɪks/ fee-niks; O’odham: Ski:kigk; Yavapai: Wathinka or Wakatehe; Western Apache: Fiinigis; Navajo: Hoozdoh; Mojave: Hachpa ‘Anya Nyava) is the capital, and largest city, of the U.S. state of Arizona, as well as the sixth most populous city in the United States of America. Phoenix is home to 1,445,632 people according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. It is the anchor of the Phoenix metropolitan area (also known as the Valley of the Sun), and is the 12th largest metro area by population in the United States with about 4.2 million people in 2010. In addition, Phoenix is the county seat of Maricopa County, and is one of the largest cities in the United States by land area. Phoenix was incorporated as a city in 1881, after being founded in 1861 near the Salt River, close to the confluence with the Gila River. The city has a notable and famous political culture and has been home to numerous influential American politicians and other dignitaries, including Barry Goldwater, William Rehnquist, John McCain, Carl Hayden, and Sandra Day O’Connor. Residents of the city are known as Phoenicians.
Located in the northeastern reaches of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix has a subtropical desert climate. In summer average high temperatures are typically over 100 °F (38 °C) and over 120 °F (49 °C) on occasion.American Indian period
For more than 2,000 years, the Hohokam peoples occupied the land that would become Phoenix. The Hohokam created roughly 135 miles (217 km) of irrigation canals, making the desert land arable. Paths of these canals would later become used for the modern Arizona Canal, Central Arizona Project Canal, and the Hayden-Rhodes Aqueduct. The Hohokam also carried out extensive trade with the nearby Anasazi, Mogollon and Sinagua, in addition to Mesoamerican civilizations. It is believed that a Hohokam witness of the supernova that occurred in 1006 CE, created a representation of the event in the form of a petroglyph that can be found in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park west of Phoenix. This has been interpreted as the first known North American representation of the supernova.
It is believed that between 1300 and 1450, periods of drought and severe floods led to the Hohokam civilization’s abandonment of the area. Local Akimel O’odham settlements, thought to be the descendants of the formerly urbanized Hohokam, concentrated on the Gila River. Some family groups did continue to live near the Salt River, but no large villages existed. Yavapai also had settlements in the area. Later, Maricopa peoples fleeing enemy tribes, came from the lower Gila River near its confluence with the Colorado River, and settled alongside the Akimel O’odham.
Father Eusebio Kino (1645–1711) was among the few Europeans to travel here in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish focused mostly on the Pima missions in southern Arizona; the Salt River Valley had almost no European inhabitants for several centuries before the 1860s.
Early United States period
American and European “Mountain Men” likely came through the area, while exploring what is now central Arizona during the early 19th century. They obtained valuable beaver and otter pelts; these animals, as well as deer and Mexican wolves, often lived in the Salt River Valley when water supplies and temperatures allowed.
When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, most of Mexico’s northern zone passed to United States control, and a portion of it was made the New Mexico Territory (including what is now Phoenix) shortly afterward. The Gadsden Purchase was completed in 1853. The land was contested ground during the American Civil War: both the Confederate Arizona Territory, organized by Southern sympathizers in 1861 with its capital in Tucson, and the United States Arizona Territory, formed by the United States Congress in 1863 with its capital at Fort Whipple (now Prescott), included the Salt River Valley within their borders. The valley was not militarily important, however, and did not witness conflict.
In 1863, the mining town of Wickenburg was the first to be established in what is now Maricopa County. At the time this county did not exist, as the land was within Yavapai County along with the other major town of Prescott.
The US Army created Fort McDowell on the Verde River in 1865 to quell Native American uprisings. Hispanic workers serving the fort established a camp on the south side of the Salt River by 1866, which was the first non-native settlement in the valley after the decline of the Hohokam. In later years, other nearby settlements would form and merge to become the city of Tempe, but this community was incorporated after Phoenix.
The history of Phoenix as a city begins with Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War (1861–1865), who had come west to seek wealth in the 1850s, and worked primarily in Wickenburg. On an outing in 1867, he stopped to rest at the foot of the White Tank Mountains. Swilling observed the abandoned river valley and considered its potential for farming, much like that already cultivated by the military further east, near Fort McDowell. The terrain and climate were optimal; only a regular source of water was necessary. The existence of the old Hohokam ruins, showing clear paths for canals, made Swilling imagine new possibilities.
Swilling had a series of canals built, which followed those of the ancient Native American system. A small community formed that same year about 4 miles (6 km) east of the present city. It was first called Pumpkinville, due to the large pumpkins that flourished in fields along the canals. Later it was called Swilling’s Mill in his honor, though later renamed to Helling Mill, Mill City, and finally, East Phoenix. Swilling, a former Confederate soldier, wanted to name the city “Stonewall”, after General Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name of “Salina”. However, neither name was supported by the community.
Finally, Lord Darrell Duppa suggested the name “Phoenix”, as it described a city born from the ruins of a former civilization.
The Board of Supervisors in Yavapai County, which at the time encompassed Phoenix, officially recognized the new town on May 4, 1865, and formed an election precinct. The first post office was established on June 15, 1868, with Jack Swilling serving as the postmaster. With the number of residents growing (the 1870 U.S. census reported about a total Salt River Valley population of 240), a town site needed to be selected. On October 20, 1870, the residents held a meeting to decide where to locate it. A 320 acres (1.3 km2) plot of land was purchased in what is now the downtown business section.
On February 12, 1871, the territorial legislature created Maricopa County, the sixth one formed, by dividing Yavapai County. The first election for county office was held in 1871, when Tom Barnum was elected the first sheriff. Barnum ran unopposed as the other two candidates, John A. Chenowth and Jim Favorite, had a shootout that ended in Favorite’s death and Chenowth withdrawing from the race.
Several lots of land were sold in 1870 at an average price of $48. The first church opened in 1871, as did the first store. Public school had its first class on September 5, 1872, in the courtroom of the county building. By October 1873, a small school was completed on Center Street (now Central Avenue). Land entry was recorded by the Florence Land Office on November 19, 1873, and a declaratory statement filed in the Prescott Land Office on February 15, 1872. President Ulysses S. Grant issued a land patent for the present site of Phoenix on April 10, 1874. The total value of the Phoenix Townsite was $550, with downtown lots selling for between $7 and $11 each. A short time later, a telegraph office, 16 saloons, four dance halls and two banks were opened.
By 1881, Phoenix had outgrown its original townsite-commissioner form of government. The 11th Territorial Legislature passed “The Phoenix Charter Bill”, incorporating Phoenix and providing for a mayor-council government. The bill was signed by Governor John C. Fremont on February 25, 1881. Phoenix was incorporated with a population of approximately 2,500, and on May 3, 1881, Phoenix held its first city election. Judge John T. Alsap defeated James D. Monihon, 127 to 107, to become the city’s first mayor. In early 1888, the city offices were moved into the new City Hall, at Washington and Central (later the site of the city bus terminal, until Central Station was built in the 1990s). This building also provided temporary offices for the territorial government, when it moved to Phoenix by the 15th Territorial Legislature in 1889.
The coming of the railroad in the 1880s was the first of several important events that revolutionized the economy of Phoenix. A spur of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Phoenix and Maricopa, was extended from Maricopa into Tempe in the late 1880s. Merchandise now flowed into the city by rail instead of wagon. Phoenix became a trade center, with its products reaching eastern and western markets. In response, the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce was organized on November 4, 1888. The Phoenix Street Railway electrified its mule-drawn streetcar lines in the 1890s, with streetcar service continuing until a 1947 fire. From 1911 to 1926, an interurban line carried passengers and express packages between Glendale and downtown Phoenix.
Modern Phoenix (1900–present)
Phoenix downtown from an airplane, 2011.
In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the National Reclamation Act, allowing for dams to be built on western streams for reclamation purposes. Residents were quick to enhance this by organizing the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (on February 7, 1903), to manage the water and power supply. The agency still exists as part of the Salt River Project. The Roosevelt Dam east of the valley was completed in 1911. Several new lakes were formed in the surrounding mountain ranges. In the Phoenix area, the river is now often dry due to large irrigation diversions, taking with it the large populations of migrating birds, beaver dams, and cottonwood trees that had lived on its waters.
On February 14, 1912, under President William Howard Taft, Phoenix became the capital of the newly formed state of Arizona. Phoenix was considered preferable, as both territorial and state capital, due to its more central location, compared to Tucson or Prescott. It was smaller than Tucson, but outgrew that city within the next few decades, to become the state’s largest city.
In 1913, Phoenix adopted a new form of government, from mayor-council to council-manager, making it one of the first cities in the United States with this form of city government.
During World War II, Phoenix’s economy shifted to that of a distribution center, rapidly turning into an embryonic industrial city with mass production of military supplies. Luke Field, Williams Field, and Falcon Field, coupled with the giant ground-training center at Hyder, west of Phoenix, brought thousands of new people into Phoenix.
On Thanksgiving night 1942, an illegal prize fight between a champion boxer of a black regiment and a white boxer of another army regiment, degenerated into a melee between competing camps. Subsequently, the black regiment left their barracks en masse, and began attacking whites and rioting into downtown. Unable to contain the spreading violence by the black soldiers, local police called in the military. The rioters were met by several military police units that attempted to arrest the rioters. Instead, the rest of the black soldiers based nearby joined the rioters with firearms. The Army quickly responded to the mutiny, and surrounded the area with armored personnel carriers and machine guns, ordering soldiers to use full military force against the mutineers, which resulted in dozens of fatalities. The Colonel of Luke Field, who had oversight of the city, soon declared Army personnel banned from Phoenix. This pressured civic leaders to reform local government, by firing a number of corrupt officials, in turn getting the ban lifted. This same bipartisan effort also successfully convinced the city council to give more power to the city manager to run the government and spend public funds, making Phoenix one of the largest cities in the country to not use the strong mayor structure for municipal government.
Another wartime incident took place at a Prisoner of War Camp that was established at the site of what is now Papago Park and Phoenix Zoo, for the internment of German soldiers captured in Europe. In 1944, dozens of prisoners had devised a plan to escape from the camp and use boats to go down the nearby Salt River to reach Mexico. However, they were unaware that the river was mostly dry and had not been navigable for decades, and were thus easily apprehended near the camp.
The long established relationships between organized crime and the business elite grew after World War II. A primary incident, which marked the post-war face of Phoenix, was its involvement in the Great American streetcar scandal, in which arson and sabotage was added to the list of illegal business activities in destroying the city’s mass transit system. A fire in October 1947 destroyed most of the Phoenix Street Railway fleet, making the city choose between implementing a new street railway system, or using buses and cars. Simultaneously, the city began changing the rights of way downtown, expanding street sizes, raising speed rates, thereby lowering the quality of life in many old neighborhoods. As a result of these changes, automobiles became the city’s preferred method of transportation. This was followed by a number of the first housing developments that helped spread the size of Phoenix, and in turn enriched many of the area’s largest landowners. By 1950, over 100,000 people lived within the city and thousands more in surrounding communities. There were 148 miles (238 km) of paved streets and 163 miles (262 km) of unpaved streets.
Over the next several decades, the city and metropolitan area attracted more growth and became a favored tourist destination for its exotic desert setting and recreational opportunities. Nightlife and civic events concentrated along now skyscraper-flanked Central Avenue. In 1965, the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum was opened on the grounds of the Arizona State Fair, west of downtown, and in 1968, the city was surprisingly awarded the Phoenix Suns NBA franchise. By the 1970s, however, there was rising crime and a decline in business within the downtown core.
Arizona Republic writer Don Bolles was murdered by a car bomb in the city in 1976. It was believed that his investigative reporting on organized crime and politics, particularly the relationships in Phoenix between real-estate developers, organized crime, and out-of-state corporations, especially in regards to land and housing fraud, made him a target. Bolles’ last words referred to Phoenix land and cattle magnate Kemper Marley, who was widely regarded to have ordered Bolles’ murder, as well as John Harvey Adamson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1977 in return for testimony against contractors Max Dunlap and James Robison. Dunlap was convicted of first degree murder in the case in 1990 and received a life sentence. He died at the Arizona State Prison Complex – Tucson on July 21, 2009 due to natural causes. Robison was acquitted, but pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting violence against Adamson.
In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Phoenix’s population as 12.7% Hispanic, 4.8% black, and 81.3% non-Hispanic white. With the advent of desegregation and the Fair Housing Act, the white flight, which had begun with the Great American streetcar scandal accelerated, as the remaining white middle class families fled the growing street gangs, violent crime, and the drug trade. As a result, by the 1980s, these criminal activities had become public safety issues with the transplanted, noncohesive nature of many neighborhoods, which made crime difficult to monitor. Van Buren Street, East of downtown (near 24th St), became associated with prostitution, and many sections of the city’s south and west sides were ravaged by the crack epidemic. The city’s crime rates in many categories have improved since that time, but still exceed state and national averages.
After the Salt River flooded in 1980 and damaged many bridges, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Amtrak worked together and temporarily operated a train service, referred in Metro Light Rail (Phoenix) as the “Hattie B.” line, between central Phoenix and the southeast suburbs. It was discontinued because of high operating costs and a lack of interest from local authorities in maintaining funding.
The famous “Phoenix Lights” UFO sightings took place in March 1997. The Baseline Killer and Serial Shooter crime sprees occurred in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Steele Indian School Park was the site of a mid-air collision between two news helicopters in July 2007. In 2008, Squaw Peak, the second tallest mountain in the city, was officially renamed Piestewa Peak after Army Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa, an Arizona native who was the first Native American woman to die in combat with the U.S. military, and the first American female casualty in the 2003 Iraq War.
Phoenix has maintained a growth streak in recent years, growing by 24.2% before 2007. This made it the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States following only Las Vegas, whose population had grown by 29.2% in that time. In 2008, Phoenix was one of the hardest hit by the Subprime mortgage crisis. In early 2009, the median home price was $150,000, down from its $262,000 peak in recent years. Crime rates in Phoenix have gone down in recent years and once troubled, decaying neighborhoods such as South Mountain, Alhambra, and Maryvale have recovered and stabilized. Recently Downtown Phoenix and the central core have experienced renewed interest and growth, resulting in numerous restaurant, stores and businesses opening or relocating to central Phoenix.
Phoenix is located at 33°27′ North, 112°4′ West (33.4485°, −112.0738°) in the Salt River Valley, or “Valley of the Sun”, in central Arizona. It lies at a mean elevation of 1,117 feet (340 m), in the northern reaches of the Sonoran Desert.
Other than the mountains in and around the city, the topography of Phoenix is generally flat, allowing the city’s main streets to run on a precise grid with wide, open-spaced roadways.
The Salt River runs westward through the city of Phoenix; the riverbed is often dry or a trickle due to large irrigation diversions, except after the area’s infrequent rainstorms or when more water is released from upstream dams. The city of Tempe has built two inflatable dams in the Salt River bed to create a year-round recreational lake, called Tempe Town Lake. The dams are deflated to allow the river to flow unimpeded during releases. Lake Pleasant Regional Park is located in Northwest Phoenix within the suburb of Peoria, Arizona.
The Phoenix area is surrounded by the McDowell Mountains to the northeast, the White Tank Mountains to the west, the Superstition Mountains far to the east, and the Sierra Estrella to the southwest. Within the city are the Phoenix Mountains and South Mountains. Current development (as of 2005) is pushing beyond the geographic boundaries to the north and west, and south through Pinal County. According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 517.9 square miles (1,341 km2); 474.9 square miles (1,230 km2) of it is land and 0.2 square miles (0.6 km², or 0.05%) of it is water.
The Phoenix Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) (officially known as the Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale MSA), is the 12th largest in the United States, with a total population of 4,192,887 as of the Census 2010. It includes the Arizona counties of Maricopa and Pinal. Other cities in the MSA include Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, and Peoria. Several smaller communities are also included, such as Cave Creek, Queen Creek, Buckeye, Goodyear, Guadalupe, Fountain Hills, Litchfield Park, Anthem, Sun Lakes, Sun City, Sun City West, Avondale, Surprise, El Mirage, Paradise Valley, and Tolleson. The communities of Ahwatukee, Arcadia, Laveen and some others are part of the city of Phoenix; Ahwatukee being separated from the rest of the city by South Mountain.
Northern skyline, Downtown Phoenix in foreground, Sunnyslope Mountain clearly visible on high resolution.
The city is the largest city in the Arizona Sun Corridor. The Sun Corridor is the 8th largest megaregion, in terms of area, in the United States of America and is predicted to be the 10th most populous megaregion in 2025. The Sun Corridor is equivalent to Indiana in size and population and had a GDP of $191 billion in 2005.
Phoenix is the nation’s sixth most populous city with approximately 1.44 million people, however, with a huge land area of 475 square miles (1,230 km2), the city has a low density rate of about 2,785 people per square mile due to 1/3rd of its land area being undeveloped desert. By comparison, Philadelphia has approximately 1.5 million people in a land area of 127 square miles (330 km2), giving it a high density rate of over 11,000 people per square mile.
As with most of Arizona, Phoenix does not observe daylight saving time. In 1973, Gov. Jack Williams argued to the US Congress that energy use would increase in the evening, as refrigeration units were not used as often in the morning on standard time. He went on to say that energy use would rise “because there would be more lights on in the early morning.” He was also concerned about children going to school in the dark, which indeed they were. The exception to this are lands of the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona, which observe daylight saving time in conjunction with the rest of their tribal lands in other states.
Phoenix has a subtropical desert climate (Köppen: BWh), typical of the Sonoran Desert in which it lies. Phoenix has extremely hot summers and warm winters. The average summer high temperatures are some of the hottest of any major city in the United States, and approach those of cities such as Riyadh and Baghdad. The temperature reaches and exceeds 100°F (38°C), on average for 110 days of the year, including most days from late May through to early September. Highs top 110 °F (43 °C) an average of 18 days during the year. On June 26, 1990, the temperature reached an all-time recorded high of 122 °F (50 °C).
Overnight lows greater than 80 °F (27 °C) occur frequently each summer, with the average July low being 81 °F (27 °C), and the average August low being 80 °F (27 °C). On average, 67 days throughout the year will see the nighttime low at or above 80 °F (27 °C). The highest low temperature recorded in Phoenix was 96 °F (36 °C), which occurred on July 15, 2003.
Precipitation is sparse during a large part of the summer, but the influx of monsoonal moisture, which generally begins in early July and lasts until mid-September, raises humidity levels and can cause heavy localized precipitation and flooding occasionally. Winter months are warm, with daily high temperatures ranging from the mid-60’s to low 70’s (18–22 °C), and low temperatures rarely dipping below 40 °F (4 °C).
Phoenix averages 85% of possible sunshine and receives scant rainfall, the average annual total at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport being 8.3 inches (210 mm). March is the wettest month of the year (1.07 inches or 27 mm) with June being the driest (0.09 inches or 2 mm). Although thunderstorms are possible at any time of the year, they are most common during the monsoon from July to mid-September as humid air surges in from the Gulf of California. These can bring strong winds, large hail, or rarely, tornadoes. Winter storms moving inland from the Pacific Ocean occasionally produce significant rains but occur infrequently. Fog is rare but can be observed from time to time during the winter months.
On average, Phoenix has only five days per year where the temperature drops to or below freezing. The long-term mean date of the first frost is December 15 and the last is February 1; however, these dates do not represent the city as a whole because the frequency of freezes increases the further one moves outward from the urban heat island. Frequently, outlying areas of Phoenix see frost, but the airport does not. The earliest frost on record occurred on November 3, 1946, and the latest occurred on April 4, 1945. The all-time lowest recorded temperature in Phoenix was 16 °F (−9 °C) on January 7, 1913. As Phoenix grows, snow is becoming a common sight along the outskirts but is still rare in central Phoenix. Snowfall was first officially recorded in 1898, and since then, accumulations of 0.1 inches (0.25 cm) or greater have occurred only eight times. The heaviest snowstorm on record dates to January 21, 1937 – January 22, 1937, when 1 to 4 inches (2.5 to 10 cm) fell in parts of the city and did not melt entirely for three days. Before that, 1 inch (2.5 cm) had fallen on January 20, 1933. On February 2, 1939, 0.5 inches (1.3 cm) fell. Snow also fell on March 12, 1917 and on November 28, 1919. The most recent snow of significance fell on, December 6, 1998 across the northwest portions of the valley that are below 2,000 feet. During the 1998 event, Sky Harbor reported a dusting of snow. The last measurable snowfall was recorded when 0.1 inches (0.25 cm) fell in central Phoenix on December 11, 1985. On December 30, 2010, graupel fell, although it was widely believed to be snow.
Dust storms form mostly during the summer. Three major ones occurred in the summer of 2011. These dust storms form from monsoon storm “outflows”, or sudden gusts of wind.