Old Phoenix, Arizona: See how the city’s changed over the years since the 1880s

A Phoenix, Arizona birds-eye map view from of the city from 1885

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Phoenix, Arizona was first settled in 1867, and incorporated as a city in 1881.

Among the images below includes a look at how the city looked back in 1885, when the population was estimated to be just 3,500. Just two years later, the number of residents had increased to about 5,000.

So how does old Phoenix compare to today’s version? As of 2020, the population of the city was 1.69 million — making it the fifth most populous city in the United States. If you want to go a little wider, the state of Arizona is home to more than 7.3 million people.

Come take a look back, starting with the early days of the old West, when farms dominated the cityscape, while shade trees and ice factories brought people welcome relief from the summer heat.

Welcome to Phoenix sign - 1940
Welcome to Phoenix sign – 1940

See Old Phoenix, Arizona in 1885: A birds-eye map of the city

Phoenix, the county seat of Maricopa County, is situated in the Salt River Valley, 23 miles north of Maricopa Station, on the Southern Pacific Railroad. The town is embowered in shade trees and shrubbery, has streams of living water through every street, is surrounded by orchards, gardens and vineyards, and is one of the handsomest in the West.

The streets face the cardinal points, are broad and spacious and lined with trees. The County Courthouse, in the center of a square and surrounded by trees, is a handsome two-story brick [building], surmounted by a tower. The School House is a large and commodious brick structure, of two stories, almost hidden in a cottonwood grove.

The Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics have tasteful places of worship. There are several large mercantile establishments, a steam flouring mill with daily capacity of 130 barrels, two ice factories and a planing mill.

The Odd Fellows, Masons Workmen, Knights of Pythias, Good Templars and Chosen Friends have flourishing organizations. Two newspapers, the Herald and Gazette have daily and weekly editions.

The altitude is 1800 feet above the sea, and the climate is one of the healthiest in the world. Snow never falls, and roses are in bloom in December.

Phoenix is the center of an extensive and fertile valley almost 50 miles in length by 10 in width, and containing over 300,000 acres. Every variety of grain, grasses, fruits and vegetables give a prolific yield. For fruits, grape culture and winemaking, the soil and climate are especially adapted.

A Phoenix, Arizona birds-eye map view of the city from 1885

A Phoenix, Arizona birds-eye map view of the city from 1885

A Phoenix, Arizona birds-eye map view of the city from 1885

Everything is grown by irrigation. Eight canals convey the water from the Salt River over the land. The Arizona canal is one of the largest works of this kind in the United States; it is over 40 miles in length, 80 feet wide on the bottom and 58 feet on the top, is 7 feet deep and has a capacity of 46,000 miners inches. It has reclaimed and made valuable over 100,000 acres of rich land.

The office of the company is at Phoenix; the President is Hon. Clark Churchill and the Chief Engineer is Charles A. Marriner. The Territorial Insane Asylum is situated near the town, also the extensive and beautiful grounds of the Arizona Industrial exposition. The Normal school is situated nine miles up the river.

A branch road from the Southern Pacific will be completed to Phoenix by January 1, 1886. The town is rapidly growing, and its charming situation will yet make it the leading city of Arizona. Population about 3,500.

A Phoenix, Arizona birds-eye map view of the city from 1885

Old Phoenix, Arizona map locations from 1885

1. County Court House
2. Baptist Church
3. Washington St. Methodist Church
4. Public School House
5. Centre St. Methodist Church
6. Salt River Valley Canal
7. Residence of J.T. Simms
8. Gazette Printing Office
9. Kales & Lewis’ Bank
10. Valley Bank
11. Herald Printing Office
12. J.Y.T. Smith’s Flour Mill
13. Public Plaza
14. Irvins Building
15. Phoenix Swimming Baths
16. Phoenix Hotel
17. Gregory House & Lumber Yard
18. Hotel Lamon
19. Catholic Church
20. Dutch Ditch
21. Maricopa Canal
22. Grand Central
23. Arizona Canal
24. Residence of H.H. McNeil
25. Residence of M.W. Kales
26. Property of E.B. Kirkland
27. Lount Bros. Ice Factory
28. P. Minor’s Lumber Yard
29. H.W. Ryder’s Lumber Yard

Phoenix: A booming city (1887)

The city of Phoenix is one of the most beautiful and lovely cities in the West. Along its streets, on each side, flow streams of pure water, carrying to each house and garden the liquid fertilizer.

Tall and stately trees line the streets. Fruits, flowers and shrubbery surround each residence, fascinating the eye and ladening the refreshing breeze with rare and fragrant perfumes.

Old downtown Phoenix Arizona - 1900s
Old downtown Phoenix Arizona – 1900s

Its business streets are crowded with an industrious and energetic people. All is bustle, progress and activity. Mechanics are busy; numerous buildings are being erected; several hotels are crowded with guests, and others are being built.

There is in the course of erection at the present time the Commercial Hotel, to cost $25,000; Porter block, $20,000; Patton block, $18,000; Thibod’s building, $15,000, and numerous others.

Old Washington Street, Phoenix, Ariz
Downtown – Washington Street in 1902

The city has issued bonds for the erection of a City Hall, and the Phoenix and Maricopa Railroad have approved the plans of a commodious depot. Franchises for street railroads have been granted, and the streetcars will soon be in operation.

Real estate transfers have been averaging over $200,000 per month, and are increasing. A short distance from the city is located the Territorial Insane Asylum, a structure of imposing appearance, built at a cost of $75,000.

The County Courthouse is a handsome brick building of two stories surmounted with a graceful dome. An elegant public schoolhouse stands in a lovely plaza shaded by towering cottonwoods.

Phoenix has gas works, planing mills, flour mill, ice factories and many other industrial establishments. Its population has doubled within the past year, and is now about five thousand.

The weather is warm in summer, and the thermometer will sometimes indicate 105°, but the altitude above the sea is 1800 feet, and remarkable as it may seem, the atmosphere is so pure, dry and balmy that even when the temperature is highest, it is less oppressive and far more comfortable than 80° at Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any city on the Atlantic seaboard.

A busy street corner in Phoenix, Arizona
A busy street corner in Phoenix, Arizona

A busy street corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Get your lots in Phoenix, Arizona for $200 each (1892)

The Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Ariz.) October 29, 1892

The capitol of Arizona is located on a beautiful tract of land adjoining the City of Phoenix on the west. The site for the building is in the center of a tract of ten acres belonging to the Territory.

Nearly $8,000 has already been expended by the Capitol Commissioners in beautifying the grounds, and it is today the pride of Arizona. A street railway runs to the center of the plat.

It is beyond any doubt permanently settles for all time. Our recent constitutional convention so decided it, and placed a clause in our constitution to that effect.

A number of fine residences have already been erected near it, and a large number are in contemplation by prominent men throughout the territory and through the country. Lots that sold one year ago for $200 each are now selling at $500 and upwards. There is no spot in the west that promises such rapid advances in values as is here offered.

Arizona RepublicPhoenix, ArizonaWednesday, January 11, 1893

All the lots on Washington Street have been disposed of, and but five are left on the east side of the Capitol. We have just platted the ground on the west. The streets are being graded and the lots placed this week on the market. This new plat commences but one block west of the Capitol site.

We intend to do as we did east of the site, start the lots at $200 each and sell a limited number at that price. Parties wishing to avail themselves of this splendid opportunity should apply at once for we confidently believe by spring these lots will be selling at $500 each.

Apply to M.E. Collins, Phoenix, Arizona.

See Phoenix, Arizona in the 20th century

One of many beautiful residential streets in Phoenix Arizona – 1940s

One of many beautiful residential streets in Phoenix Arizona 1940s

Post office and Hotel Westward Ho, N. Central Ave.

Post office and Hotel Westward Ho, N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Arizona 1940s

Old Hotel Westward Ho in Phoenix, Arizona – 1940s

Old Hotel Westward Ho in Phoenix Arizona - 1940s

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

St. Mary's Catholic Church, Phoenix, Arizona - 1940s

Vintage 1940s chain stores on Washington Street, Phoenix, Arizona

Vintage 1940s chain stores on Washington Street, Phoenix, Arizona

Washington Street, east from City Hall

Washington Street, east from City Hall, Phoenix, Arizona 1943

Mormon/LDS church

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 3rd Ward Phoenix Arizona (1944)

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 3rd Ward Phoenix Arizona 1944

Downtown Phoenix, Salt River Mountains south of city (1944)

Downtown Phoenix, Salt River Mountains south of city 1944

Glimpse of New College, Phoenix, Arizona (1940s)

Glimpse of New College, Phoenix, Arizona 1940s

North Phoenix High School (’40s)

North Phoenix High School - Arizona in the 40s

Phoenix golf course – May 1940

Phoenix golf course - May 1940

Phoenix, Arizona in 1955

Phoenix, Arizona in 1955

Phoenix, Arizona in 1957

Phoenix, Arizona in 1957 - plane view

City of Phoenix Arizona in 1957

Phoenix, Arizona in 2015, as seen from the sky

Phoenix, Arizona in 2015

MORE: Old Gilbert, Arizona: How one of the fastest-growing cities in the US started out small

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Story’s old golden Gate settlement, stock yards
    Baseline orchard of flowers, Orange Groves, the old Gray Hound Station had beautiful Murals on the walls, Fox Theater, Hodges BBQ on Washington Street, Immaculate church and one place in my heart is East Lake Park my grandparents lived half block west of it on Jefferson st. Would like to know more of the mormon church, between 20th st. and 18th st south of buckeye rd (pictures) of all those places. I’m a Arizona Native

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