Phoenix, Arizona was first settled in 1867, and incorporated as a city in 1881. Here is a look at how the city looked back in 1885, when the population was estimated to be just 3,500. (If you look below, you can see that we split the image into thirds so you can see more detail.) We have also discovered a description of the area from 1887 — and 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 2017, the population of the city was 1.6 million — making it the fifth most populous city in the United States. If you want to go a little wider, the Phoenix metro area is home to more than 4.7 million people.
So come take a look back to the early days of the old West, when farms dominated the cityscape, and shade trees and ice factories brought people welcome relief from the summer heat.
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.
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.
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.
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 wine making the soil and climate are especially adapted.
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.
Phoenix, Arizona References/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