In Part IV I explained the foundations for the rise of a Phoenix from desert ashes. However, there was one giant problem: water.

There was water to be had in Southern Arizona. After all, Phoenix was siuated along the Salt and Gila Rivers which flow rain and snowmelt from the Mogollon Rim of Arizona and New Mexico. But there droughts. And there were floods. The water supply had to be stable.

Enter Teddy Roosevelt.


At the dawn of the 20th century, times were changing. A man named Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States onSeptember 14, 1901 after Leon Czolgosz murdered then President William McKinley. Teddy as Vice President moved right in. (And I would not doubt #2 had a hand in killing #1 to be #1).

Teddy was a “progressive”. He believed in using the power of government for improving infrastructure, and other things, beyond what free enterprise could render. Though Teddy’s distant cousin FDR is credited with implementing the New Deal, massive expansions of federal power beyond traditional purposes started with Teddy.

Look how incredibly unpopulated the West in 1900 was. This absolutely was seen in a geopolitical light. Buffering Western America from Japan was a motivation to fill empty Western Spaces. (1)

One thing Teddy wholeheartedly believed was that the Federal Government had an obligation to continue developing the economy of the Western States. He wanted those empty spaces filled with Americans, that is, people recognizing that District of Columbia was sovereign. Remember, a Civil War between north and south had already been fought. Another one between east and west was not impossible. In fact, such had been anticipated for a long time.

And, believe it or not, the Empire of Japan concerned him. His fear of Japanese imperial expansion in 1905 – right as Japan was beating up on Russia – compelled him to authorize the passage of the Los Angeles Aqueduct from Owens Lake through federal lands to the set-to-explode city. He wanted to grow a massive city on the Pacific Coast to bolsert America’s western defenses. I have no doubt growing another western city bigger, like Phoenix, was on his mind too.

Under Teddy the federal government began taking grander steps than ever before to control the economic development of the West. Maintaining the infrastructure required for this. It would also help to insure federal power over the landmass, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, for decades and possibly centuries. Western Secession would be much harder.

So what did Teddy do? In 1902 signed into the law the Newlands Act which created the Department of Reclamation. He did this because, as Marc Reisner said in Cadillac Desert,

“…Theodore Roosevelt, an easterner, had returned from the West convinced that there were vast areas of public land which can be made availabel for… settlement,” but only, he added, “by building reservoirs and main-line canals impractical for private enterpise…” (2)

During the 1870’s, 80’s and 90’s private enterprise had attempted to build many dams across the West for the exact purpose of the Reclamation Department. All those efforts had failed. As Reisner again remarks:

“…a Colorado legislator likened the American West to a graveyard, littered with the “crushed and mangled skeletons of defunct [irrigation] corporations… [which] suddenly disappeared at the end of brief careers, leaving only a few defaulted obligations to indicate the route by which they departed…” (3)

Not a fan of this man.

So Teddy signed the Newlands Act. The massive dam-building spree across the West was about to begin. Near-desert land from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean would be the targeted areas. Calfornia would surely grow beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. So would Arizona. And how Arizona? A dam called Roosevelt Dam.

As broached earlier, the Salt River starts flowing in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. It is the snowmelt from the 15,000 thousand square miles of the Salt’s watershed a mile above sea level and higher. Originating in the White Mountain Apache Reservation of Eastern Arizona, the Salt flows southwest through the San Carlos Apache Reservation, and then enters into deep canyons about 100 miles east of Phoenix. Those narrow canyons were conducive to the construction of a high dam to hold back the Salt’s waters. A lake would be born east here. It would serve as a guaranteed water supply for the Valley, and the dam would hold back flood waters so damaging to the Valley.

This Roosevelt Dam in the Salt River Canyon was to be the biggest dam ever built in the history of the world. It would need money. It would need a lot of money. Again, the funds that could have come from the Arizona territorial government, the City of Phoenix, and all the private parties standing to gain from the dam would be woefully insufficient. However, the federal government’s power to tax was to be perfectly sufficient.

A Google Earth snippet of the string of lakes in the mountains east of Phoenix that changed forever the face of Arizona. Most people don’t wonder where their water comes from. In Arizona you have to.

Funding for the newly created Department of Reclamation was to come from the sale of public lands the federal government still held across the west, and was to be repaid by the farmers buying water from the Department of Reclamation for their to-be irrigated lands.

Though the dam took longer to build than was expected, and though the increased irrigation on Phoenix’s lands created new problems, like saturating the land with excess water that had to be pumped back into the Salt River, the federal government’s endeavor worked magnificently. Phoenix’s population in 1910, a year before the Roosevelt Dam was completed, was 10,000. By 1920 it had jumped to 29,053.

In the 1920’s evaporative cooling was invented, aka swamp coolers. It was now possible to have a far cooler ambience inside your house when it is 110 outside. This invited more people to the Salt Valley.

Then air conditioning was invented in the 1930’s. This proved more reliable than evaporative cooling. By 1940 the population had reached 65,414.

In the 1940’s Arizona served as a training center during WWII. Coming from places like Pennsylvania and Ohio where winters are cold and dreary, many men fell in love with the omnipresent sunshine and warmth of southern Arizona. After the war ended, they came back to Arizona. By 1950 the population had grown to 106, 818. However, it was the 1950’s that saw the greatest growth, with the population reaching 439,170 by 1960.

In 1963 the US Supreme Court gave Arizona much more water rights to the Colorado River than California wanted to cede. This ended a decades long conflict between the two states. Arizona would thus have even more water. Phoenix would grow even more.

581,562 lived there by 1970. 789,704 by 1980. 988,983 by 1990. 1,323,107 by 2000. 1,445,632 by 2010.

These are just numbers for people living within the City of Phoenix. The full metropolitan area – the full population living in the municipalities bordering or in the vicinity of Phoenix – as of 2020 was roughly 5 million.

Of course, dear reader, much more can be said. But I will end these posts now. The point is that there were rather unique dynamics that went into the creation of a perfectly named city called Phoenix.

But every city has its story. Every place evolves uniquely.


1 Map taken from History of the Westward Movement by Frederick Merk. Page 475. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1978.

2 Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Pages 108 to 109. 1993 revised edition by Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

3 Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Pages 110. 1993 revised edition by Penguin Books, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

4 Image of Teddy Roosevlet taken from: