Phoenix remembers: Swelling’s Ditch brings water to Phoenix for more than 150 years

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March 12 will mark the 150 anniversary of early entrepruener Jack Swilling digging a ditch that diverted water from the Salt River for irrigation to a place that would eventually be known as Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the country.

Swilling’s Ditch as it is know was the confederate soldier’s first canal that he and 15 others from Wickenburg built. They had about $10,000 for the project, and they took up 3.5 miles of land. The new irrigation company grew crops and sold them to Fort McDowell and some of the farmers in Wickenburg. As their popularity grew, they dug more canals.

Phoenix Archeologist Laurene Montero explains that Swilling was inspired by the old Hohokam canals. He successfully re-dug one of their old canals and modeled his own canals around that.

“The Hohokam were building, maintaining and abandoning canals for over a thousand years,” Montero says. “What we have below us is an extensive network of amazingly sophisticated canals, hundreds of miles of canals. Swilling was inspired by those. He decided to form his own irrigation company based on the success of the Hohokam.”

As for where the original Swilling’s Ditch is, historians are a little unsure. The consensus has been southeast of the Pueblo Grande, Phoenix Historian Steve Schumacher says. Some will say it’s near the Joint Head Dam and others will say south of Pueblo Grande. The last remaining remnant of the ditch was found just south of the north runway at Sky Harbor.

Even though Phoenix has had quite a few renovations since the days of Swilling and his group, their history isn’t forgotten and it can even still be seen. Montero says that below all the buildings and parking lots are so many preserved canals from both Swilling and the Hohokam over a thousand years ago.

“The thing I like people to know is no matter what they think about what kind of disturbances have happened and buildings and development, there is still a good chance of finding more archaeology,” Montero says.

Steve Schumacher: Phoenix Historian
Laurene Montero: Phoenix City Archaeologist

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