Tempe Past & Present

Distinct, diverse, dynamic and entrepreneurial are characteristics that have defined City of Tempe since prehistoric times when the resourceful  Ancient Sonoran Desert People (archaeologically referred to as the Hohokam), lived here for about 1,500 years until sometime around 1450.  These people were farmers and engineering geniuses who developed a system of irrigation canals that carried Salt River water to their crops. The canals were so well-built that they were excavated hundreds of years later and became the foundation for today’s irrigation system.

Take a 400 year leap forward to 1865 when things started picking up with the arrival of another group of enterprising farmers who moved into what is now the city of Tempe, Arizona. These early settlers repurposed those aforementioned irrigation canals and rebuilt them to sustain farms that supplied food to Arizona’s military posts and mining towns.

Charles Trumbull Hayden came on the scene in 1870. A gutsy, innovative kind of guy, he started another settlement known as Hayden’s Ferry along the banks of the Salt River. Within a few years he had built a store and flour mill, warehouses and blacksmith shops, and a ferry across the Salt River. The flour mill operated until the 1990s and stands today as one of Tempe’s iconic landmarks. The Hayden home, located on the corner of Rio Salado Pkwy. and Mill Ave., is also a major historical landmark.

In 1872, Hispanic families arrived from southern Arizona and northern Mexico and founded a town called San Pablo. They introduced their own culture, cuisine and social activities, including music and entertainment such as dances, concerts and Cinco de Mayo celebrations each year. Today, Tempe celebrates the historical significance of Hispanics within the community during the annual Tempe Tardeada.

In 1879 the two communities of San Pablo and Hayden’s Ferry melded into one dynamic, diverse town with a distinctive name: Tempe (pronounced Tem-pee). So how did Tempe get its name? “Lord” Darrell Duppa, an Englishman, who helped establish Phoenix, is credited with suggesting the name because the lush beauty of the area reminded him of the Vale of Tempe in Greece.

More Tempe historical highlights:

  • In 1885, the Arizona legislature selected Tempe as the site for the Territorial Normal School, which trained teachers for Arizona’s schools. In 1958 it became Arizona State University.
  • The Maricopa and Phoenix Railroad, built in 1887, crossed the Salt River at Tempe, linking the town to the nation’s growing transportation system. Tempe became one of the most important business and shipping centers for the surrounding agricultural area.
  • Prompted by Tempe’s centennial in 1971, Mill Avenue underwent a major facelift and was transformed into a lively entertainment and shopping district.
  • In 1966, an innovative group of ASU architecture students came up with a design for an inland seaport in the desert, which in 1999 morphed into Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile water recreational area in the heart of Tempe.
  • Tempe has hosted the Super Bowl, a mass by Pope John Paul II and the 2004 presidential debate.
  • Tempe is well-known as the home of ASU (one of the largest public universities in the U.S.) and events such as Angels spring training baseball, Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon and ½ Marathon and Ironman Arizona.
  • Tempe is the seventh largest city in Arizona with a strong, modern economy based on commerce, tourism, technology and sustainability.

Now that you’ve read the Reader’s Digest version of Tempe’s evolution, you’ll want to know more. Watch our Tempe History 101 video,  Eisendrath House video and ASU History video with local historian Marshall Shore. Delve deeper with a visit to the Tempe History Museum to explore Tempe’s past and present through fun and interesting interactive exhibits. And for Arizona history, visit the AZ Heritage Center at Papago Park.

Use these self-guided walking tour maps to learn more about Tempe’s historic buildings, some dating back to the 1800s.  Many buildings are on or near the ASU Tempe Campus or in Downtown Tempe, where you can get a closer look at historic structures that have been restored and re-purposed as restaurants, shops and businesses.

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