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Betting the Farm in Arizona Territory

What topic could bring one of every five citizens of Phoenix on a hot August night in 1900 to a meeting in the downtown Dorris Opera House? A guess of gunfighters or lawless renegades is wrong.

It was water. The most important commodity in the southwestern desert.

Throughout the west, water had quickly become a commodity to fight for and fight over. Nowhere was more aware than Phoenix, which knew it was doomed if it didn’t have an assured source of water. All it had right then was the Salt River, one of the most erratic rivers in the nation—one year it would flood, the next it would disappear. But what about a dam upstream that would capture the dependable water, hold it for those dry years, and use it to irrigate a valley that could grow almost anything?

And someone had found the perfect spot—80 miles east of Phoenix where Tonto Creek joined the Salt River.

But that spot was so remote, many thought it was folly to even consider it. Not only was the site unreachable—no road, certainly no railroad—but where in the world would this little territory get the millions it would take to build a mighty dam?

That very night in the Opera House was born the idea for landowners to pledge their property as collateral and ask the federal government to do something it had never done before—loan the territory the money to build the dam. That night was the birth of what became the Salt River Project, now one of the nation’s largest utility companies.

And a dam that became the nation’s first water reclamation project and was named for Teddy Roosevelt. And a little town that is now the nation’s sixth-largest city. What water can do!

This story was written and published by Truewest, History of the American Frontier.

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