Crossing the Salt River

Looking at the Salt River on a map today, the vast water source is now merely drybed. What little water remains hardly resembles the great and powerful rapids of the past. For the early settlers of the Arizona territory, finding methods of crossing this waterway during high waters was a challenge for travelers and traders alike.

Charles Trumbull Hayden came to the western half of the United States in search of economic gain and adventure like the many settlers before him. Shortly after the Gadsden Purchase in the 1850s, Charles Hayden opened a profitable general store in southern Arizona right next to the settlement of Tubac. On a freighting business trip from Tucson to Prescott, Charles’ trip was halted for several days by high water brought in from a heavy storm near the Salt River in present-day Tempe. Inspired by the success of the Swilling Irrigation and Canal Company and with visions of a thriving agricultural community, Charles Hayden decided to set roots and purchase 160 acres of land in the region in 1870. He established a homestead named Hayden’s Ferry which included a grist mill, general store, blacksmith and ferry.

The ferry itself existed as one of the only ways to cross the Salt River for travelers during flood season for a modest price, and provided its services until the early 1900s. However, Charles Hayden's ferry was quite inconsistent, as the dramatic rains of the desert would either bring impassable water rapids or no rain at all. As the owner of a freighting business, Charles Hayden still needed a consistent way of transporting his goods, so the ferry remained in service until a better solution came forward. A viable option for crossing the Salt River during floods finally came with the creation of the Roosevelt Dam in 1911, which brought forth the ability to maintain and somewhat manage the rapids of the Salt River, and subsequently helped to increase agricultural irrigation control and water retention in the Valley region. In many ways, the creation of this dam was emblematic of the economic, political, and population growth experienced in the region.

In 1911, Governor George W.P. Hunt commissioned the construction of what would be later known as Ash Bridge as one of the only sources of crossing the Salt River during heavy floods. Using the designs drawn up by Arizona’s first territorial engineer, J.B. Girand, work began on constructing the bridge immediately. During this construction period, the public remained uneasy about the controversial decision to use a convict labor force to cut costs, but Governor Hunt assured the people of Tempe that if even one convict escaped, he would step down as Governor of Arizona. Fortunately for the Hunt, there were no successful attempts to flee, and the convicts proved to be excellent workers in completing the project. In 1913, Ash Bridge was officially open to the public for use as the primary crossing of the Salt River.

While Ash Bridge served as Arizona’s first highway bridge to cross the river and a solid form of passage for walking pedestrians and wagons, its design was almost immediately outdated with the advancement in technology. As automobiles grew heavier and wider, the narrow design effectively made a functional two-lane bridge impossible. This-- coupled with a massive flood in 1916 which left the bridges’ structural integrity in question-- forced town leaders to close the bridge to all but pedestrian traffic. A new solution was desperately needed for the growing city, and within two decades, a push for a much wider and stronger bridge began that would soon leave Ash Bridge as a deteriorating asset to the city.

Around 1928, the largest push for a new bridge came forward from a group of Tempe businessmen who submitted a formal request to the Arizona Highway Commission. In the following year, with the designs drawn up by Arizona bridge engineer Ralph Hoffman, the construction of the Tempe Bridge, now known as the Mill Avenue Bridge, began. The bridge opened to traffic in the Summer of 1931 after two years of construction. Another two years later, a two-day dedication ceremony was held and presided by Benjamin Baker Moeur, the 4th Governor of Arizona and prominent physician. Located in the exact location that Hayden’s ferry had operated around 60 years prior, the bridge easily handled two-way automobile traffic and all of flooding and monsoon rain the Arizona climate could provide.

One the most important elements of the Mill Avenue Bridge to the growth of the city was the fact that it had now connected the transcontinental highways of the U.S. 60, U.S. 70, and U.S. 80 to Tempe, along with Arizona’s only north-south route, U.S. 89. The newly formed interconnectivity of Arizona’s highway systems crossing over the Salt River created easier travel opportunities for individuals all over the country, and was pivotal in the development of the city of Tempe and the surrounding Phoenix Metropolitan Area. However, in the following decades, the single two-lane bridge slowly became inefficient for a population quickly outgrowing its narrow system. As a result, an additional parallel bridge was completed in 1994 to relieve the increasing traffic.

Since the days of Hayden’s Ferry, Tempe’s inventiveness has introduced the prosperity Charles Hayden dreamt of during his time at Hayden’s Ferry. Hayden opened the door for development and successful commerce in the region with his ferry, and since then it has only expanded.

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