Filed Under Water

Fun on the Canals

"Mother and daughter, father and son, may all be found splashing about in the cooling water of the Salt River canal, commonly known as the 'Town Ditch,' almost any evening now. There are regular canal 'beaches' where Phoenicians congregate in great numbers daily, while along its length throughout the city can be found little boys and girls, big boys and girls, youths, matured and even quite elderly people finding the keenest enjoyment in the swift-running waters." In the summer of 1921, the Arizona Republican raved about the Valley's newfound form of entertainment.

Arizona can't tout oceanfront property, but that didn't stop Valley residents from enjoying the beach. All along the canals, families came to take a dip and enjoy a picnic year-round. "Swimming parties," where revelers built bonfires to roast hot dogs and marshmallows, were popular among young society. Automobiles converted to dressing rooms-- a phenomenon that prompted the Arizona Republican to remark, "The sight of bathing parties nonchalantly disrobing along the roadside has become so common as to attract little or no attention."

Arizona's climate allowed the fun to continue year-round. Sometimes 300 to 400 recreationists lined the canal "beaches," but the canal wasn't always fun and games. The canals flowed fast and deep, claiming casualties who underestimated the current. Public health was also an issue as some used the canal as a bathtub. In 1910 the Osborn district was struck by a typhoid epidemic that doctors blamed on bathing in the canal.

The increase in automobiles on the road also led to an increase in the number of people who drove their automobiles into the canals.

“Advertisement for Arizona Weather”, an aptly titled Arizona Republican article from 1911, described how some boys swam across the canal for juicy sandias, Spanish for watermelon. Passing Phoenicians smiled and continued, but "their friends from the frozen states. . . thought that the fact of seeing lads eating watermelons while swimming in the latter part of the November, to be exact it was the 19th, was an event worthy of commemoration."

Recreation on the canal continued in later decades. In the 1930s and beyond, teenagers often congregated on its banks and the truly brave would "freeboard" the canal, carefully balancing on a homemade board while being pulled along by an old Model T.

edited 1/24/2020:wt


Freeboarding the Canals A Scottsdalian recalls how her brother and his friends beat the heat, as the young daredevils created their own aquatic recreation. Based on a story told by Ken Jones. Written by Amy T. Long; narrated by Janie Ellis. Recorded at Scottsdale Channel 11; courtesy of the Papago Salado Association.


Arizona Mermaids
Arizona Mermaids Moral crusaders challenged the swimsuits and costumes worn by swimmers like Vada Thomas, Merle Brown, and Jamda Graves, shown here along the canal. In response to such crusaders, an annoyed Phoenician retaliated, writing to the Arizona Republican on July 15, 1921, "We suppose if these dyspeptic persons had their way they would make the bathers wear cloaks, arctic overshoes, and earmuffs." Source: SCOT-SHS-2012-0255; Scottsdale Public Library
Cooling Off in the Arizona Canal
Cooling Off in the Arizona Canal Kids and teens found creative ways to enjoy the canals, adding diving boards and rope swings. Source: SCOT-SHS-2012-0253; Scottsdale Public Library
Swimming in a Lateral of the Grand Canal
Swimming in a Lateral of the Grand Canal Formerly, a system of lateral canals connected the Grand Canal to agricultural fields. Roadways and cottonwoods commonly lined the laterals, which helped to define the Phoenix street grid. The cottonwood trees used to provide shade for youngsters to cool off in the canals but were eventually cleared because they consumed too much water. Source: HAER AZ-17-9; Historic American Engineering Record
Citrus Groves in Arcadia
Citrus Groves in Arcadia Arcadia used to be planted with miles of citrus groves nestled at the base of Camelback Mountain. The groves offered tantalizing sweet treats, tempting boys to swim across the canal for a "free" snack. Source: SCOT-SHS-2013-0428; Scottsdale Public Library.



Michelle Bickert and Amy Long, “Fun on the Canals,” Salt River Stories, accessed May 23, 2024,