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History of
Grand Avenue

Bob Graham, Motley Design Group 


   strange diagonal

When Murphy, an earthwork contractor, came to Arizona to work on the transcontinental railroad, Phoenix was a small hamlet of farmsteads making use of recycled Hohokam canals for irrigation. The topography of the Salt River Valley allowed for potential reclamation of vast areas, far beyond the capabilities of  prehistoric natives, and a group of investors came together in 1883 to build a canal as far uphill has they could manage: the Arizona Canal. Murphy’s grading company was in the territory, and had the capacity to perform on such a large contract. Further, Murphy was so convinced by the concept that he was willing to forego payment until the job was half done. Taking much of his payment in company stock, he emerged from the experience in 1886 as majority owner of the largest irrigation system in Arizona, as well as owner or controller of significant land holdings.


But how to sell this arid desert land, most of which was still covered in cactus and mesquite? Murphy saw that irrigation was not enough, that people needed to see how rich the returns could be, and how civilized and modern the settlements were. With local and California investors, Murphy formed the Arizona

Improvement Company. Among other ventures, a series of settlements were conceived by the AIC west of Phoenix –Alhambra, Glendale, Peoria, and Marionette – all conveniently located four to six miles south of the Arizona Canal, cutting through the center of the newly arable lands. Connecting all of these new towns to the County seat would be a highway set on the diagonal. This would be Grand Avenue.

Grand Avenue replaced, within the Salt River Valley, the old wagon road that connected Phoenix to Wickenburg and the mines in that area. Of course, at the point where the new highway came in to the Phoenix townsite at 7th Avenue and Van Buren Street, there were additional opportunities for commercial development and suburban (for the time) homes. The AIC did not miss out. They purchased some land in this key area and in 1887 partnered with other landholders to plat the Grand Avenue Addition and the University Addition, which together set the direction for development of Grand Avenue and the tracts on either side from Van Buren up to Christy (McDowell) Road. A land boom took hold immediately, with speculators wildly buying and selling tracts in the new addition. Murphy himself built a mansion on the west side of the Grand two blocks north of Roosevelt (then Ash) street, and paid to have 1,000 two-year-old ash trees planted along the street. 

In creating the plats for these areas the AIC retained the rights to water and gas service as well as for streetcar infrastructure. True to plan, in 1890, mule-drawn streetcars operated by the Arizona Improvement Company were put into service, on rail lines installed by Murphy’s grading firm. This was the first major extension of streetcar service away from the main Washington Street line.  Murphy was also involved in organization and construction of the Santa Fe, Prescott, and Phoenix railroad line, which parallels Grand Avenue north of McDowell Road and provided freight rail service to the settlements in the northwest Valley as well as to the mines in which Murphy was invested.


The last piece of the Grand Avenue puzzle fell into place in 1905, when the Arizona Territorial Exposition was moved to permanent grounds at the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and McDowell, providing the Grand Avenue streetcar (thereafter known as the “Fairgrounds Line”), a destination

and terminus. The land for the fairgrounds was initially purchased by J.C. Adams, President of the Valley Bank and a Murphy associate, and later conveyed to a citizen’s group, the Arizona Fair Association.


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