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Historic Timeline

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Ancient History

The history of Tempe Town Lake begins with the story of the Salt River.

Between 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D. Prehistoric Hohokam Indians created an extensive desert valley canal system. Signs of their culture remained through the ruins of their dwellings, unearthed pottery shards and artifacts and carved petroglyphs in nearby rocks. Their canal system became the foundation of the canals seen throughout the valley today. One of the oldest, later named Indian Bend Pump Ditch, is located in Rio Salado Park near the archeological site "Loma del Rio."

In 1700, Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit Missionary, named the river "Rio Salado" (Spanish for Salt River) because of the salty taste of the fresh water.

Watch this video about the early history of Tempe:

Check out a PowerPoint  by former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano about Town Lake history:

The Hayden Years

As late as the 1800s, the Salt River flowed uncontrolled, breaking the valley's trail access to Tucson. A large number of farmers and immigrants settled the area near the river. In 1871, Charles Trumbull Hayden started the Hayden Ferry crossing at the Salt River "Narrows," now the entrance to downtown Tempe. Charles Trumbull Hayden was one of the entrepreneurial pioneers who founded Tempe. His flour mill made use of the water from the river through a canal. The water ran through the mill, over a large screw that turned the mill. Leaving the mill, water fell over a 25-foot waterfall to the base of Hayden Butte. Charles Hayden built his home as a port for his ferry service, across from the mill. His son, Carl Hayden, later became a United States senator.

Tempe was officially named after the Greek Vale of Tempe in mythology in 1879.

The 1880s saw construction of the first railroad bridge. This crossing at the river allowed for the exploration of supplies such as dates, citrus and flour.

In 1902, floodwaters slowly weakened the railroad bridge. During a dry season the pylons collapsed under the weight of a train.

Early 1900s

Theodore Roosevelt dedicated Roosevelt Dam in 1911. The dam, constructed on the upper Salt River, slowed the flow of water through the Valley and provided water retention and agricultural irrigation control.

A third railroad bridge, built in 1912 featured steel beams with the date cut out of the top lintels. This bridge has been reinforced over the years, but has remained original in color and construction.

The State Bridge did not survive its first flood in 1914. Severe damage to its structure led to the construction of a new bridge 16 years later. The waters rose and covered half of the structural arches.

The Hayden Flour Mill burned down and was rebuilt in 1917.

In the 1920s, the Salt River provided cool escape from the desert heat. Individuals gathered near Tempe Beach Park and swam at the base of the State Bridge. Red Harkins built a theater in Tempe Beach Park where he showed summer movies for five cents. Harkins built wooden bleachers from which patrons viewed the films.

After 1911, there was less danger from flooding than ever before. Through the next three decades additional water was diverted for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. The Salt River transformed from a flowing river to a barren wasteland with tremendous flooding potential.

In 1931, crews constructed the Mill Avenue bridge across the Salt River where Hayden's Ferry had crossed 60 years earlier. It served as the main connection over the river for the horseless carriages.

The Mill Avenue bridge showed that it could withstand the minor flows of the river; over time it has maintained its stamina through the roughest floods.

In the 1930s, the Tuberculosis Sanitarium was built on Curry Road, overlooking the Salt River. This luxurious facility served wealthy TB patients who moved to Arizona because of the dry climate and low allergens. These visitors became the first of what would become a booming tourist industry.

Red Harkins built another Harkins Theater in 1945. Harkins sold the State Theater in the 1960's and the new ownership renamed it the Valley Art Theater.

In 1951, white silos increased the capacity of the the Hayden Flour Mill. Bay State Milling Company later bought the mill and expanded operations to Tolleson, west of Phoenix

In 1954, the Hayden family sold its home across from the mill to the Leonard Monti family. The family opened the house as a steak house known as Monti's La Casa Vieja. This landmark restaurant is located on the corner of Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway, across from Tempe Beach Park.

In 1958, Sun Devil Stadium was built at the base of Hayden Butte.

The Birth of Rio Salado

Between 1950 and the 1970s, the dry river bed became home to several household and industrial land fills, quarry mining and industrial businesses. During the same time, Sky Harbor International Airport grew along the north side and the cities of Tempe and Phoenix developed on both sides. The barren, blighted river became an ugly scar in Tempe.

Watch a video about the need for a solution that became Town Lake:

In 1966, Dean James Elmore of the College of Architecture at Arizona State University challenged his students to create design concepts that utilized the dry river bed. Students designed the Rio Salado Project: a series of locks and channels creating an inland seaport in the desert. The concept, which received recognition from several local municipalities, involved a linear green belt with open parks, recreational areas and development along the river.

In 1968, the ASU College of Architecture continued the study and proposed two phases of development in a limited segment of the river bed north of ASU campus.

By 1969, ASU expanded the study, integrating business, community and governmental agencies and furthering project development. The Valley Forward Association and the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) lent their support to the project.

In 1970, local design, engineering and research firms began in-depth studies of a Rio Salado design. Issues involved flooding, landfill containment and removal, economic impacts, environmental impacts and the feasibility of recreating a waterway in the desert.

The Phase I design study was completed in April 1972 and included the metropolitan Phoenix area.

Firms completed the Phase II planning study in 1974, scaling the project down from the original sea port concept to a 38-mile long green belt with a series of lakes and braided streams. ASU provided master planning support and the Tempe Planning Division produced a design study.

In 1976, the Tempe Community Development Department completed the Rio Salado design study for the Mayor and Council. Existing conditions were examined in the study area and recommendations were made for land use and transportation.

An in-depth study in 1978 proposed three alternative water-oriented plans. Phase III was completed for the Corps of Engineers. The ASU Research and Service Foundation completed the Phoenix Urban Study which identified three large urban lakes in the metropolitan area.

1979 was a turning point in the project. Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell formed the Tempe Rio Salado Citizen Advisory Commission, providing citizen input and representation to the project and publicity for the concept. Tempe received a grant for further study and the State House and Senate created the State Rio Salado Development District. A comparative view of development authorities addressed the pros and cons of development authorities and gave insight into their structure. Meanwhile, the Tempe Community Development Department identified six pilot locations and primary concepts for Rio Salado. By the end of the year, officials completed cost/revenue projections and a final conceptual plan for "moderate water development."

Need for Flood Control

During the 1970s and 1980s, extensive flooding caused bridge failures, property damage, traffic congestion and loss of life, further validating the need for a Rio Salado's flood control plan. The 1978-1980 floods recorded flows of up to 180,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

In the early 1980s, floods divided the Valley by damaging bridges across the river. The old Mill Avenue Bridge was the only bridge that remained open. Employees and residents used boats and trains to cross the river. The Rio Salado Development District formed and began developing a Valley-wide master plan from Granite Reef to Agua Fria within the 100 year flood plain. Redevelopment started in the downtown Tempe area around Mill Avenue.

In 1982, the City of Tempe adopted an overlay district map and text to serve as the official guide for future development in the Rio Salado Project area.

In 1983, a consultant completed Rio Salado development alternatives for the development district.

In 1985 the consultant completed the final draft of the Rio Salado Master Plan. The plan outlined comprehensive plan elements, cost benefits and implementation for 38 miles.

Tempe Takes a Leadership Role
In 1987, Maricopa County voters approved the expansion of Valley freeways, defeated a Valley-wide transit project called Valtrans and defeated a property tax increase to finance a Valley-wide green-belt version of the Rio Salado Project. The Project was voted down by most of the cities, but Tempe residents supported the concept and Mayor Harry Mitchell announced the City's commitment to bring the vision into reality. Council and staff began a feasibility study for developing Tempe's stretch of the Salt River.

In 1988, Tempe staff began meeting weekly, coordinating planning in the project area. The city negotiated the acquisition of the North Bank Linear Park with the Salt River Project.

By March of 1989, Tempe had a full-time staff for the project and had adopted the Rio Salado Master Plan. The Master Plan represented the culmination of more than 20 years of environmental land planning. Studies of water quality and usage, the Mill Avenue Bridge and ASU recreation ensued and programming began. Coordination with numerous state and federal agencies commenced. The City Council adopted General Plan 2000, incorporating the Rio Salado Park Plan and earmarking funds from the Capital Improvement Program. The Tempe Parks and Recreation Division updated the Papago Park Master Plan.

Construction Begins

A groundbreaking ceremony near Tempe Beach Park marked the beginning of construction of the river channelization. This construction recovered more than 840 acres of flood plain land that would be available for later development.

The Mill Avenue bridge studies neared completion by 1990. Plans for wildlife management, water treatment, recreation, flood control channelization and commercial development ensued. Tempe began negotiating leases with the Bureau of Land Management, and began the selection process for development of reclaimed land from the floodplain. The Rio Salado Master Plan showed a Town Lake concept with a continuous body of water between the north and south shores. Previously, the lake concept included islands; this concept was modified to meet the flow capacity of the river channel.

In 1991, the State Street Bridge (Ash Avenue Bridge), a picturesque and historic river crossing that had been eroded and pummeled from floods, was torn down due to extensive structural damage. The abutment of the historic Ash Avenue Bridge remains as a monument on the south side of the river. The city developed water conservation and financial budgeting plans. Papago Park Center developed on the north side of the river.

In 1992, the Hayden Ferry development site was awarded to Benton-Robb and Bay State Milling Company for the site near Hayden Butte. Plans included a new use for the flour mill. Papago Salado Tourism Association formed Engineering studies, feasibility studies, landscape studies and market surveys. Construction of the Red Mountain Freeway started on the north bank. Construction of a new Mill Avenue bridge (now supporting southbound traffic) started just east of the old Mill Bridge (now northbound).

In 1993, extensive flooding washed away the framing of the Mill Avenue Bridge, which was under construction. The city completed several projects, including a transportation study and a 13-acre Mesquite Bosque on the north bank. Students from 26 local schools planted more than 2,000 trees and shrubs native to Arizona. With the help of the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Flood Control District of Maricopa County, the city completed Salt River grade modifications. Limited damage to construction in the new channel exemplified the success of the channelization when flooding in 1992 and 1993 had water flows of 132,000 cfs. Crews completed the new Mill Avenue bridge by the end of the year.

In 1994, the Red Mountain Freeway opened in Tempe along the north bank of the Salt River. Environmental studies were conducted on numerous sites. A Public Arts Master Plan was completed. A financing strategy was outlined and linear park plans were started. Project Habitat, an 800-volunteer event with corporate sponsors, created a 20-acre riparian habitat on Bureau of Land Management land near the Hohokam Expressway.

In 1995, the City added more staff to the small team dedicated to Rio Salado and began construction of a one-mile long bike path along the south bank of the river between Mill Avenue and Rural Road. The path features public art at numerous spots along the way. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony at the east entry plaza at Rural Road.

Construction began in Papago Park south of Curry Road in 1995 and included the addition of a ramada structure, signs, trailheads, bridges and a wheelchair accessible trail leading to the Loma del Rio ruins.

Also in 1995, the city began the Town Lake design report and completed another financial capacity study and landscape designs for portions of the parks.

In 1996, Tempe played host to Super Bowl XXX and the "NFL Experience" entertainment center located itself in Rio Salado north of Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium. The City continued negotiations for several parcels. Ciudad del Lago continued work on its master planned development. The consultant completed construction drawings for the Tempe Town Lake and public interest and support increased as the project built momentum. The City designated 800 acres of area including the lake as Rio Salado Park, started construction on the North Bank Linear Park and initiated an Adopt-a-Tree program. 

Tempe completed a lake capacity needs study and started a lake management plan. The City sent Requests for Qualifications to manufacturers of inflatable dams. City staff and consulting engineers visited dam locations in Japan, inspecting the product in use. City Council and staff discussed waterfront projects during a visit to San Antonio, Texas, and Austin Town Lake (Texas) with members of the Scottsdale City Council.

Residents realized the vision of Rio Salado in 1997. On March 19, requests for Bids were sent out for the lake construction.

On April 24 1997, then Governor J. Fife Symington signed legislation for Senate Bill 1265 to become law. This bill excepted lake and infrastructure projects associated with the lake from contracting State and City sales tax. The Hayden Ferry development and Ciudad del Lago development each submitted their preliminary Planned Area Developments (P.A.Ds.) to the City. The City awarded contracts for construction of the Tempe Town Lake on June 12 1997 and held groundbreaking ceremonies for the Tempe Town Lake on Aug. 8 1997.

Opening Town Lake

On June 2, 1999, Water from the Central Arizona Project started flowing into the Tempe Town Lake. On July 14, 1999, the Tempe Town Lake was officially declared full.

More than 35,000 gathered for the Tempe Town Lake Festival on Nov. 6, 1999. The event featured the dedication of Tempe Town Lake and the opening of the expanded and remodeled Tempe Beach Park. The event featured performers on three stages, a boat raffle, fireworks and more than 60 booths of information and goodies.

On Nov. 7, 1999, Tempe Town Lake was opened to the public.

On June 17, 2000, the Mayor and Council celebrated the official dedication ceremony for the renovated 25-acre Tempe Beach Park.

On July 4, 2000, more than 125,000 visitors celebrated Independence Day with the Kiwanis 49th Annual fireworks display at Tempe Town Lake. Fireworks were shot from the east Mill Avenue bridge over the Tempe Town Lake.

Improvements Continue

On May 18, 2002, Splash Playground at Tempe Beach Park opened to the delight of children from all over the Valley

On November 22, 2002, Arizona Game and Fish stocked Tempe Town Lake with about 5,000 rainbow trout. This was the first release of sport fish into Town Lake. In 2001, stockings had to be postponed due to excessively warm weather.

On January 31, 2004, the City celebrated the opening of SRP Town Lake Marina on the north side of the lake.

In June 2004 the park area between the Rural Road and Mill Avenue Bridges on the south side of Town Lake was named Giuliano Park in honor former Mayor Neil G. Giuliano. He was a major influence and visionary leader in helping Tempe turn a decades-long dream of an urban oasis into reality. During his ten years as Mayor, Tempe has put water back into the Rio Salado and continued to transform the once dry riverbed into the jewel of the City of Tempe Park system.

In June 2004 the Indian Bend Wash (IBW) Habitat from Tempe Town Lake's east dam to McKellips Road was completed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Tempe combined resources to restore portions of the Salt riverbed to their natural state, making them once again attractive to wildlife and to those who like to observe nature. The IBW Habitat was the initial phase of three areas to be restored.

Construction of the Valley Metro Light Rail Bridge across Tempe Town Lake was completed in December 2006. The Light Rail Bridge spans 1530 feet across Town Lake adjacent to the historic Union Pacific steel truss Railroad Bridge. The Light Rail opened to passengers in December 2008 with a train passing over the bridge every 10 minutes during commute times and every half hour at other times.

In March 2007 Phase II of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Habitat Restoration was completed. Located downstream from Tempe Town Lake, the Army Corps habitat project established a mix of upper Sonoran desert, palo verde and mesquite habitat areas. The habitat runs from the Tempe Town Lake's west dam to Priest Drive.

The Tempe Center for the Arts opened in September 2007, a unique visual and performing arts experience that begins the moment one sees the building. The 88,000 square-foot cultural facility features a 600-seat performance hall, 200-seat studio, 3,500 sq ft art gallery, a 3,400 sq ft lakeside banquet and meeting room, a 17-acre art park and many other intriguing elements.

In March 2009 the Rio Salado Multi-Use Path from Priest Drive to Hardy Drive opened to the public. The half-mile concrete path connects a series of small plazas, lighted and landscaped edges, and public art elements such as entry point totems, and shade structures. The planting materials on the south side of the path represent the structure of urban environment, on the north side of the path represents the unstructured desert environment, and the path forms the transition between the two.

One of the eight inflatable bladders that hold back the waters of Tempe Town Lake burst at 9:44 p.m. on July 20, 2010. The City of Tempe was already in the process of replacing the bladders when this occurred. Nearly one billion gallons of water drained from the lake. Watch this video about the effort to rebuild Town Lake:

Town Lake reopened on Oct. 25, 2010 - just three months after the incident. The City of Tempe began exploring dam replacement technologies in 2006. The first public meeting to showcase the various technologies under consideration happens at the Tempe City Council Issue Review Session on Sept. 22, 2011.

On Oct. 15, 2011, the Town Lake Pedestrian Bridge opened at the base of the Tempe Center for the Arts. Watch the installation of the first of the suspension bridge sections in this video:  and about the bridge itself:

On Jan. 19, 2012, the Tempe City Council approved the purchase and design of a hinged gate dam to replace the inflatible dam technology for Town Lake.  An agreement with Bridgestone requires the City of Tempe to have a new dam system in place as soon as possible.

On April 23, 2014, an open house as hosted at Tempe Center for the Arts to provide information on the construction of the new Town Lake Western Dam. The construction began in May. Record floods in September wiped out much of the work done to build the foundation. Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency. Tempe saw more than a year's worth of rain that September alone. 

To finish the project, the old dam system had to be removed. On Feb. 10, 2016, the City of Tempe started pumping water into the SRP Canal System so the lake could be dry and the rubber bladders could be removed. On March 19, the last of the water was sent downstream. 

On April 12, 2016, water returned to Tempe Town Lake. On May 16, the community celebrated Tempe Town Lake Day and dedicated the new dam. 

2016 - More than 2.4 million people go to work, live, bike, run, boat and attend functions at Tempe Town Lake annually with an economic impact of more than $1.5 billion since the lake opened. More than 40,000 people work within a mile of Tempe Town Lake. 

2018 - IDEA Tempe, a development located adjacent to Tempe Center for the Arts, broke ground. This is a 1 million sq ft tech development that is a partnership between The Boyer Co. and the City of Tempe. 

2019 - This will mark the 20th anniversary of Tempe Town Lake. Details to be announced.