Mesa’s story is one of mysterious Indians, Spanish expeditions, early American explorers, Mormon migrations, a diverse community, and continual growth. Individuals and families made important contributions to the development of Mesa.
The history of Mesa dates back two thousand years to the Hohokam Indians. The Hohokam, whose name means the Departed Ones, built the original canal system that spread over 125 miles and is still used today.
Explorers and Apaches
Missionaries and explorers, including Coronado, Father Kino, and Marcos de Niza, came to Arizona (though not present day Mesa) during the 1500’s and 1600’s. A less known explorer was Esteban (also called Estevan or Estevanico), who searched for the city of gold. Apache Indians, east of our area, drove the Spanish away in the 1700’s. U.S. Army troops fought the Apaches in the late 1800’s, opening the way for white settlement. Kit Carson and other explorers came through the Salt River Valley during the early part of the 19th century.
First Mesa Settlers
The First Mesa Company, comprised of 85 members, left Utah and Idaho in September 1877. The company leaders, some of whom were polygamous, were Crismon, Pomeroy, Sirrine, and Robson. They took a different route from Jones, crossing the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry, where there is a steep cliff across the river. The leaders of the Mesa Company reached Utahville, as Lehi or Jonesville was then called, in January of 1878; the rest of the company came in February. Daniel Webster Jones invited the group to stay, but they decided to move up to the mesa. They marked off land and immediately began work clearing the original Hohokam canals; water entered the canals in April. On July 17 1878, Theodore Sirrine went to Florence to register Section 22, now called the Town Center: the square mile from Mesa Drive to Country Club and University to Broadway. There is some confusion about early names for Mesa because the Post Office used different ones, however, the town itself was always called Mesa City. Postal authorities considered the name Mesa unacceptable at first, as it was thought it would be confused with Mesaville on the San Pedro River. The first Post Office name was Hayden’s Ferry (not to be confused with Tempe), operated by Fannie Macdonald in 1881. In 1886, the Post Office name was changed to Zenos. In 1889, the Post Office Department finally allowed the name Mesa City.
Dr. A.J. Chandler, who later started the city bearing his name south of Mesa, enlarged the Mesa Canal with heavy machinery in 1895. Dr. Chandler also built the first office complex in Mesa, on the northwest corner of Main and Macdonald, using the first evaporative air cooling system in Arizona. Moreover, he started an electric power plant. The City of Mesa purchased the utility company in 1917, becoming one of the few cities in Arizona to own utilities. Utility earnings enabled Mesa to pay for capital expenditures without bonds until the 1960s. It also provided the shared funds that allowed construction and service projects to be implemented during the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Some of the improvements were paved streets, sidewalks and curbs in the Town Center, the first hospital not converted from a residence, a recreation department and park facilities, and a modern city hall/library with expanded library hours.
Diversity in Mesa’s Early History
The Tohono O’odham (Pima) Indians, possible descendants of the Hohokam, were in the Valley long before the Mormons arrived. Earlier mention was made of their friendship with Daniel Webster Jones. Anna Moore Shaw has written A Pima Past, which describes the culture and social life of the Tohono O’odham. The first African-American family, the McPhersons, arrived in 1905. Dr. James Livingston, a Black veterinarian came before 1910; other African-Americans who arrived before 1920 were the Kemp, Moore, Hall, McKelvy and Ferguson families. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were farmers and business owners in Mesa, mostly arriving about 1910. Willie Wong, the mayor of Mesa from 1992-1996 and the first Asian-American mayor of a major city, is the descendant of such a family. The Lees, Yees and Homs were other Chinese families here near the turn of the century. Early Japanese included the Ikeda, Ishikawa, and Okazaki, Horiba, Sugino and Nishida families. Hispanics were in the area at least by the early 1890’s; the Aros, Candelaria, Castro, Garcia, Rivera and Mendoza (Police officers and Chief) families were residents.
World War II to Present
Falcon Field Airport and Williams Air Force Base were built in 1941 to provide training for World War II pilots, Falcon Field for the British Royal Air Force and Williams for U.S. pilots. After the war, many military families, including that of John J Rhodes, later minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, decided to settle in Mesa. Air conditioning came into more common use and tourism also began as a major force in the late 1940’s. The decade of the 1950’s brought more commerce and industry to Mesa, including early aerospace companies. However, until 1960 more than 50 percent of the residents earned their living directly or indirectly from farming, mainly citrus and cotton. The 1960’s through 1990’s saw more high-technology companies, now over 100 firms. Health facilities grew especially during the 1980’s and 1990’s to service the larger population. Mid 1990’s figures show Mesa employment percentages as retail – 31.2%, office – 25.7%, public – 16.1%, industrial – 14%, other – 11.6%, residential – 1.4%.
There are several important historical buildings in Mesa still in existence. The Sirrine House, built in 1895, is an attractive brick structure at 160 North Center, restored by the Mesa Historical Society and the City of Mesa. The former Lehi School, built in 1913, is the oldest standing school building in Mesa today. Now the Mesa Historical Museum, the former elementary school is located at Lehi and Horne. Some other historic buildings in downtown Mesa are the Ellis-Johnson home at 49 West First Street, the Alhambra Hotel at 43 South Macdonald, and the Southside Hospital (now the Tri City Community Center) at Hibbert and Main Streets. The Vance Auditorium, at 250 West Main Street, was built in 1904. It was the largest auditorium in the Southwest, praised as having the best dance floor in the region. Broadway productions traveling from New York performed at the Vance Auditorium, drawing residents of Phoenix, who came via train. Later the Mormon Church purchased the auditorium. The name was changed to Mezona in 1926. Dances at the Mezona were the main entertainment on Friday nights until 1972 when the building was demolished and the Mezona Inn replaced it. A large grain elevator owned by Frihoff and Nielson, still located at Macdonald and Broadway, serviced an important crop in early Mesa. Citrus followed as a valuable commodity, especially in northeast Mesa. There is still a citrus warehouse by the railroad line on Broadway Road west of Country Club.
With the exception of the decade of the 1920’s, when the cotton prices plummeted, Mesa increased by at least 79% every decennial census through 1990. In 1990 the census showed Mesa to have the highest growth rate of any city over 100,00 in the United States; the population grew 89% from 152,404 in 1980 to 288,091 in 1990. In 2000 Mesa’s population is approximately 404,000, over 100,000 people more than in 1990. The mild winter climate, beautiful environment, and strong economic conditions attract more residents every year. From humble beginnings, Mesa has developed into the third largest city in Arizona and the 46th largest city in the United States. The Census Bureau now designates the Valley as the Phoenix-Mesa Metropolitan Statistical Area. Mesa’s pioneers might not recognize the present-day city, but surely would be proud of what they began.
Written by Sarah Zafra, Mesa Room, Mesa Public Library, with assistance from Charles Crismon, Reta Reed Otis Kellis, and Barbara Nielsen, Mesa Historical Society. Revised February 2000. Reprinted with permission.
Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ), 26 January, 1991.
Harris, Richard E. Black Heritage in Arizona. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Urban League, 1977.
Our Town: the story of Mesa, Arizona, 1 878-1991. Mesa, AZ: Mesa Public Schools, 1991.
120 N. Center
Mesa, Arizona 85201
Reproduced with permission from Mesa Historical Museum