Adapted from Mary Ella Murphy's Arlington School 's History 1894 - 1994 by Chris Larson
Early pioneers came to the Arlington Valley in the late 1800's and early 1900's and established a community that could and did endure. They built homes for their families, a school, and planned and built a canal that ensured productivity for the valley. The Homestead Act of 1862, allowed 160 acres to all settlers who would come, settle on land, and "prove up" on it. The J.W. Davis and the Clanton families were some of the earliest settlers in the Arlington area. The Davis family is believed to have arrived as early as 1871. Life in the Arlington Valley was not easy. Many settlers stayed on but many did not and sold their land off to others.
Water and water rights have always been important to the community. The Buckeye Irrigation Company began constructing a system of canals in 1887 and the Arlington Valley benefited from those canals. The canals were completed to the Hassayampa River in the latter part of 1886. Settlers below the confluence of the Hassayampa and Gila rivers had difficulty in getting enough water. This made it hard to irrigate the whole of the Arlington Valley. The Gila ran on the south side of the valley, as we know it now, and water could not be taken out. The Buckeye Irrigation Company put a sand dam across the Hassayampa to raise the water level so the water could flow into the ditch that carried water to the valley. In 1890, the Walnut Grove Dam upstream on the Hassayampa River , broke sending water southward down the almost always-dry bed of the river. When the water reached Arlington it was several feet deep and about a mile wide. After the floodwaters receded, the Hassayampa was no longer a creek but a full fledged river and was much the same width and depth as it is today.
With more and more settlers coming to Arlington , there was not enough water to irrigate all of the farms. Often when the Gila flooded, it would wash away the settler's dams and fill their ditches and canals with sand. Settlers living in tents and cabins while they tried to establish homes found life difficult. Families in the new community needed schools, churches, stores and postal service. The roads to Arlington from Phoenix were not paved until the1920s.
One of the first community buildings was a small one-room school just west of the Hassayampa, near the Gila, built sometime prior to 1890. It was called the Powers Butte School with Powers Butte across the Gila River , looming above the little school on the other bank. The school was shared by the Arlington and Palo Verde communities. Any time the subject of this old school is raised, another story, concerning the school emerges. It seems that the school trustees, living in Arlington , refused Palo Verde's request to move the school to Palo Verde where the majority of students lived. After being refused, some residents of Palo Verde took matters into their own hands. One night, with a flatbed trailer and a team of horses, they drove to the school site and loaded the small, one room school onto the trailer and moved it to a location in Palo Verde. When the teacher arrived in October to start school, the Trustees assured him that they would not pay his salary to teach in Palo Verde. He however, opened the school assuming that he would be paid, but the Trustees, true to their word, refused to pay him, and when he applied to the County School Superintendent for payment, the problem was resolved by dividing the district. The Hassayampa River was to be the dividing line, for the most part, of the two districts. Today, the Arlington School District is one of the largest school districts in Arizona covering roughly 700 square miles.
In 1899, a community meeting was held and the Arlington Canal Company was born. The Company constructed a canal from the Gila River to assure Arlington sufficient water to sustain the land under cultivation. Farmers purchased stock in the canal with one share granted for every 160 acres of land owned. The Arlington canal was completed in 1900 and still serves the community today.
Arlington 's first store was built about the same time as the canal and sold everything needed by the settlers, even farm implements. The Arlington Post office was established November 23, 1899 with Moses Clanton as the first Postmaster. The main road ran south from Hassayampa. A hotel was built along the road and provided a welcome place for travelers to stay on their way to Yuma and points west. In 1904 telephone lines extended through Arlington . It has been said that the first cotton gin in Arizona was built in Arlington . At one time there is record of a Woman's Club chapter in Arlington , although it no longer exists.
Today the Lions Club and CATS Club are active and lend a great deal of support to the community and school.
In the early 1890's, the Wolfley Dam was built on the Gila River at about the same location as the present Gillespie Dam. The dam was built to divert water into a large canal and irrigate land to the west of Gila Bend. When it was finished, it caused major flooding of farmlands in Arlington , particularly those farms nearest to the river. After the Wolfley dam was washed out many times, the oil rich Gillespie family emerged to build a proper dam. The family had purchased 85,000 acres west of Gila Bend and wanted the water. The Gillespie Dam was constructed and completed in 1921.
The Gillespie dam created a large reservoir behind the dam. As long as the floodgates were opened during periods of high water, damage to the surrounding area was reduced. The dam did eventually create new flooding problems. When the waters settled out behind the dam mud began to collect and eventually became higher than the dam. When water needed to be released, the floodgates were no longer used and water was allowed to just flow over the top of the dam. This allowed the mud buildup above the dam to continue and eventually there was no channel left in the river. When there was heavy rain and releases from the upriver dams, the water level rose higher into the valley. The schoolhouse was flooded several times, and travel on the road, about ¾'s of a mile from the river, was impossible. Homes in the area were also flooded. School buses, moveable equipment, and household belongings were moved to higher ground but the homes often were damaged.
Floods in 1993 recorded the highest water levels in many years. The Gila River overflowed its banks with a loss of hundreds of acres of farmland and soil. An estimated 100,000 cubic feet per second of water flowed in the river. Land that had never flooded before was endangered. The Gillespie Dam, which had been build some 70 years before, broke near the center, losing 60 or more feet of concrete and the furious force of the water poured through the break. It relieved the upstream farms, though the flood left some of the farms so damaged they couldn't be repaired. The floodwaters unearthed two natural gas lines that floated to the surface and were ruptured by the current sending fire high into the night skies.
World War II brought change to the close knit community as young men went off to war, older people either moved away or died. The homesteaded farms were taken over by the younger family members or were sold. When the veterans returned to Arlington , several brought wives from other states with them.
The El Paso Gas Company moved a pumping station into the valley in the 1940s and built housing for 28 families. The company almost created a little town by itself, with homes, a recreation hall, and tennis courts. Later on, El Paso Gas moved all of the families out the area. The station is still in operation but the skeleton crew that runs it no longer lives at the site. The Arlington Cattle Company feed lot was another large employer but it too closed and the employees moved away. The advent of modern farm equipment has also caused families to leave the area because less farm workers are needed for daily operations.
Change has come to the Arlington valley and will continue to do so. Camels no longer carry butter and cheese into Phoenix to market. Dust no longer trails the stagecoach in its effort to get people to places farther west. It is a valley with a great deal of history and stories of interest.
Today the Arlington Valley remains mostly agricultural with homes on large rural lots. It continues to be the kind of community that people remember and probably is why many seem to return here after growing up.