About Desert Harbor

Desert Harbor History: Recognizing the people who called this area home

and events that took place here before we arrived

By Jim Ferguson, Currents newsletter editor

Desert Harbor, as we know it now, is in its fourth decade, but the history of our special spot here in the desert goes back a bit farther than that. According to geologists many of the familiar rock formations around us such as Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak date back to some of the first mountain building on Earth nearly 1.5 billion years ago. Geologists also tell us the flat expanse we now call The Valley of the Sun is composed mainly of eroded materials left behind as a series of mountain ranges rose and were worn away. Several times the Pacific Ocean made its way across our property as the land and sea rose and fell over the eons leaving layers of sediment in the wake of each visit. Other mountain building eras came and went, and The Valley eventually filled to a depth of a mile or more of the weathered sand and gravel. Many of the highlands we can see from our backyards and other nearby vistas are only the tips of massive rocky monuments that extend miles below the surface. Other local elevations were created by several volcanic episodes that raised lava domes; one of them is South Mountain at the end of Central Avenue.

• For more about Phoenix geological history go to:http://www.gemland.com/geohistory.htm

For years almost uncountable what we know as Desert Harbor was inhabited only by the animals and plants that could survive the changing climates which took turns here. Some eras were wet and lush, others were more like we see today. Then came the era of humans, and we are just the last of those to call home this spot where we now get our mail at Zip Code 85381.

The 1880s - Land and Water
Desert Harbor for centuries was just a nameless patch of sand, sage and cactus. Events occurring over 100 years ago only a short distance to the east would change all that. In 1882, the Arizona Canal Company started to dig a 42-mile canal from the Salt River about 12 miles east of what is now Scottsdale to what is now Greenway and 75th Avenue. That canal emptied into New River just to the northwest of what is now the Peoria Sports Complex on 83rd Avenue. The available water from this would make the lands of north and northwest Phoenix suitable for farms and homes.

• For more Salt River canal history go to: http://www.srpnet.com/water/canals/history.aspx

When the project was finished in 1886, the company did not have funds to pay William J. Murphy, the general contractor, so he was given land and water rights. Making the decision to turn those land and water rights to cash, he returned to Peoria, Ill., among other places, and sold some of those rights to four families who made the journey out to the Arizona Territory and named their new community northwest of Phoenix "Peoria" after their home back East.

A rich land investor, realtor and liquor business owner from Illinois, J.G. Greenhut, and his partner DeLos Brown bought four sections of the available land. Each section was 640 acres (one square mile), thus giving the two land speculators ownership of a total of four square miles of what is now downtown Peoria, Arizona. Mr. Greenhut never lived in Peoria, but started a large ranch using the new irrigation ditches dug off the main canal.

DeLos Brown subdivided the Peoria sections in 1892, to encourage workers and families to move here to work the farm and ranch. Few came at first - it was too hot, and those who did arrive found water problems. Often there was too little, or too much as annual monsoon storms washed out the canals from time to time. Brown then sweetened the deal and offered free residential lots to those who agreed to come here to work the land. He offered free commercial lots to those who would come to open businesses. The settlers started to arrive - slowly at first, but steadily.

• For more about Peoria's history and other facts, go to:


1900 - Canals and Roads
A drought in the early 1900s caused many who did come to leave, but then the years got a bit wetter. In 1912, the federal government built the Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River on the far east edge of The Valley to conserve spring runoff and control flooding. That provided control over the water flowing through the canal now under the management of the Salt River Water Users Association. The government made it a requirement that water from the main canal had to be delivered to the highest point in each of the sections it ran through, so residents could be supplied with water via lateral, gravity fed canals. Also required were additional canals to collect runoff from the fields. They connected back into the Salt River below where the water was taken out for farm and residential use.

• For photos and more information about Roosevelt Dam go to:


The original survey of the Phoenix area set as the main coordinates what is now Baseline Road as the east/west baseline, and what is now Central Avenue as the north/south baseline. All streets and other land measurements in the area are calibrated off those two coordinates. The early streets in Phoenix were names going east and west, and numbers going north and south. Roads with numbers were called streets to the east of Central Avenue and avenues to the west - as they still are today. Paving of the roads proceeded at a slow but regular pace as the population grew through the decades.

Originally Peoria had its own numbered streets, but eventually changed the street names to coincide with the numbered and named streets expanding outward from Phoenix. The east/west roads in the West Valley at first were just lettered - Thunderbird Road was called “R” Road until the Thunderbird Field was built by Southwest Airways in the '40s at the corner of 59th Avenue and Greenway. The airline contracted primary training there for aviation cadets for the Army Air Corps.

Today, the former airfield is the location of Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management. The campus still contains many original airfield buildings, including the airfield control tower, barracks and two large airplane hangars.

• For more Thunderbird Field history go to


The two World Wars
During WWI some of the farmland around what is now Desert Harbor grew a high grade cotton called Pima that was used in a variety of ways in the war effort. Originally the cotton for the Army was brought from Egypt, but the German U-Boats put a stop to that. The climate here was conducive to growing Pima cotton which was very similar in high quality to the Egyptian species.

During WWII the sky over Desert Harbor was often filled with two-seater, PT-17 bi-plane trainers from nearby Thunderbird Field. On occasion as many as fifty of these planes could be seen diving and soaring above what is now Desert Harbor lake. One day, one of the two-winged planes was seen spiraling slowly toward the ground, and after making over a dozen of the looping turns it crashed where the lake is now. Fortunately, the trainee who was soloing on that flight was able to walk away from the wreckage not seriously injured.

• For more about the PT-17 trainer aircraft go to: http://www.warbirdalley.com/pt17.htm

From 1920 to 1950, the acreage at Desert Harbor was farmland where alfalfa, cotton, sugar beets and livestock were raised. To the east of New River, water came from the canal system. Water to the west of that was supplied by wells, as no canals crossed the New River channel. Produce farms and cotton fields dotted the entire area that is now Desert Harbor and Sun City.


In 1929, A. E. Ryack owned what is now Desert Harbor according to the county ownership map produced in January of that year (below). A major farm nearby was the Marinette property which was centered at what is now Grand Avenue and 107th Avenue. The Marinette acreage was spread in connected plots all over what is now the Sun City area.

To enlarge this map click here or on map to view it as PDF file 

Some of the information in this article comes from conversations with Neil McLeod who was born in 1928, on a 40-acre farm on the site of what is now Dillon’s Restaurant at Thunderbird Road and the 101 - just to the southeast of Desert Harbor. What he had to say gives a history to what for most of us seems a very new place.

His father, Walter Scott McLeod, came from Coos Bay, Oregon. Injured by gas in WWI, Walter was advised to move to a hot, dry climate. In 1919, he broke ground for a 40-acre farm on land that is now Sun City West which he acquired as a part of the Homestead Act. In 1920, he met a lady from Texas who was a teacher at Marinette Elementary School located at the 107th Avenue and Grand Avenue site, and they married. Soon after, they moved to the site of the farm where Neil later was born so Mrs. McLeod could be closer to her school. Their 40 acres, at what is now Dillon's, cost them $7,200 in 1922.

The senior McLeod was a cotton farmer and bee keeper who sold the farm in the '50s to Woody Jarnagin. The land was sold again and a restaurant was built on the site using part of the existing Jarnagin home. Several others operated restaurants in the building prior to it being Dillon’s.

The first lake at Desert Harbor
By the 1950s, the property that was to become Desert Harbor was owned by O.R. Recker, a multi-talented man who was involved in many local land investments and local organizations. A Christian Scientist, Mr. Recker raised produce and was especially interested in the wildlife of the area and its preservation and study. His grand and elaborate home, which was located a hundred yards north off Thunderbird Road about where the new medical offices are now, was accessed by two gates and drives with one entrance just west of the New River channel and another at about where 91st Avenue currently is located.

At that time there was no north/south road connecting Bell and Thunderbird between 83rd and 99th Avenues. Mr. Recker had a one-acre lake dug behind his home to provide a winter stopover site for migrating birds. He also had a personal airstrip where the current lake is located.

Mr. Recker would allow no harm to come to any of the animals on his property and permitted the Arizona State Game Commission to use his lake to study migratory birds and other wildlife. He also experimented with introducing non-indigenous fish to his lake to see if they could tolerate the Arizona desert climate. His attempt with Tilapia was successful, but his experiment with a species of frog was not. The frog he introduced to the pond grew so fast and flourished so well many grew to six inches across the back - much larger than it grew in its usual habitat. The adult frogs would swim underwater and pull the legs off swimming baby ducks. Mr. Recker made the choice to have the frogs removed from the pond permanently.

There is some reason to believe when Mr. Recker sold the land to the next owners in the late '70s or early '80s, he may have required/requested that any future residential development include a much larger lake to expand his wildlife conservation efforts. If that is the case, undoubtedly he would be pleased at the migratory reststop our 46-acre lake has become.


Photo Below:Former site of Recker home, just west of what is now the sharp bend at the southeast corner of Desert Harbor Drive and near the south entrance to Tuscany Shores. The original and much smaller lake mentioned above most likely is the section of the current lake just to the north of Tuscany Shores.


-An Eyewitness Account by Harold McKisson

who grew up nearby in the '50s & '60s and whose father worked for Mr. Recker:

"The Recker home was located on the northwest corner of the acreage. There were two entrances off of Thunderbird Road. The first was just west of the New River and followed the edge of the river north for about 1/4 mile and then turned west. At this corner were two houses for the farm workers and their families.

"Continuing west on this dirt road about halfway between the farm workers' homes and Mr. Recker's home were the farm implement shop and storage buildings, a stable and a small produce packing shed.

"At the northwest corner of the property, the dirt road intersected with the dirt road from the second entrance off Thunderbird Road. That road ran along the western property line from Thunderbird all the way to the Recker house. Both entrances from Thunderbird had strong metal gates that were padlocked. Only a very few, authorized people had access to the property.

"The Recker house was situated on a slight southwest to northeast angle with the front facing the west. The home was sitting on a slight elevation. There was a swimming pool off the rear patio to the southwest side of the home. An expansive front yard was tiered/layered down in two levels with the lowest level reaching to the one-acre lake that was east of the home/yard. "

Our neighbors: Youngtown & Sun City
Properties close to Desert Harbor also have interesting and significant histories. In 1954, Ben Schleifer, real estate broker and true visionary, purchased 320 acres of cotton farmland and founded Youngtown, the first age-restricted community in the United States. Youngtown is still located out Grand Avenue to the northwest of Peoria at Grand and 111th Avenue. It was predicted to fail, but many did build homes and businesses there 50 years ago despite it being miles out in the desert all by itself. That would not last, though.

Mr. Schleifer's company, along with banker Clarence Suggs, built homes and sold them to seniors only. Business properties were also built and sold. 1n 1960, it was incorporated and became the first American city occupied by only seniors, and that same year AARP Chapter #1 was formed there. Youngtown lifted its age restriction policy in the late 1990s.

Sun City, the well known, age-restricted neighbor just to our west, came just a bit later and was conceived by two local businessmen during a game of golf.

J.G. "Jimmy" Boswell, who owned the expansive Boswell Farms in that area, was playing a round one day in the late '50s with his friend the soon-to-be-world-famous Del Webb. Between shots the two discussed a plan to consider another seniors-only retirement development nearby. Jimmy Boswell owned the land, and Del Webb had the construction company. The name "Sun City" was picked by Del Webb himself from contest entries just before the opening. Boswell Hospital is named for a relative of J.G. Boswell.

Building on the success of adjacent Youngtown, the Del Webb Corp. started planning the phenomenon that would become Sun City. In 1960-'61, the first model homes for Sun City went up where the Fry’s Market is now on Grand Avenue and 107th Avenue. Phase 1 of Sun City went from Olive Avenue to Grand Avenue. Phase 2 was from Grand Avenue to Bell Road, and Phase 3 continued from there north to Beardsley Road.

Desert Harbor is born and comes of age
The more recent events in the history of what would become our home began when RGW Builders and Towne Development united in a joint venture in the late '70s to develop what would become Desert Harbor into over 1,000 residential lots on or near an expansive lake to be dug on this site.

From 1982-84 the master plan was created. The City of Peoria approved the master plan, and the lake was dug in 1985, while the roads and lots were prepared. The original name of the development was Sun Harbor, but changed to Desert Harbor a short time later. That likely was due to both legal reasons dealing with new ownership and a decision to differentiate the project from neighboring Sun City.

Click here for photo of lake before any homes built (1985)

In the mid '80s the joint venture was contacted by third parties who bought lots and started to build custom homes on and off the lake. The development was slowed by the savings & loan crisis and a downturn in home building at that time. By the early '90s Towne Development was in sole control of the project and acted as the HOA as all 17 subsections were under construction at about the same time. In 2000, when at least 75% of the lots had homes, the management of Desert Harbor passed from Towne Development to the newly elected HOA Board. The final section to be completed was Tuscany Shores in 2005.


(For documents related to the early years of Desert Harbor go to the "Minutes" page link at the top left of this page.)

A Variety of Aerial Views of Desert Harbor:

Including a "Before" from 1985 and "After" taken in 2002.
Thanks to Henry Krohn of Lake Point for sharing them.
Click Here for Aerial Views of Desert Harbor