A.J. Chandler built region with vision – and fraud - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

A.J. Chandler built region with vision – and fraud

May 8th, 2018 development
A.J. Chandler built region with vision – and fraud

By Mike Butler, Contributor


As Dr. A.J. Chandler neared his 80th birthday in 1939 – with the city that bore his name gleaming like an emerald in the desert – a writer for Arizona Highways magazine approached the magnate and asked him to reflect on his beginnings in Arizona.

Ever the opportunist, Chandler saw the interview as a way to shape his legacy – which included the founding of Chandler, Arizona on May 17, 1912 – 106 years ago this month.

With florid prose worthy of the best dime novels of the late 19th century, writer Blanche K. Murray, in an article titled “Empire Builder,” described a bewildered “blue-eyed, boyish looking chap” from up North alighting from the train in the dead of a hot August night at Seligman.


The year was 1887.

The 28-year-old Chandler managed to find lodging for the night, then took a branch line the next day to Prescott, the capital at the time, to report for duty as the first territorial veterinarian.

The wily Chandler hinted to Murray that he wasn’t all that enamored with the very hot and very parched Arizona climate. He really had his sights set on California, the Golden State.

When a torrential downpour delayed his journey West, however, Chandler rhapsodized about how the monsoon had transformed the desert before his very eyes. He decided then and there to stay and make his mark.

“I suddenly realized if there was a way to control the water, this could be a garden,” Chandler said.


Once upon a time in the West

“It’s a good fairy tale,” says Jody Crago, Chandler Museum administrator. “There’s a little more to the story.”

Crago and colleague Nate Meyers, curator of collections, have for several years been panning streams of historical records and recently digitized data from the federal government to find the truth about the town’s origin.

The title of a presentation that they periodically give – and continually update – is: “Dr. Chandler and the Land Fraud that Built the Valley.”  They’ll present it at 10:30 a.m. June 9 at Basha Library.

It’s a story that nearly reads like the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Greed. Dummy loans. Rampant speculation. Congressional investigations.

Like good historians, though, Crago and Meyers are not here to judge. Dr. Chandler, they say – like DuPont, Rockefeller, Carnegie and others – was a man of his time.

The blue-eyed, boyish looking chap from up North skated a thin line of illegality and ethics.

But it’s also hard not to be impressed by his outsized audacity and vision.


Give me land, lots of land

Dr. A.J. Chandler

Alexander J. Chandler knew exactly where he was, what he was doing and where he was going when he stepped off that rail car in Seligman.

The Canadian native had built an impressive reputation as a large animal veterinarian and worked for the D.M. Ferry Seed Co. in Detroit, which had revolutionized the commercial and at-home mail-order seed business.

Ferry foresaw western ranchers moving away from open-range cattle grazing to raising livestock on farm-grown crops. The company was keen on developing a drought-resistant alfalfa strain that would thrive in the region.

The seed company needed land. Lots of land.

When A.J. Chandler reported for duty as the federally appointed Arizona territorial veterinarian, taking a big cut in pay, he was also acting as land agent for the seed company.

The Desert Land Act of 1877 gave Ferry and Chandler the means to acquire thousands of acres by hook and crook.

Congress wanted to encourage homesteaders and other dreamers to move west by allowing married couples to purchase 640-acre parcels for $1.25 per acre. They were required to irrigate and cultivate the land.

It was a tough sell. Ordinary citizens couldn’t see the potential of farming the Arizona desert, beyond what generations of Native Americans had scratched out.

Chandler, on the other hand, saw gold in the form of the Salt River flowing through canals to the arid lands south of Mesa.


The scheme

Chandler and his partners in the Improvement Company hatched a plan to lure homesteaders and other potential investors by offering to pay for the 640-acre parcels, deliver irrigation and even plant crops. In exchange for their names, investors would also receive a 40-acre farm free and clear.

The catch was that the Improvement Company created a mortgage on the other 600 acres. If that mortgage wasn’t paid in three years, the property would revert to the Improvement Company.

Crago says the vast majority of investors were secretaries of the seed company, general laborers and spouses of Improvement Company employees who had no intention of farming the land.

This was outright land fraud, Crago says, because investors lied to the federal government by stating that no other entity had a financial interest in the land that they were claiming.

Plus, Crago notes, Chandler was brazenly writing mortgages on land that he did not own.

“It was, essentially, a transference of land,” according to Crago.

In this way, the partners were able to amass an incredible 18,000 acres by the late 1890s, land that would yield highly valuable alfalfa, long-fiber cotton, citrus and other crops.


The canals

Chandler needed to bring water to his newly acquired lands and believed that an improved Mesa Canal was the way to do it.

Chandler very shrewdly paid fair market prices for two strategic 160-acre parcels in Mesa.

One tract, now the site of Mesa Country Club, contained a precipitous drop off the mesa and would provide a perfect opportunity to create hydroelectric power.

The other tract had a spot, near present-day Horne and Brown roads, that would be an ideal place for diversion gates.

These gates and a new “crosscut” canal would send water to a thirsty and growing Tempe to the west. The new Consolidated Canal would funnel water to the south.

In 1891, after two years of negotiations, Dr. Chandler gained approval from the Mesa Canal Company to expand the waterway and become the new canal manager.


Greening of the desert

Despite Chandler’s success with the new canal system, he and other regional leaders knew that the Valley would never reach its full potential until a mother dam was built to tame the Salt River once and for all and to provide a reliable source of water.

Extreme drought, punctuated by bouts of unpredictable flooding, was the norm.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the National Reclamation Act, which eventually appropriated federal funding to build Roosevelt Dam and other projects in the West.

Once Roosevelt Dam, completed in 1911, became a reality, Chandler knew that his ranch lands would become exponentially more valuable. He began drawing up plans for the San Marcos luxury hotel and the town that would mushroom in its wake.

He marketed his Southeast Valley oasis in the desert nationwide as the new Pasadena.

In 1912, Arizona became the 48th state, Phoenix was named the capital and the official settlement of the town of Chandler began.

“We shouldn’t judge a person from a previous time by the morals of today,” Crago says. “Yes, he cut corners. He took every advantage. But he worked. He hustled in the truest sense of the word. Without him, we wouldn’t be in the great town of Chandler today.”