The Mill Avenue Bridge crosses Tempe Town Lake, connecting the lively bars and restaurants of Mill Avenue and student life of Arizona State University to the Marquee Theatre and Papago Park. During the day, the bridge is busy with car and foot traffic as Tempe residents and visitors cross over the water on business or for views of the area’s surrounding mountains. At night, the bridge’s string lights sparkle on the water and light the way for sunset-watchers and evening explorers.
The bridge is a landmark in modern-day Tempe, but it’s been important to the city since it opened to traffic in 1931. That came after several years of planning, starting with a request for a new bridge from a group of Tempe businessmen to the Arizona Highway Department in 1928. Before the Mill Avenue Bridge, another bridge, built 20 years earlier, crossed the Salt River at Ash Avenue. But that bridge eventually became too congested to support its traffic, which increasingly consisted of wider, heavier vehicles. The new bridge’s official dedication came on May 1, 1933, in a ceremony that lasted two days and was attended by Governor B.B. Moeur.
Until the inception of the freeway system in the 1950s, the Mill Avenue Bridge was a vital part of U.S. Route 89, which, for a time, was Arizona’s only north-south highway. But the bridge’s location is important, too: It sits along the same route that Charles Hayden used for his ferry nearly 60 years before the bridge’s construction. During Hayden’s time in Tempe, the lack of a bridge over the river made his ferry one of the only ways for travelers to cross during flood season. The ferry stayed in service until the early 1900s, when dams upstream on the Salt River left Tempe’s stretch of the waterway usually dry.
The bridge has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981 and the Tempe Historic Property Register since 1999. Also in 1999, water again collected under the bridge when Tempe Town Lake, impounded by a dam west of the bridge, was created. And the 1931 bridge now carries only Mill Avenue’s southbound traffic; a second bridge, which opened in 1994, carries the northbound traffic.
Today, the bridge has become a popular subject for photographs — both because of its beauty and in honor of its importance to Tempe and the rest of the Valley of the Sun.