As far a we can tell, without the Colorado River, there would be no Yuma, Az. However, because Yuma has abundant water from the River, this Southwest Arizona City has an abundance of attractions for locals and snowbirds alike.
Moreover, we at Southern Arizona Guide recently discovered that Yuma is in Southern Arizona. So, on our return from Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) the last week of 2016, we stopped in Yuma to find out what it’s all about. We spent a delightful evening and morning exploring, but there is so much to see and do in Yuma that we want to return soon … hopefully during one of their many annual festivals.
Where To Stay In Yuma
For our one night, we stayed at the Historic Coronado Motor Hotel. Quite comfortable. Our room had a full kitchen. The nightly rate included an excellent full breakfast at Yuma Landing Bar & Grill just down the street. Both are owned by John & Yvonne Peach. As they have a museum collection, I’m looking forward to talking with them when we return.
The Mighty Colorado River: America’s Nile.
Yuma and its surrounding area are rich in agriculture, supplying a huge portion of America’s winter vegetables. In other words, the Colorado River, the most heavily dammed waterway in America; its water distributed through numerous aqueducts, has turned this barren desert into a vast garden paradise.
The cities of the great Southwest as we know them today could not exist without Colorado River water for drinking, agriculture, and hydroelectric power. Without the Colorado, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson would still be minor cities or merely small settlements.
No One Has Ever Had To Shovel Sunshine
Yuma also benefits from mild winters that attract tens of thousands of snowbirds who are just trying to get warm without shoveling snow. The Yuma Chamber of Commerce claims they have 350 days of sunshine in a typical year … and no one has ever had to shovel sunshine.
We have passed through Yuma on I-8 many times on our way from Tucson to Southern California where we have family living on the Pacific Coast. Till now, we have only stopped once to stretch our legs. On that occasion we visited Yuma Territorial Prison just off the freeway. We just didn’t stay long enough to really appreciate the history here.
Here Be The History Of The American Southwest
Yuma Crossing and the Anza Expedition
Way back in 1775, the Anza Expedition passed this way. With 300 souls trekking 1,200 miles from Tubac in the Pimeria Alta to Alta California, they were a moving city a quarter mile wide and a mile long.
But to get to their destination, they had to cross the mighty Colorado. Before the dams tamed the river, at flood stage it could be a raging force 12 miles wide. However, at a special place called Yuma Crossing, the river ran deep but narrow.
Few of these very poor Spanish peasants could swim. However, the local Indians could swim well and helped the expedition across. One hundred and one years later, Arizona’s Territorial Prison was build on the bluff overlooking Yuma Crossing.
Tucson was the capital of Arizona Territory from 1866 to 1876. The capital was then moved to Prescott. In an attempt to keep statewide constituents happy, the Territorial Legislature awarded the University to Tucson; the Prison to Yuma; and the Insane Asylum to Phoenix. Today, the asylum inmates run the Arizona State Legislature in Phoenix.
Here history is plentiful and easily accessible, even on my trusty electric scooter, Zippy.
Yuma Crossing Heritage Area includes:
- Yuma Territorial Prison Museum
- Yuma Quartermaster Depot
- Pivot Point
Yuma Territorial Prison
The prison opened on July 1, 1876 and the first seven inmates were locked in the cells they had built themselves.
Even today, Yuma Territorial Prison has a fearsome reputation. In reality, it was remarkably progressive for its day.
True, incorrigibles were thrown into the Dark Hole until they could behave themselves. Re-captured escapees wore the ball and chain. But the others engaged in constructive activities. They had workshops and made what they needed: tables, chairs, lamps, etc. They grew their own crops and had decent food. And many attended school in the prison; there to learn to read and write.
“It is and has ever been my object to elevate rather than depress the men who have been thrown under my supervision, to inspire them with renewed hope and revive the tottering principles of true manhood. To this end, I have granted every liberty consistent with good prison government; privileges.” Thomas Gates, Superintendent
When you visit Yuma Territorial Prison, you will meet some of the most famous Arizona outlaws. Stagecoach robber Pearl Hart was an inmate here. A guard noted that she had a “weakness for morphine”.
Buckskin Frank Leslie of Tombstone fame was incarcerated here. In Tombstone, he worked for Wyatt Earp at the Oriental Saloon. He also killed two men in self-defense. Eight days after he killed her husband, he married the widow.
William “Billy the Kid” Claiborne, one of the Cowboys, challenged Mr. Leslie on Allen Street in front of the Oriental. Big mistake. Wyatt reportedly said of Leslie, (He) “was the only man who could compare to Doc Holliday’s blinding speed and accuracy with a six gun.”
Leslie was sentenced to life in prison at Yuma for killing a woman he was living with while he was drunk and in a fit of jealously. After six years he was pardoned.
William Flake, a Mormon, was sentence to six months for bigamy. When released, he lived out a productive life in Snowflake with his two wives and 20 children.
The Prison Museum is full of such stories, including ones about the women who were incarcerated here.
Yuma Quartermaster Depot
For nearly 20 years beginning in 1864, all the military posts in the Southwest traced their lifelines to the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.
Here on the high ground above the Colorado River, the U.S. Army’s warehouses held a six-month supply of clothing, food, ammunition and other goods for forts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas. Here too were as many as 900 mules and their teamsters.
Ocean vessels brought goods to the Gulf of California, where they were loaded onto steamboats for the trip upriver to Yuma. Supplies were shipped farther upriver or overland in huge freight wagons pulled by 20-mule teams.
At the Quartermaster Depot you will find a very useful Visitor Center. It’s on 4th Avenue just off the freeway. Excellent displays explaining Yuma history and the Colorado River.
If you want a quick orientation to Yuma history, you’ll want to catch the “ghost train,” arriving hourly at Pivot Point Interpretative Plaza next to Hilton Garden Inn Yuma Pivot Point Hotel overlooking the River.
The outdoor exhibit area opened in 2010 at the exact site where the first railroad train entered Arizona in 1877. It would not be until April of 1880 that the Southern Pacific Railroad would reach Tucson. But once the tracks were laid, the train reduced the time it took to bring freight to Tucson from San Francisco from several months to just a few days at up to 75% less cost.
The 1907 Baldwin locomotive sits on the original track alignment. As kids clamber over the big steam engine, a 21st-century audio system re-creates the sounds of a passing steamboat, the swing-span rail bridge cranking open and the arrival of a train at the old Southern Pacific Hotel.
The plaza preserves one of the few remaining artifacts of the original rail line, the concrete pivot on which the rail bridge turned to allow boats to pass.
Here interpretive panels explain the importance of the Yuma Crossing National Historic Landmark.
A stroll around the plaza is a walk through local history, sprinkled with lots of fascinating photographs and interesting stories about the Yuma Territorial Prison, Fort Yuma, the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, the rope ferry, the Quechan Tribe, and the Southern Pacific Hotel.
The pathway for walkers and cyclists along the riverfront connects to Pivot Point, plus there’s a pedestrian link to Gateway Park. Bring a picnic and enjoy the view.
Pivot Point Interpretative Plaza is a city park, open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.