Y Yuma? A Short History

Beside the fact that Yuma is about halfway between Tucson and Palm Springs, I wondered why else the Road Scholar group would stop here. Although we did not cover all the items discussed below on the trip, the stop did suggest I do more research on Yuma. The more background information I found the more I came to realize that, although it is not a thriving place now, it was really an important area as the west was developing. It has earned its distinction as “The Gateway to the Great Southwest”.

In 1930 the famous Hotel San Carlos in downtown Yuma opened and immediately became a favorite of Hollywood stars. It was a five story building, the tallest in Yuma at the time, with 107 rooms.

Part of the reason for its success and popularity was its location across the California state line. In the 1930’s California had passed a law that required a three day waiting period between getting the marriage license and actually marrying. Another reason may have been its system of air cooling the rooms with chilled air pumped from the basement, a novelty for the time.

The Hollywood elite eventually gravitated to other places but the San Carlos remained a center of Yuma social life until 1962 when it closed.

The building was remodeled in 1995-97 to create 59 homes for low income seniors.

The area now known as Yuma, Arizona has had people living here since the Americas were populated. Ancestors of the current Quenchan and Cocapah tribes were here when the Spanish visited in the 1540’s. The site was of critical importance because of its location on the Colorado River. Although it is hard to imagine the Colorado River (shown in the lowest photo above) ever creating a 15 mile wide floodplain, with constantly changing banks; it did regularly, before dams were built and irrigation channels diverted the Colorado’s waters in the early 1900’s. The area where Yuma is now built had two granite outcroppings that did not yield to the wild river. It forced the river to narrow down and while still wild, it was predictable. Here was one place on the lower Colorado River where a natural crossing existed. It became known as Yuma Crossing. It is believed the area was called Yuma which meant “smoke” (humo) by the early Spanish passing by. Smoke from their fires filled the valley.

The first city here was called Colorado City. It became a boom town with the gold rush of 1849, when in one year 60,000 people passed through on the Gila Trail (present day Main Street) running between Council Bluffs, Iowa and San Diego, California. Yuma is where they crossed the Colorado by rope ferry. In 1852 the US Army built Fort Yuma here.

Following the Mexican-American War the US Army determined the best way to supply the territory they just won from Mexico would be to bring material by sea, then up the Colorado and across country using 20 mule teams (actually 18 mules + two horses but I’ll get to that in a subsequent post). The US Army Quartermaster Depot was in operation from the 1860’s to the 1880’s.

In 1857 the first stage road was built between San Diego and San Antonio. The stages crossed the Colorado River by rope ferry at Yuma Crossing. A bad flood in 1862 washed away a large part of Colorado City and when it was rebuilt it was renamed Arizona City.

In 1858 Lt. Joseph C. Ives lead a steamship expedition up the Colorado and by the 1870’s six steamships and five barges were traveling the lower Colorado from about where the Hoover Dam is now out to sea.

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed a bill to create a territorial government in Arizona. In 1866 the town was laid out with Main Street having a 100 foot right-of-way. The town was formally incorporated in 1871 as “Arizona City” but the name was changed a final time in 1873 to Yuma. In 1876 the Arizona Territorial Prison was sited in Yuma and operated until 1909. I will have pictures of our tour of that facility in my next post.

The railroad came to Yuma in 1877. A restored 1907 Baldwin Steam locomotive sits in a section of the Gateway Trail, along the Colorado River, to mark where the first train arrived in Yuma. Unfortunately I have no pictures of it. The only remainder of the train line is the train track the locomotive sits on and a large concrete column (pictured above top left) that was actually the pivot point of a swing span railroad bridge which would rotate a section of the railroad bridge to allow steamships to proceed on up river.

In 1904 Teddy Roosevelt established the US Reclamation Service (now the Bureau of Reclamation). Its first major undertaking was the “Yuma Project”, a major irrigation scheme. In 1909 Laguna Dam became the first dam on the Colorado, ending the steamship era. Another part of the Yuma Project was the construction of the Yuma Siphon, a 14 foot diameter concrete tube built under the Colorado River that still delivers water to the Yuma Valley and has made Yuma “The Lettuce Capital of the World”. This tunnel was finished in 1912, the year Arizona became a state, the 48th.

The first highway bridge over the lower Colorado River was the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge in Yuma. It is the lighter colored bridge in the two bridge photos above. The 336 foot span Pennsylvania through truss was completed in 1915. It carried the transcontinental “ocean-to-ocean” highway and then US 80. A second, parallel bridge, was built in 1956. With the construction of I-80 these bridges became the responsibility of local government. Huge lighted letters attached to the downriver side of the truss reads “Ocean-to-Ocean Highway”. The bridge has now been added as a site on the Historic US 80.

During the Depression Yuma’s economy was helped by the construction of the Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal. During the diaspora, which occurred as migrants looking for jobs moved west, the State of California set up a blockade on the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge to keep anyone without money in their pockets or a firm job out of California. Many of those people just stayed in Yuma in a neighborhood still known as “Okietown”.

During World War II the Civil Aeronautics Board constructed permanent runways at Fly Field and an Army Air Base was established. The base trained pilots to fly AT-6 single engine trainers, T-17 multi-engine trainers and B-17 Flying Fortresses. In 1942 the Desert Training Center was established in the area to train men for combat under harsh desert conditions. By 1943 the Army opened the Yuma Test Branch. Bridging equipment was tried out at Yuma Crossing. Italian prisoners of war were used to construct the facilities and were allowed to go into Yuma once a week. After the war, military activity came to an end

The Yuma Airfield was reactivated in 1951 and renamed Vincent Air Force Base in 1956. In 1959 it was signed over to the Navy and has been a Marine Corps facility ever since. The Yuma Test Branch reopened as the Yuma Proving Ground.

In a recent study of NOAA data by Move.Org Yuma was named the Sunniest City in the US with 242 clear days per year or 66%. Phoenix and Las Vegas tied at 58% as the next sunniest. Since 2000 Yuma has been working on restoring its riverfront area with the development of Gateway Park, where the Road Scholars took a walk along the Colorado River on our way to the Yuma Territorial Prison.