Our walk along the Colorado River through Yuma’s Gateway Park led us to Arizona’s Territorial Prison sitting on the bluff overlooking the river. I had heard of this prison in movies and in books about the west so I was looking forward to this visit.
The Arizona Territorial Government authorized the prison in 1876. Ground was broken April 28, 1876 and the prison received its first prisoner on July 1, 1876. For the next 33 years 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, passed through its gate for crimes ranging from polygamy to murder. The prison was under constant construction/reconstruction using prisoners as laborers. In 1909 the prisoners were moved to the newly constructed state prison in Florence, Arizona.
Twenty-six inmates successfully escaped and 8 died of gunshot wounds in unsuccessful attempts. No executions took place here because capital punishment was administered by county governments not the territorial government.
One of the earliest electrical generating plants in the west was built in 1884 to furnish lights and ventilation to the cell blocks. Schooling was provided to help the inmates learn to read and write and inmates were encouraged to create handicrafts which were sold at public bazaars held at the prison after church services. The library (built 1893) housed one of the first libraries in the territory, with about 2000 books for the inmates. A fee to provide visitors a tour of the prison went to the purchase of books. Exclusive women’s cells were built in 1891. There was an on-site hospital where the inmates received regular medical attention. These amenities were not available to most of the residents of Yuma who referred to the prison as the “Country Club of Yuma”.
The prison was closed in 1909. Due to a fire in its building, Yuma Union High School occupied the prison buildings from 1910 until 1914. When the school’s football team played against Phoenix as the underdog and unexpectedly won, the Phoenix team claimed they had been robbed and called the Yuma team “criminals”. The name stuck and the school adopted the name for all their teams, sometimes shortened to “crims”. The school’s symbol is the face of a hardened criminal.
Empty cells provided shelter for homeless families and hobos riding the rails during the depression. And for several years it was used as the county hospital. Once the facility was completely abandoned Yuma residents helped themselves to any material they could carry away.
Yuma Territorial Prison was voted as USA Todays’ “Best Haunted Destination in the US” (Sept. 2019). It has been visited by the Ghost Adventures team for The Travel Channel and documented in the episode “Hell Hole Prison Pictures”. (They also visited Lute’s Casino to investigate a “childlike entity” said to haunt it in season 16 episode 1). One of the oft reported ghosts inhabiting the prison is a little girl in a red dress who died trying to retrieve her doll from the Colorado River. Historians believe she and her family were squatting in the prison during the depression. If you are wearing red when you visit you are in danger of her poking or pinching you.
There have also been reports of hearing an angry voice yelling “get out” in the Dark Cell, where allegedly guards would drop scorpions on the inmates standing in the pitch dark. Another potential spirit who may still be lurking is John Ryan, a former prisoner for “crimes against humanity”, who was disliked by the prison staff and hung himself in Cell 14. Or maybe one of the four inmates who were shot during a riot at the sally port in 1886 is still unsuccessfully trying to leave the prison.
Even if you aren’t interested in visiting the prison you should at least go to Prison Hill just for the view of the Colorado River. The picture on the left shows the view from Prison Hill overlooking Gateway Trail Park toward Indian Hill (west side of river) where the Spanish first encountered the Indian tribe they call the Homas (meaning smoke) or Yumas. The right hand picture would have been taken about 1915. You can see the “Ocean to Ocean Bridge” in the foreground. You can also see what the Colorado River would have looked like in Yuma before the irrigation and dams dramatically changed it.