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Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area
The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which includes the Yuma Quartermaster Depot (1864–1872) and the Yuma Territorial Prison (circa 1875–1904), both in Arizona, as well as Fort Yuma (1850–1883) across the Colorado River in California, has served as a transportation and communication gateway for at least five centuries. Historically, the site’s position on the Colorado River funneled human travel, making it an important crossroads for the region’s three major cultures: Anglo-American, Native American, and Latino. It was a crossing point between the Spanish Colonial regions of New Spain and Alta California in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, and between the American Southwest region and California during the nineteenth-century era of western migration.
Yuma Crossing’s historic role as a gateway emerged from the geography of the lower Colorado Valley: the Colorado River meets the Gila River, its major southernmost tributary, just west of Yuma. Near the confluence, two massive granite outcroppings narrow the river’s flow to a few hundred yards, thereby forming the only natural crossing point for a thousand miles. Before dams were built, the Colorado River was unpredictable, in some places spreading 3 miles wide and 30 feet deep or being impassible for miles due to mud and quicksand.
The area’s first inhabitants were the prehistoric Patayan and their descendants, the Cocopah and Quechan, who farmed the fertile banks of the river and controlled the crossing as a vital part of a vast trade network among indigenous groups in what are now Arizona, California, and Mexico. In 1540, Europeans first reached the area with the arrival of Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcón, followed by Spanish soldiers and Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Quechans swam the Spanish and their horses safely across the river, but they came to resent the occupation of their lands and rose up in 1781 to destroy the mission settlements in the lower Colorado Valley. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Anglo-American forces used Yuma Crossing to invade California, and came to appreciate the site’s strategic significance. With the California Gold Rush in the 1840s, thousands of fortune seekers on their way to California traveled through the region via the Gila Trail. In 1848 alone, an estimated 60,000 people utilized Yuma Crossing. Throughout the height of the Gold Rush, the Quechan maintained a lucrative ferry operation there. Following a series of violent conflicts, Americans gained control of these operations in the summer of 1850, when George Alonzo Johnson and Louis J.F. Jaeger established a ferry at the crossing that Jaeger would operate for the next quarter century.
The Anglo-American occupation of the lower Colorado Valley began in earnest with the establishment of Fort Yuma on the California side of the river in 1850. Built to protect the crossing and control the Quechan, the fort was originally sited in the bottomland near the river; it was relocated in 1851 to a bluff above the crossing. The new location was the site of Mission Puerto de Purísima Concepción, a Spanish mission destroyed in the 1781 Quechan uprising. For three decades following a brief period of abandonment in 1851–1852 (due to supply problems), the fort developed into a collection of substantial adobe structures with deep verandas arranged around a parade ground with the Commanding Officer’s Quarters at its head. The fort was notorious in Army circles as the hottest post in the country, which had as much to do with daily temperatures as with the difficulty of growing shade trees and grass on a dry, wind-swept hill.
By 1853, because of Fort Yuma’s protective presence a small settlement emerged on the Arizona side of the river, first called Arizona City and renamed Yuma in 1873. For the first 25 years of its existence, the nascent city functioned as Arizona’s principal port, served by a fleet of steamers that traveled the Colorado River from the Gulf of California to Nevada. As strange as it may seem today for riverboat captains to drop anchor in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, steamboats on the Colorado were one of Arizona’s major nineteenth-century enterprises. Beginning in December 1852, tall ships set sail from San Francisco or San Diego and traveled around Baja, California, to Port Isabel, Sonora, at the mouth of the Colorado River to transfer passengers and cargo to waiting steamboats for the journey upriver to Yuma and points beyond. In addition to functioning as a river port (a role it retained until 1916), Yuma was a major way station on the overland trails. Between 1858 and 1861, the Butterfield Overland Mail maintained a stagecoach station near the fort, supporting its principal route from the east to California, which was subsequently taken over by other stage lines until 1877. Yuma Crossing received an estimated 80 to 90 percent of all goods and people entering the Arizona Territory.
Yuma Crossing’s importance as a logistical and communication link during the Civil War led the U.S. Army to establish the Yuma Quartermaster Depot (1864, George Alonzo Johnson) on the Arizona side of the river to distribute supplies to army posts in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. In conjunction with Fort Yuma, steamboats kept the Quartermaster Depot supplied with six months’ rations of food, clothing, ammunition, and other supplies, all of which were hauled up a track running from the dock to a storehouse at the depot. The supplies stored at the Quartermaster Depot were then sent by steamboat further upriver or transported overland by mule-pulled freight wagons to 22 far-flung army posts.
In 1875, the Arizona Territorial Legislature selected Yuma as the site of the Territorial Prison. Designed by A.L. Grow, it was erected the following year on a granite bluff on the south side of the river’s bend, a short distance from the Quartermaster Depot. During its 33 years of operation, the prison held over 3,000 inmates (including 29 women) for offenses ranging from murder to polygamy. Among the inmates were notorious frontier criminals like Buckskin Frank Leslie, who killed 14 people in Tombstone, and stagecoach robber Pearl Heart, known as “Arizona’s Girl Bandit.”
The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad from California in 1877 and the completion of a railroad bridge across the Colorado River presaged the end of Fort Yuma and the Quartermaster Depot. When the railroad reached Tucson in 1880, the depot became obsolete. In 1883, the Army closed the depot, relocating the quartermasters and equipment to Tucson’s Fort Lowell. Arizona State Parks now operates the complex of 5 surviving historic structures as the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park. The Army abandoned California’s Fort Yuma that same year (1883), a decision reflecting its diminished importance after the Civil War. In 1884, the Army transferred control of the fort to the Department of the Interior, which operated it as the Fort Yuma Indian School. Today, the fort is part of the Fort Yuma-Quechan Reservation and the surviving buildings house tribal facilities and a museum. The Yuma Territorial Prison outlasted the fort by a quarter century, operating until 1909, when the severely overcrowded facility relocated to Florence. In 1961, Arizona State Parks opened the penitentiary site to the public as the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
Today, despite the disappearance of ferries and steamboats on the Colorado River, Yuma Crossing still serves as a gateway between California and the American Southwest for modern travelers. When the Southern Pacific Railroad constructed its railroad bridge over the Colorado River at the Yuma Crossing, Yuma became a railroad traffic hub for the region. In May 1915, the first automobiles drove across the river with the completion of the 336-foot-span Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge (named for its role as a key component of the Old Spanish Trail Highway linking San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida). The highway bridge, built by the Office of Indian Affairs with the Omaha Structural Steel Company, was joined in 1923 by an adjacent new steel truss railroad bridge. Both structures are landmarks spanning the now-tamed river. Present-day travelers through the lower Colorado Valley, who follow much the same path as previous generations, pass through the region on I-8, crossing the Colorado River on a concrete bridge erected above Yuma Crossing in 1979.
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