February 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory

I first became interested in the Arizona town of Yuma because of its prison history, particularly with the bandits and gunmen of the Old West.

It seemed like the natural next chapter after my jaunt to Tombstone last year.

And, like in Tombstone, lots of people died in Yuma.

Most prisoners died while incarcerated—from illness, snakebite, escape attempts, self-inflicted wounds, or at the hands of another. That was just a fact of life (and death). And they were buried at the prison.

The law-abiding pioneers were buried in the local graveyard, but they don't seem to have gotten too many visitors as of late... for a lone dove—appropriately, a mourning dove—perched upon a granite cross as it cooed.

I'd see lots more mourning doves during my two-day visit to Yuma—so many, in fact, that the Arizona Game and Fish Department allows the hunting of them, and the visitors' bureau encourages it.

I'd also see lots of retro-cool commercial signs, whether for the drive-thru liquor store, the Yuma CabaƱa motel (whose overnight experience did not live up to the glory of its signage), or the glittering neon Hacienda across the street.

At breakfast, I was greeted by one of those "cigar store Indians" no longer used to advertise tobacconists and generally relegated to Old West theme parks and tchotchke-filled theme restaurants.

Such was the case with my breakfast spot, the Yuma Landing—situated on the site where the first plane to ever land in Arizona made its touch down (on October 25, 1911). Appropriately, much of the restaurant is devoted to the history of flight in Yuma, a history that's perhaps been eclipsed by the tales of transporting outlaws by train to the territorial prison.

Driving around Yuma, then, you'd expect to see some train trestles and other relics of railroading—but what we found instead was an abandoned suspension bridge, an automotive roadway that once spanned the Gila River.

Nobody ever really had faith in this bridge, built in 1929—especially when cars became heavier and more abundant. In 1968, traffic was diverted to a smaller bridge over safety concerns, and the river was dammed upstream, leaving a dry river valley below it.

Funny enough, a 1993 flood washed the "new" bridge out—the one that was supposedly less flimsy—and left the old bridge intact. But all 800 feet of it are still considered unstable, even for pedestrians, giving the McPhaul Bridge a more commonly-known identity as the "Bridge to Nowhere."

But sometimes, nowhere is exactly where I want to be—to take pause and get a little rest.

And that's exactly what I found along the U.S. 95, that highway that starts at the Mexico border in Arizona and crosses through California (intersecting with the 40 in Needles) and Nevada on its way to Oregon and Idaho.

Plopped down in the middle of the agricultural breadbasket of Southwestern Arizona—tucked between fields of lettuces and cabbages— is Loren Pratt's Little Chapel, sometimes better known as the "Pause, Rest, Worship Chapel."

Loren had been a respected farmer in the area, one of the pioneers of the so-called Dome Valley—and, as a devoutly religious man, he built this chapel in 1995 and dedicated it to the memory of his deceased wife, Lois, who'd struggled for years with a rare form of dementia.

This diminutive house of worship (which seats about a dozen worshippers) is actually the second version to stand here—the first having been swept away in a freak storm in 2011. Led by Loren's son Cecil Pratt, supporters rallied to rebuild the chapel in the exact same spot and finished just in time for Easter morning service in 2012.

And just when we thought we'd seen all the oddities that the Yuma environs had to offer, we happened upon a stark white airship, tethered but slowly bobbing in the breeze, swaying to and fro—a little farther north along the 95 (on our way to the Castle Dome Mine Museum—stay tuned), just beyond some flimsy fencing within the boundary of the local Army base, the Yuma Proving Ground.

I didn't get the chance to access the YPG on this trip, but I did tour a different military base in Yuma. Stay tuned for dispatches from the MCAS Yuma.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Arizona
Photo Essay: The Death Toll of Tombstone
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Baltimore
Glimpses of Havana in the Final Days of Fidel

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