March 14, 2018

Photo Essay: Crossing Over Into Yuma

There was a time when people only went to Yuma for one of three reasons.

They were carrying cargo on the Colorado River, bringing someone to jail, or going to jail themselves.

Steamboats ruled the river—and Yuma Crossing—for a while, thanks to the efforts of the Colorado Steam Navigation Company and side-wheeler paddle steamers like the Uncle Sam, which appeared on the Colorado River in 1852.

Navigating the Colorado by steam ferry became routine by 1859, taking trips upriver from the Gulf of California after picking up various goods from ocean vessels. In fact, they downright monopolized the river—that is, until 1864.

In 1867, the Army took over this strategic river crossing, stationing a commanding officer in charge on a one- to two-year assignment at what became known as Yuma Depot.

This is where all the Army forts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas got their supplies from (with six months' worth of them being stored in Yuma).

And then the railroad came in 1877, more or less putting the steamboats out of business. The depot was subsequently used as a Customs House to control the import of foreign goods and prevent smuggling—though even that was closed 1955.

The Army abandoned Yuma Depot in 1883—the same year that Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset Route began stopping in Yuma on its way from San Francisco to New Orleans. What once was wild frontier—a desolate wilderness—had now become within reach, simply by riding a wooden passenger coach.

And with bridges, people no longer had to wait for a ferry to cross the Colorado (which was far wider back then than the shrunken, receded version you see there now.) So, the focus at Yuma Crossing shifted from cargo to passengers.

Today, Amtrak's Sunset Limited service still runs along the old SPRR lines, which are located adjacent to the former Yuma Territory prison. In fact, the construction of the present-day bridge precipitated the demolition of at least a third to as much as a half of the original prison, including the Superintendent's house, to make way for it.

Which brings us back to the main reason why anyone would come to Yuma, once upon a time. Yuma Territorial Prison first opened in 1876, its first convict being William Hall and its first female convict (of many to follow) being Lizzie Gallagher in 1878 (though women didn't actually have gender-separated cells until 1891).

All in all, over 3000 hardened criminals were brought through the front gate (a.k.a. the "Sallyport") for any number of reasons—from minor offenses like "selling liquor to Indians" to theft (forgery, fraud, burglary, and robbery), crimes of passion (seduction, adultery, and polygamy/plural marriage, as with the Mormons), and violent crimes (mayhem, riot, assault, rape, manslaughter, and murder).

In 1882, four years after the prison's first successful escape and five years before the prison's most infamous attempted (and failed) escape—the Gates Riot, named after Superintendent Gates, taken hostage—a guard tower was built above a water reservoir.

By 1900, the prison had become so overcrowded (with more trustworthy prisoners sleeping in the hallways instead of inside locked cells) that a "New Yard" was built.

In 1904, an additional block of maximum security cells was built—the so-called "Incorrigible Ward." In fact, Yuma Territorial Prison became notorious for being the only such facility that was fortified enough to keep the Wild West's feistiest criminals (like those from Tombstone) locked up.

While serving their sentences at Yuma, those tough guys and gals—bandits, train robbers, and gunslingers—had to suffer through the "intolerable nuisance" of bedbugs in their wooden bunks, at least until the superintendent, in a stroke of mercy, switched the beds to iron frames (as those pictured above, which are from October 1901).

And although nobody died of a bedbug bite, plenty of Yuma prisoners died of other causes before being released—whether it was from TB, snakebite, suicide, murder, or escape attempts. In all, there are over 100 buried in the prison cemetery.

In 1909, after just three decades of use as a penal institution, the prison closed. And then, believe it or not, Yuma High School moved onto the prison grounds and operated there from 1910 to 1914—with classes being held in the cellblocks and the sports team being named, appropriately, the "Criminals." (And, in fact, they still go by the "Crims.")

After that, some of the grounds were used for the county hospital—but by 1915, the entire prison was being threatened with demolition and development as new rail lines and bridges continued to be built.

Although parts of it had been used for housing and the VFW throughout the 1930s, squatters had also found their way into the prison and set up shop in the cells (which were made of strap iron and granite rock, plastered and whitewashed)—only to be evicted in 1939. By that time, scavengers had stripped the buildings of any useful materials.

Over time, a series of fires destroyed much of the prison. But even early on, there was a movement to preserve the historic facility—and it actually ran as a museum from 1941 to 1960 (with Civil Defense lookouts using the guard tower during WWII) and became an Arizona State Park in 1961.

Today, much of what you see at the prison site has been recreated, though some items that were once lost (like some original cell block doors) have been returned and put back into place.

And still today, there are some people who only find themselves in Yuma so they can visit the prison made so notorious by stories and Hollywood depictions of the Wild West.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Yuma Territory
Photo Essay: Glimpses of Arizona
Photo Essay: The Death Toll of Tombstone
Photo Essay: The Fortification of Havana

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