Yuma is in the far southwest corner of Arizona, just below where the Colorado and Gila Rivers converge. Since prehistoric times, Yuma has been the best site for crossing the Colorado River.
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Yuma was named for the Yuman Indians, so-called because of their
habit of setting fires along the river (humor) meaning smoke in
Spanish). Fort Yuma was built during the gold rush to bring peace
to the area and to ensure a safe southern route into California.
First established in 1854 as Colorado City, the town became
Arizona City and finally Yuma. Incorporated under the name
Arizona City in 1871, it was reincorporated as Yuma in 1873 and
now serves as the Yuma County seat. At an elevation of 138 feet,
Yuma remains a key crossroad for air and land transportation,
although steamboats no longer carry supplies to mining communities
and forts” up the river.”
Agriculture plays a dominant role in the Yuma County economy.
Nearly 219,485 acres were harvested in 1993. Ranching is also
important to the community with 113,000 head of cattle pen-fed
annually. Military bases contribute substantially to the local economy
with the Marine Corps Air Station and Yuma Proving Grounds located
in the county.
Tourist business, comprised mainly of cross-country travelers and
winter visitors creates an estimated gross revenue of $370.1 million.
New and existing light industry increases Yuma’s economic diversification.
The Mexican free port of San Luis Rio Colorado is located 23 miles
southwest of Yuma. For an industry interested in offshore manufacturing,
or twin-plant operations, San Luis offers all the facilities necessary
for a modern manufacturing operation.
Yuma currently is an Arizona Main Street Community, providing
business assistance in organization, design, promotion and economic
restructuring in the historic downtown.
The Yuma State Territorial Prison, with cells carved from rock, once
housed Arizona’s most dangerous outlaws, but today is a popular
tourist attraction operated by the Arizona State Parks Department.
Other attractions in and around Yuma include Fort Yuma (built in
1851), the 16th-century St. Thomas Mission; the Quechan Indian
Museum; Laguna, Imperial and Morelos Dams; and, across the
Colorado River, the California sand dunes.
In nearby San Luis, Mexico, a port-of-entry community, night spots
and shopping are popular activities. Fishing, water skiing and swimming
at lakes along the Colorado River are attractive sports to residents
and tourists alike. The Arizona State Parks Board and the City
of Yuma operate the new Yuma Crossing State Park, featuring living
history on the Colorado before 1900.
Yuma County was one of the original four counties designated by the First Territorial Legislature. Until 1983, when voters decided to split it into La Paz County in the north and a new Yuma County in the south, it maintained its original boundaries. In 1540, just 48 years after Columbus discovered the New World,18 years after the conquest of Mexico by Cortez, and 67 years before the settlement of Jamestown, Hernando deAlarcón visited the site of what is now the city of Yuma. He was the first European to set foot in the area and to recognize the best natural crossing of the Colorado River. From the 1850s through the 1870s, steamboats on the Colorado River transported passengers and goods to mines, ranches and military outposts in the area, serving the ports of Yuma, Laguna, Castle Dome, Norton’s Landing, Ehrenberg, Aubry, Ft. Mohave and Hardyville. For many years, Yuma served as the gateway to the new western territory of California. In 1870, the Southern Pacific Railroad bridged the river, and Yuma became a hub for the railroad and was selected as the county seat. Much of Yuma County’s 5,522 square miles is desert land accented by rugged mountains. The valley regions, however, contain an abundance of arable land, which is irrigated with Colorado River water. Agriculture, tourism, military, and government are the county’s principal industries. During the winter months, the population grows considerably with part-time residents. All of Yuma County is an Enterprise Zone. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management accounts for 14.8 percent of land ownership; Indian reservations, 0.2 percent; the state of Arizona, 7.7 percent; individual or corporate,10.5 percent; and other public lands, 66.8 percent.
The ancient people of the Colorado River tell the story of its creation. Kumastamxo, son of the creator of all people, gave them the keys to their survival. He showed them how to cure illness. He gave them bows and arrows. Then, with the tip of his spear, he traced a line through the desert. This would be the Colorado, the lifeline of the desert Southwest.
The Colorado River was a flexing force of nature, undammed, a temperamental river prone to tantrums. On flat lands, it would change course without notice. But with this chaos, it brought fertile soils from the north for planting and created life in an otherwise barren desert. And as a waterway, it offered a route of travel away from the mountains and desert hazards. It challenged any land crossing, however, and with a width sometimes of a mile or more, demanded travelers to take unrealistic chances. So, everyone trying to get to California was looking for the same thing- a place they could cross the Colorado.
In the northern portion of Arizona Territory there were a few places to cross, but to get there meant passing through mountain ranges and possible freezing temperatures. Down in the more temperate and flat south, however, there was a natural river crossing, where the ornery river briefly passed between two rocky mounds. Indian Hill and Prison Hill narrowed and calmed the river just a few miles south of the confluence of the Gila, at the present location of Yuma. The Quechan and Cocopah Indians knew the value of their land, but until the 1500’s, after hundreds of years of occupation by native tribes, the desire for this site suddenly became more competitive. The word would soon spread around the world about this location. Soldiers, businessmen, natives, and even priests would literally kill to possess it.
Captain Hernando de Alarcon came from New Spain to deliver supplies during an expedition looking for the legendary seven cities of gold. Sailing northbound on the Sea of Cortez, he eventually found himself at a rumbling confluence of river and ocean. Not finding the party he was searching for, he switched to rowboats and pushed his way further up the river. Eventually, he reached the Gila and though he did not stay, Alarcon brought back the knowledge of a place where it was possible to cross the Colorado River. Over the next 400 years, the tracks of footsteps, horses, wagon wheels, locomotive rails, and automobiles would all converge at Yuma Crossing to leave a piece of their history behind.
The Yuma Crossing State Historic Park sits on the bank of the Colorado, where river captains once sailed from the Gulf of California to unload supplies, then kick up their heels in the bustling port of Yuma. The park is the site of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Supply Depot, a supply house for the military posts in the Southwest. Ocean vessels brought supplies around the Baja Peninsula from California to Port Isabel, near the mouth of the Colorado. From there, cargo was loaded onto smaller steamships and brought upstream to Yuma. The depot operated from 1864 until 1883, when the arrival of the railroad made the long steamship route unnecessary.
Many of the original structures from that time are still standing. Made of adobe, essentially mud and plant material, they have survived well in Yuma’s dry climate. In fact, since their original construction, the buildings have been used by the Weather Service, The Bureau of Reclamation, the Signal Corps, Border Survey, and the Yuma County Water Users Association as recently as the late 1980’s. Remnants of the steamboat era still exist when looking down on the river. As a transportation hub, the park has artifacts such as stagecoaches and a 1907 Locomotive engine- even an antique pair of Native American sandals. The records of the commanding officers offer a unique look into what military life was like in Yuma during the 19th century.
Yuma Crossing State Historic Park tells the history of the Crossing from prehistoric times until the present, set in the backdrop of the old Quartermaster’s Depot. The area is also recognized as a key location in the cultural development of western history by the National Endowment for the Arts. Through the eyes of the Native Americans, entrepreneurs, steamboat captains, fortune seekers and the military, it answers the questions of how the early emigrants survived or failed, living in one of the most rugged and isolated places in the world.
Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park
Yuma Territorial Prison is living proof that there really was a wild West. More than 3,000 culprits, convicted of crimes ranging from polygamy to murder, lived in rock and adobe cells during the prison’s 33-year life. Still standing are the cells, main gate, and guard tower that give visitors a glimpse of convict life a century ago. A fascinating museum detail that prison’s development and tells stories of the desperados, including 29 women, who did time there. For visitors’ convenience, picnic tables and a Ramada are provided. Nearby, Yuma Crossing State Historic Park is one of the Southwest’s richest historical sites. Payton’s, Native Americans, Spanish explorers, mountain men, gold-seeking emigrants, soldiers, muleskinners, railroad engineers, steamboat captains and shipping magnates met at this single junction over the centuries.
• Restrooms (Handicapped Accessible)
• Picnic Area
Physical Attributes of Park Site
• Acreage – 7 (Quartermaster Depot – 9)
• Approximate Elevation – 141 feet
• Group Tours Available
• Closed Christmas Day
• Stay Limit – Day Use Only
• Visitor Center – 8am-5pm MST
• Park Phone Number – (520)783-4771
• Learn more about the history of Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
• Visit the Yuma Crossing State Historic Park Page.
• E-Mail the park at email@example.com