Frontier History in Yuma, AZ
Dubbed 'The Gateway to the Great Southwest,' Yuma, Arizona is home to the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which encompasses a section of the Lower Colorado River, the Colorado River State Historic Park, Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, the East, and West Wetlands Park, and the historic downtown district which is home to the Yuma Art Center and Historic Yuma Theatre.
Of historical significance, the Colorado River was once a water highway and major crossing point at the narrows, which was the easiest place to cross the Colorado River into California. Many crossed here, including Juan Bautista de Anza and the Mormon Battalion, and fortune seekers off to try their luck in the California gold rush.
When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California in 1848, it triggered wave after wave of adventurous gold-seekers from all over the world, who would stop at nothing to get to the goldfields. Some crossed over the mountains from Fort Laramie, others sailed for nine months around the Horn, and others journeyed across the great southern land route, crossing the Colorado River by ferry at Yuma Crossing.
The lure of supposedly easy riches brought all sorts of people to Yuma – outlaws, prospectors, farmers with families, gamblers, merchants, and military.
In 1850, the U.S. Army built Fort Yuma on the hill overlooking the crossing to help protect the thousands of people traveling through and the hundreds who decided to make Yuma their home. Some who made it to the California gold fields returned to Yuma, while some settled in Yuma as soon as they arrived.
The relationship between the settlers, military, and the local Native Americans–Yuman, Maricopa, Pima, Quechan, and Cocopah–was ever-changing, and Yuma was an exciting, sometimes very unsafe place to live. All things considered, those who settled in Yuma were those of tough stock, determination, and endurance.
Within fifteen years, the area had grown so much that there was a need for the Army to have supply bases throughout Arizona and New Mexico, so the Yuma Quartermaster Depot was built. This allowed supplies to be delivered by riverboats and eventually steamboats. As the most practical place to cross the lower Colorado River in the Southwest, Yuma grew to have all sorts of mining operations and settlements up and down the river.
The next step was the need for a railroad. Southern Pacific Railroad was building the second transcontinental rail line in the late 1870s, starting out from San Francisco and building east. When the railroad reached Yuma in 1877, they built the first bridge over the Colorado at the crossing. With the railroad now serving Yuma, goods could be transported in and out of the area.
As far back as the year 1000, the Quechan Indians and their ancestors used the Colorado to irrigate their fields, but by the 1900s, farming became an important industry for Yuma. This led to efforts to tame the sometimes wild and flooding river. In fact, in 1862, the river ran wild and flooded the town of Yuma. Yuma's spirited people rebuilt, knowing their existence depended on the river (Yuma flooded again in 1912 and 1916).
The Colorado River
The Colorado starts high up in the Rockies and travels all the way to the Gulf of California, winding through 1450 miles of forest, desert, valleys, and mountains. Levees and canals were built to bring water to those farming along the river, but more needed to be done. In the early 1900s, the Laguna Diversion Dam was built. The dam is on the border between Arizona and California and diverts the river water into the Yuma Main Canal. The canal carries water from the California side of the river, southwest to the fields in Imperial County, California, and then needs to cross back across the Colorado River to deliver water to the Yuma Valley in Arizona. This is done through an amazing engineering feat, an inverted siphon that is buried right in the middle of downtown Yuma.
The Colorado River Siphon is a concrete pipe that sits under 50 feet of sandstone riverbed. It is 14 feet in diameter and acts as a tunnel. Water from the Yuma Main Canal's California side swirls down a 75-foot vertical shaft to the siphon, then comes up on the Arizona side.
Although both Fort Yuma and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot were closed in the 1880s, today's Yuma residents have preserved their colorful river history by stepping up again and restoring the buildings. This area is now known as the Colorado River State Historic Park. It is part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area that encompasses the restored East and West Wetlands and Gateway Park. This is a great place to picnic, take a nature walk, go bird watching, enjoy the sandy beaches, canoe, kayak, or go river-tubing.
Yuma is also rich in aviation history. On October 25, 1911, the first plane ever to land in the state of Arizona did so, right where the Yuma Landing Bar & Grill sits today. You can visit the Pilot Robert G. Fowler statue and see historic photos and memorabilia inside the restaurant. The Yuma Landing Bar & Grill is part of the historic Coronado Motor Hotel property, which is also home to the Casa de Coronado Museum that houses travel, tourism, and Yuma memorabilia.
In 1949, the local Jaycees service club decided to show off the near-perfect flying weather in Yuma in an effort to convince the military to re-open the Yuma Air Base, which was closed after World War II. They did this by setting the world record for the longest nonstop flight. Pilots Bob Woodhouse and Woody Jongeward flew an Aeronca Sedan AC-15, named the City of Yuma, continuously for 47 days. The plane was fueled, and food and supplies were handed up to the pilots from a moving vehicle. You can see the plane and vehicle in the Yuma City Hall.
In 1951, the Yuma Air Base was re-opened as a U.S. Air Force facility. It was renamed Vincent Air Force Base in 1956, then signed over to the U.S. Navy in 1959. The Yuma Test Branch was also closed in 1949, and it too, was re-opened in 1951, under the control of the Sixth U.S. Army. In 1962, the station was named Yuma Proving Ground and reassigned to the U. S. Army Material Command as an important component of the Test and Evaluation Command. On July 26, 1973, it officially received its full name—U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground.
Located on the Colorado River, the Yuma Test Branch conducted testing on combat bridges, amphibious vehicles, and boats. Tens of thousands of mechanized and infantry soldiers were trained at Camp Laguna for duty at combat fronts throughout the world, from North Africa to the South Pacific. Abandoned campsites and tank trails can still be found on the modern-day proving ground. You can visit the Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center to learn about the Army's history.
Home to the Lower Colorado River, Yuma, Arizona, is abundant in nature destinations. From the pupfish at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge to the wild burros and bighorn sheep at nearby Picacho CA State Recreation Area, the waterfowl at Mittry Lake, and beaver in the Yuma East and West Wetlands, there is a plethora of bird and wildlife species to experience.
This desert oasis invites you to go for a hike, take a bird or nature walk, and go kayaking or canoeing. And don't forget to visit the various gardens that bustle with birds, butterflies, and beautiful desert blooms.
Main bird and nature viewing spots include the Yuma East Wetlands and West Wetlands Park within the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area and Cibola and Kofa National Wildlife Refuges, Mittry Lake State Wildlife Area.
In neighboring Southern California, you can also explore the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge and the Salton Sea, and Picacho State Recreation Areas. Just taking a slow drive through the lush farmlands can offer bird viewing opportunities that include burrowing owls, blackbirds, egrets and herons, and various raptors.
Local Yuma gardens to visit include the Yuma Conservation Garden, Robert J. Moody Demonstration Garden, and the Hummingbird and Butterfly Gardens in West Wetlands Park.