You may be surprised to learn that the most popular place to visit in Yuma, Arizona is a prison. While we were in Yuma, we decided to check it out. The Yuma Territorial Prison is sort of a paradox in that it had a terrible reputation if you were sentenced to stay there. The locals, however, called it a “country club” because of its cutting edge features like electricity, a large library, and health care that it possessed.
At the prison they tell a fascinating story of how the facility ended up in Yuma. The Territorial Representative from Yuma, Jose Maria Redondo, was at the Legislature meeting where the location of the new prison was to be decided. At the end of the session, when the territorial legislators went to lunch, he stayed behind in the chamber, marked out the town of Phoenix in the bill, and substituted Yuma in its place! He later became mayor of Yuma and is known as the “Father of the Yuma Territorial Prison.”
The location was established in 1875 by the Legislature, the first seven inmates moved into their cells in 1876 after having to build their own cells! Over the next 33 years the prison expanded and housed over 3,000 men and women, for crimes such as polygamy, adultery, robbery, and murder. The most famous prisoner was probably Pearl Hart, a legendary stagecoach robber.
At the time, the prison was built on a bluff at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. The Gila is now located about five miles upstream but the Colorado still flows below the facility. From the prison, looking across the Colorado River, you can see the Saint Thomas Mission and the Quechan Indian reservation land.
Also adjacent to the prison is a park that overlooks the Ocean to Ocean Bridge. This truss bridge opened in 1915. The transcontinental highway that crossed it carried a majority of Arizona auto traffic in the 1920s and 1930s.
As a state park, the prison has numerous displays and guided tours. In addition to the artifacts, you can see a number of small cells that housed up to six prisoners and the “dark cell” for solitary confinement. We enjoyed our docent-led tour, visiting the grounds, and hearing the various stories of the people of the prison. Celia commented that “this visit was much better than I expected.”
After the prison’s closure, the facility was used for many purposes. Perhaps the most interesting was that for four years the local high school met there while a new school was being constructed. The school athletic teams are now known as “The Criminals.” Notice from the picture, the students are all sentenced to “Four Years of Hard Labor.”
Later, after many years of vandalism and disrepair, the town of Yuma began a campaign to preserve the facility, build a museum, and later establish it as a state park. After much effort by the city and its townspeople, the new state park opened in 1961. It is near the city center and is well worth a visit.
On another nice sunny day we visited the Colorado River State Park which is very close to the Territorial Prison (almost every day in Yuma is sunny and warm). This appears to be a sparsely visited park that once housed the U.S. Army Quartermaster Depot. Located on the Colorado River, years ago supplies were sent from California, around the Baja California peninsula, up the river, to this depot. Large amounts of goods, ammunition, mules, and other supplies were stored here, then later shipped to what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.
One of the larger buildings in the park houses information about the various dams on the Colorado River that have helped Yuma become such a vital part of winter vegetable production that we mentioned in our previous post.
There are fifteen dams on the Colorado River alone and many more exist on its tributaries. There are displays sharing information about the dams on the lower basin of the river giving some of their history and uses.
Many states and Mexico depend on the Colorado River for water and power. These states include Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada. Arizona and California consume the largest amounts according to the information at this park.
In 1909, the Laguna Dam was built and ended steamboat traffic on the river. The Parker Dam of 1938 created Lake Havasu and is the deepest dam in the world.
Some of the other things to see at this state park include some of the residences for the Quartermaster Depot and an exhibit of the engineering feat of a “siphon” to tunnel water under the Colorado River for irrigation.
We enjoyed our stay in Yuma and can see why so many venture here for the warm weather during the winter. I imagine most everyone enjoys their visit except for those who had to stay on Prison Hill.
Next we travel to one of our favorite small towns, Borrego Springs, CA.