Yuma: Gateway City and Sunshine Haven

In the southwestern corner of Arizona the capricious Colorado River meanders among hills and around mesas toward a confluence with the Gila.  The combined flow then heads west for a few miles before turning south again and into Mexico.  There, the Quechan people found good places to cross.  There too, Europeans headed to California were floated across the river on rafts made by the Quechan, either near the base of Pilot Knob or farther upstream where the river is squeezed between two hills.  Padre Kino crossed at the dawn of the 18th century, followed by Fray Garces closer to the century’s close.  On the California side of the river, Garces established two missions but died there when the Quechan rebelled in the summer of 1781.  (More at the March 16, 2011 posting on the Quechan in Part Three of Arizona Indians article.  Includes photos of Fort Yuma Quechan school students.  Picture of Quechan at Yuma depot posted in Part One, January 25, 2011.  A 1910s view of Yuma’s railroad bridge was posted July 9, 2010 with the Arizona railroads history.  The article on the Five “C’s” of the Arizona economy, posted February 15, 2010, included a picture of Yuma orange groves and the Climatic Hotel along with text on Yuma agriculture.)

Lieutenant Hardy with the British navy mapped Yuma crossing in 1826.  Mountain man James O. Pattie passed through the following year and the Mormon Battalion crossed at Yuma in 1846 on the way to seize California in the Mexican War.  With the west bank of the river (actually north at that point) added to the United States, Army Lieutenant Coutts supplemented his income by running a ferry for miners rushing to the California gold placers in 1849.  In 1850 New Mexico Territory was created (see maps page of this blog) and California became a state.  Camp Independence was sited by the US military December 1, 1850 six miles below another ferry operated by George Johnson from San Francisco at the two hills near the confluence with the Gila.  The camp moved to the top of the hill in California at Johnson’s ferry and became Fort Yuma in March 1851.  Across the river, a few hundred feet beyond the south bank, was Mexico.  But that changed with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At that time, Sarah Bowman (ca1813-1866), a cook at the fort, and her husband built the first house on the Arizona side of the river between the other hill (later called Prison Hill) and a mesa that stretched south for many miles (later called Yuma Mesa). San Francisco lithographer George H. Baker (1827-1906) drew Yuma crossing about 1875, showing Jaeger’s rope ferry (formerly Johnson’s) crossing from the base of Prison Hill to the California bank of the Colorado River below Fort Yuma on Indian Hill.  Indigenous residents (at right) idly watch the flow of commerce, having been shut out of their own ferry business about 20 years prior.  It would take another decade to get most of the Indians to quit running around naked.  There must have been a way to raise the ferry rope to pass steamboats like the one at center.  The office and warehouse of the Colorado Steam Navigation Company, incorporated December 1869, is at left, at the north end of Main Street.  The trees by the office, remembered by Baker as evergreens, were actually tall leaved trees.  Within two years the Southern Pacific railroad would arrive, bridge the river and cut through the hill behind the building to run the main line down Madison Avenue (first named Brinley Ave.).  But even after the railroad came steamboats, which could tow un-powered barges for extra capacity, continued to supply mining towns up river.  By 1875, Colorado Steam Navigation Company operated four steamers.  Between 1852 and 1907, 16 paddlewheel boats, three screw driven boats and at least 11 barges operated on the lower Colorado.  Following construction of Laguna Dam (1909), steamboats were consigned to a few odd jobs below Yuma and quickly disappeared.  Today, this riverfront area is historically unrecognizable, having been totally transformed by development, which even included removal of several small hills.  Madison Beach Park was developed in 1995.  The old Quartermaster Depot became Yuma Crossing State Historic Park in 1997 and a National Heritage Area in 2000.  Gateway Park opened in 2007, and then Pivot Point Park.  A Hilton Inn and Conference center opened 2008-2009 where the old railroad settling basins and water tank had been on a hill out of view at left in this scene.

With the addition to the United States of territory south of the Gila River at least two small towns appeared within a mile of each other on the Arizona side of the Colorado River:  Arizona City, where a number of adobes gathered around the Bowman home; and Colorado City farther downstream.  There is some confusion over the naming and location of these communities.  The Theobalds (see bibliography below), tracking post offices, report a community called Colorado City, New Mexico Territory 1857-1858, renamed Arizona, Dona Ana County, New Mexico Territory in 1858, with the post office discontinued in 1863.  Then, a post office re-established as Yuma, Arizona Territory 1866-1869, renamed Arizona City 1869-1873, again named Yuma from 1873 onward.  However, Woznicki sees three separate towns, Colorado City, Arizona City, and what Lingenfelter calls Jaeger City located where Algodones, California is today.  Most sources place Jaeger’s ferry opposite Fort Yuma.  Douglas D. Martin (1885-1963) describes three crossings of the river:  Upper or Yuma Crossing (at north end of Gila Street), Emigrant or Pilot Knob Crossing seven miles west and Lower Crossing another three or four miles downstream.  The Colorado River gold rush of 1858-1859 and 1862-1870  (see the gold rush posting on this blog) led to the populating of Arizona City.  A federal supply depot was located in 1864 on the west side of the hill that would be cut through by the railroad in 1877.  The railroad placed settling basins and a water tank on that hill.   Stocked by riverboats from the Gulf of California, the quartermaster supplied government posts in Arizona, Nevada, southern Utah, New Mexico and west Texas until the depot closed in 1883.  When the Colorado meandered away from Yuma County seat, La Paz, ever growing Arizona City was made county seat in 1870.
Yuma Main Street ca1870
An early photograph of Main Street shows a collection of adobe homes and stores baking under a summer sun, probably about 1870, rebuilt after floods in 1862 and 1864 had dissolved their walls back to the earth.  According to American custom, Arizona City enjoyed a wide main street to encourage commerce.  According to Mexican custom, most of the structures were adobe or “mud on sticks” (daub and wattle) to shelter from the oppressive heat and make use of cheap building materials at the site.  At upper right, Fort Yuma is visible on Indian Hill across the river.  The tall trees at the steamboat company office are visible in the distance on the left side of the street.  SP Water Tank Hill is at upper left.  In January 1873, the territorial legislature renamed Arizona City, using the name given the local Indian tribe by the Spanish, “Yuma” (probably from the Spanish word for smoke, humo).  The Indians called themselves Quechan.   At the same time, the legislature incorporated the community and authorized it to collect a tax to build a flood protection levee.  Yuma, with a population over 1,100, was the territory’s second largest community.  Yuma incorporated again, as a “Village,” in the summer of 1876, a “Town” in 1902 and finally, a “City” in 1914.

sternwheeler AztecBuilding across the continent along the 32nd parallel, the Southern Pacific railroad arrived at the Colorado River opposite Yuma in 1877 and began work on a bridge.  Competing with the Texas Pacific to see who could build fastest and thereby gain the most land grant, the SP was hindered by the federal government.  The railroad didn’t have permission to run trains across a military reservation.  Politics in Washington, D.C. probably played a role.  But even before the 1,200-foot long wooden pony-truss of six spans plus a longer swing-span to pass river traffic was completed the first train crossed into Yuma under cover of darkness on September 30, 1877.  Tracks had already been laid down Madison Avenue to a roundhouse and switchyard on the south side.  That first bridge washed away in the flood of July 1, 1884.  The replacement, of only three longer spans plus the swing span burned completely less than a year after it was completed.  This picture shows the third wooden bridge completed in 1886.  The 1877 swing span survived the flood and had been opened to avoid burning in 1885.  Here, it is opened to pass the small gasoline powered stern-wheeler Aztec in 1893 or 1894.  The railroad replaced the wooden spans with a through-truss steel bridge, built in stages 1894-1899.  Then in 1923, the SP moved to the crossing once reserved for the Texas Pacific between Indian Hill and Prison Hill, placing a single-span arched, through-truss.  Prison Hill is visible in the background in this photo.  At right is the steam plant at the Southern Pacific Hotel with the trees at the Colorado Steam Navigation Company building visible behind.  A steam engine opened the swing span while steam was undoubtedly also provided to the hotel.  The pier for the swing span, dated 1895, is now preserved at Pivot Point Park.

Yuma Main Street ca1900Looking south on Main Street about 1900, the downtown is centered around the Gandolfo Hotel building (1899) and the Althee Modesti (1893) building (at right) on the northwest corner of Main and First Street.  Way down Main Street, the steeple of the Catholic Church is visible on the southwest corner of Main and Fourth Street.  The Gandolfo building offered stores on the ground floor, including two drug stores, with hotel rooms on the second floor.  By the 1930s the Gandolfo had become the Roosevelt Hotel.  After the building was demolished the corner was the site of Thrifty Drugs and now Hoppstetters.  The Modesti building featured a bar, billiard room and the International Restaurant.  Main Street was originally 132 feet wide.
Yuma waterfront ca1900
This birds-eye-view of the Yuma waterfront also dates to around 1900, shortly after the last wooden span of the railroad bridge on Madison Avenue had been replaced with steel.  The view is to the northwest from a vantage point on the side of Prison Hill with homes along north Gila Street at lower left and a few of the Indian School buildings (former Fort Yuma) at upper right.  The mix of adobe, “mud on sticks” (at bottom) and lumber construction (tiny structure in center) is evident.  At upper left is the two-story Southern Pacific Hotel and Depot, located where the hill behind the steamboat company office was before it was cut away.  Moving to the right, the electric company powerhouse with smoke-pipe is visible and then the railroad warehouses (white roofs) located on a spur track.  The ferry is out of view at right, at the north end of Gila Street.

Yuma Territorial PrisonThe first prison in Arizona Territory opened at Yuma July 1, 1876.  Contrary to the hell-hole image, it was considered a humane and model institution in its day, with a hospital, library, electric lights and more than bread and water to eat.  The real hellish aspect involved disciplinary confinement in a dark, windowless cell and forced labor in the summer heat.  A guard shot to death four prisoners during an escape attempt in 1887 during which the warden was severely knifed.  When the facility became overcrowded and worn out, prisoners went to Florence and built their new lockup in 1908-1909.  The Village of Yuma had donated the prison grounds so ownership reverted to the city.  Yuma High School was housed at the former prison from 1910-1914, resulting in “Criminals” for a team mascot.  Yuma High School’s “old main” was constructed 1914-1915 on Sixth Avenue.  This view from Indian Hill of the prison above the river a few years before it closed shows (left to right) guard dormitory, stables, offices, and warden’s residence with flagpole on west side.  The walled cellblock compound is behind the trees.  The tallest roof at left (with cupola) is the main guard tower, built on top of a water tank.  The arched entrance gate (“sally port”) is visible in center, with the west wall and two more guard towers at right.  Just out of view at right is the Yuma waterfront.  The tall roof (with two ventilators on top) is the hospital, built on top of a cellblock within the walls.  Yuma was a relatively peaceful town, but it reportedly witnessed the first legal hanging in the Territory in 1873.  The death penalty was carried out at county court houses in those days, not the Territorial Prison, before state government mandated in 1909 that all executions take place at the Florence penitentiary.  Yuma County Hospital used the remodeled former warden’s home 1910-1923.  Half the cellblock area on the west side was demolished to make way for the railroad approach to the new bridge in 1924.  About one-third of the upper part of Prison Hill was removed for the tracks.  What remained of the prison was abandoned to deteriorate until it became a tourist attraction in the late 1930s.  The local VFW used the former guard dormitory as clubhouse until it burned in 1958.  A museum opened in 1941, followed by Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park January 1, 1961.

An early attempt to irrigate Imperial Valley, California via private enterprise turned disastrous and Yuma witnessed an epic battle between human labor and the forces of nature.  The entire Imperial Valley is below sea level, having once been under the ocean where movement of an underground fault line created the Gulf of California.  The Salton Basin used to periodically become a lake via the Alamo River fed by the Colorado River in flood, as for example in the summer of 1891.  Seeing the agricultural potential, developers built the Imperial Canal in 1901 but skimped on the Andrade head gates at the river below Yuma.  Record floods in 1905 caused the Colorado to break through the head gates and form New River, filling Salton Sink once again but now damaging valuable development, even flooding the SPRR main line.  A railroad trestle was constructed across the break in the riverbank and tons of rock hauled from New Mexico dumped into the stream.  Three attempts before June 1906 failed to close the break and that month the entire flow of the river headed for the new Salton Sea.  Extraordinary effort on the part of the Southern Pacific railroad closed the break in November only to see the river level rise in December and break through again.  A final closure was made in February 1907 and the mighty Colorado once again peacefully meandered into the Gulf.  More than 30 years later the All American Canal would replace the Imperial Canal and today, the Salton Sea remains, kept full by irrigation runoff.

When it was Yuma’s turn to benefit from irrigation, residents looked to the federal government.  In order to stimulate settlement and agriculture, the Reclamation Act of 1902 gave the federal government authority to designate large tracts of land in the West irrigation projects and construct dams and canals to provide water and electric power for those projects.  The first two reclamation projects in Arizona were the Salt River Project (see history of Roosevelt on this blog) and the Yuma Project.  Following surveys and purchase of existing private irrigation infrastructure 1902-1908, the Department of Interior, US Reclamation Service entered into a contract for the construction of Laguna Dam on the Colorado River 10 miles north of Yuma, the first dam on the lower Colorado.  Rather than attempting to control floods, Laguna Dam was a 4,470-foot long weir that raised the level of the river ten feet in order to divert it into canals on each side but allowed the entire flow to pass over in flood stage.  Construction began 19 July 1905 but design changes and flooding forced contractors in August 1906 to ask for a new contract and then withdraw from the project altogether in January 1907.  Acting as a general contractor, the federal government finished the dam 20 March 1909.  In order to irrigate the Yuma Valley, the canal from Laguna Dam’s California side had to cross under the Colorado River through a tunnel located just west of the Madison Street railroad bridge.  Work on the inverted siphon began in November 1909 but proved too difficult.  So it would be safe from river scouring during flood stage, the 14-foot diameter tunnel was designed to pass under the river at a depth of more than 100 feet below the water surface.  However, the underlying rock proved too porous, keeping the caisson full of water.  Divers were brought in, and then east coast “sand hogs” assisted by up to 1,300 “Mexican” laborers.  The siphon was finally completed 29 June 1912, but at a depth of only 44 feet on the California side and 74 feet on the Arizona side.  It is still in service, passing 1,400 cubic feet per second to fields of lettuce, cantaloupe and wheat.

The Yuma Mesa Auxiliary Project bill was signed into law by President Wilson 25 January 1917 and the Mesa received irrigation water in 1922.  The installation of Siphon Drop hydropower plant on the Yuma Main Canal in California came in 1926.  Imperial Dam was constructed about four miles upstream of Laguna Dam 1936-1938 to divert water into the All-American Canal in 1940.  Yuma canal intakes were then moved from Laguna to Imperial Dam in 1941.  In 1947, Congress funded the Gila Project to provide irrigation water to additional acres on the Yuma Mesa and farms in the Wellton-Mohawk Valley 20 miles east of Yuma.  Operation of the Arizona water infrastructure was transferred from the federal government to the Yuma County Water Users Association in 1951, with California operations transferred in 1961.  Yuma Valley’s 53,000 irrigated acres now make up a third of the cropland in the county.  And Yuma County is the leading crop producer in the state.  In order to ship fresh produce and survive the blistering summers, the “Queen City of the Colorado” once had two large ice plants.  One supplied railroad refrigerator cars from one of the largest icing platforms in the world.

Yuma ferryShortly after Lieutenat Coutts gave his ferry to the Quechan tribe a gang of scalp hunters from Texas led by John Glanton took over operation of another ferry under the ownership of a Doctor Lincoln.  The gang killed one of the Indian ferrymen and destroyed their boat.  When the Quechan then killed most of the Glanton gang and returned to operating a ferry California sent the state militia to punish the Indians.  Accounts of the incident differ on important points.  “Johnson and Hartshorn took over after the Lincoln massacre,” according to Roscoe G. Willson, “and a member of their organization, L. J. F. Jaeger succeeded them and continued the ferry service many years.”  Louis Jaeger (1824-1892) operated the rope ferry shown in George Baker’s drawing until 1877 when the railroad bridge was built.  Pedestrians were welcome to cross the rail bridge but wagons and autos still took the ferry, as shown on this postcard from about 1908 published by Newman Post Card Company of Los Angeles & San Francisco.  The first highway bridges across the Colorado River in Arizona were at Yuma (1915) and Topock (1916).

Yuma Ocean-to-Ocean bridgeIn order to attract motorists to Yuma, work on a highway bridge began in 1914 but immediately encountered problems.  Seasonal high water twice swept away pilings driven in the river bottom to support false work.  Instead of assembling the 4,400 pounds of steel for the through-truss design in place, workers had to build the 336-foot span on land just west of the prison.  Then as schools were closed and the whole town turned out to watch the delicate operation, the finished bridge floated across the river on a barge May 22, 1915 to be bolted in place over the next four hours.  Significant highway improvements followed.   By the end of the named highway era, at least four transcontinental routes converged at the “Gateway to the Southwest,” the Lee and Bankhead Highways, Dixie Overland Highway and Old Spanish Trail.  But a lighted sign on the bridge proclaimed “Ocean-to-Ocean Highway,” nomenclature used by another route running through the northwest corner of Arizona on its way from New York to LA.  The distance from San Diego to Yuma was shortened in 1915 by laying a wooden plank road across the Imperial dunes.  It was believed that blowing sand would quickly bury a conventional road while planks could be moved out of the way.  But a bold engineer designed an asphalt paved US 80 in 1926 that was carefully placed to cause drifting sand to blow over the surface.  US80 was rerouted in 1956 to cross the river on a new concrete span, entering Yuma on Fourth Avenue.  Then the present I-8 freeway viaduct came in 1978.  The 1915 bridge enjoyed a restoration in 2002.  As shown on this postcard issued by Harry Herz about 1928, the south pier (at right) is in the river, with a short deck truss reaching Prison Hill.  The 1923 railroad bridge is on the east side.  The cost of the highway bridge was shared, $25,000 each from the US Indian Department, State of Arizona and the people of southern California, with the City of Yuma contributing $1,000.

Yuma 1916 flood Situated near the mouths of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, Yuma was vulnerable to flood until those rivers were dammed.  Destructive floods came in 1862, 1864, 1867, 1884, 1891, 1903, 1905, 1909 and January 23, 1916 as shown here.  Looking east from a vantage point near the SP Hotel, water from the broken Gila River levee is rushing down Main Street and through the Yuma Electric & Water Company power plant at right.  The Ocean-to-Ocean highway bridge is at left, spanning from Prison Hill to Indian Hill.  Both it and the railroad bridge located behind the photographer survived the flood, but Main Street shops were under up to five feet of water.  Laguna Dam wasn’t meant to hold floodwaters, so it offered little protection.  High water came again in 1921, but both the town and rail bridge were spared.  Then Coolidge Dam, constructed 1924-1928, held back the Gila River and Hoover Dam, constructed 1931-1936, subdued the Colorado.  Still, the 1993 flood on the Gila River destroyed the Highway 95 bridge north of Yuma and caused more than $100 million in damages in the county.

There has long been a significant military and aviation presence around Yuma.  The first airplane to land in Arizona touched down in Yuma in 1911, prompting the city to develop Fly Field south of 32nd Street.  It became a county airport in 1928 and was then turned over to the military in 1941 to become Yuma Army Air Field advanced flying school.  General Patton’s tank troops trained for the north Africa invasion at Desert Training Center north of Yuma.  Yuma Test Station was established in the desert east of Imperial Dam in 1943 and became Yuma Proving Ground.  When the Army abandoned the airfield at the end of World War Two, enterprising residents came up with a stunt to promote Yuma’s good flying weather.  They established a world flight endurance record, remaining aloft for nearly 47 days in a single-engine Aeronca with no bathroom.  Day and night, three times a day, the plane would chase a Buick convertible 12 times down the abandoned runway at 80mph, the copilot reaching down to grab fuel cans and sacks of food.  After three attempts, 1,124 hours in the air and 1,692 meetings with the Buick the third time, the two flyers had the record and Continental Motors replaced the worn out engine for free.  Their endurance paid off.  In 1951, the old Army Air Field became Vincent Air Force Base and then in 1959 Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Test Station with the longest concrete runway in Arizona.  It became Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma in 1962.

Yuma Second Avenue Grammar SchoolArchitect F. S. Allen (1860-1934) designed Yuma’s first really nice elementary school building, constructed in 1908 on the mesa facing the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Third Street.  Viewed from Third Street on a postcard sold by druggist J. Homer Smith, Second Avenue Grammar School was a popular mission style design.  Allen, who moved from Illinois to southern California in 1904, specialized in school buildings.  The first school in Yuma opened in 1871, followed by a parochial school in 1874.  The block just west of Second Avenue Grammar School was made Sunset Park and became the site of a Carnegie library (opened 24 Feb. 1921, demolished and replaced with existing library building 1965-66).  The school burned in 1946 and Yuma Fire Station Number One was constructed where the playground had been.  Third Street has now been transformed into Harold Giss Parkway but one can still make out where the school used to be.

Yuma Hwy 80 entranceHighway 80 enters Yuma from California in about 1948 on First Street (looking west), where marriage chapels greet young couples.  Reverend Coleman’s “Famous Drive-In Chapel,” offers quick ceremonies “day and nite” in a remodeled building that a few years before was Rich’s Super Service, Associated Flying-A gasoline station.  Behind Coleman’s is R. H. Lute’s Wedding Chapel, the former “Cupid Corner,” housed in a remodeled former Rio Grande brand gasoline station.  There were a couple more wedding chapels farther west on First.  Behind Lute’s is the Dixie Hotel and the taller Hotel San Carlos (1930), advertising its American plan (in-room baths) and air cooling.  The intersection in the foreground is at First Street and Gila Street, while Main Street crosses a block farther west.  On the south side of First is a new Standard station, the Harris Garage selling Firestone tires and a bowling alley.  California instituted a three-day waiting period before marriage November 1, 1927, sending couples across the line to Nevada or Arizona for an immediate ceremony.  After several popular movie stars married in the Grand Canyon State and before Arizona required a syphilis test like California, the wedding industry in Yuma thrived until the 1960s.  Today, the wedding chapel site shown here is occupied by North End Community Center.

Yuma inspection station
Protection of public health gives broad powers to government authorities in the United States, including the power of a state to use search and seizure to protect agricultural crops from insects and disease.  Both California and Arizona placed Agricultural Inspection Stations on major highways to subject travelers to search of vehicles and personal property, confiscating all fruit, vegetables and plants.  This is the Arizona station under a buttermilk sky, photographed by Bob Van Luchene about 1953 for a postcard issued by Petley Studios of Phoenix.  The building is located on US 80 at the south end of the Ocean-to-Ocean bridge on Prison Hill, just before the highway curves to the west and goes down the hill to become First Street in Yuma (as shown above).  Hotel San Carlos is visible behind the welcome signs.  In 1924, Arizona blocked the federal highway to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease from California.  Guards reportedly required motorists and rail passengers to walk through pans of disinfectant before proceeding.  Apparently some were denied entry because newspapers reported that on “the night of April 17 many of the tourists, tired of waiting for the quarantine to lift, and rushed the guard.”  In 1956, the inspection station moved to the new Highway 80 entrance on Fourth Avenue, just south of the new bridge. 

Geography has always provided a living for Yuma.  At first, Yuma’s economy was transportation based.  The river around Yuma offered convenient crossings for wagon trains on the way to California and then stage lines to and from the west coast.  Yuma was Arizona’s seaport, via riverboats from Port Isabel, Sonora.  And then the railroad came, followed by an Ocean-to-Ocean automobile highway.  By then, the Yuma Project began “reclaiming” the desert, shifting Yuma’s economy in the Twentieth Century to an agricultural base.  The sale of 5,500 acres of land on the Yuma Mesa beginning 19 November 1919 was a significant boost for both agriculture and the service sector.  The “Gateway City of the Great Southwest” that some described as a sizzling hot hell-hole was slowly transformed into a haven from icy winters.  Records over an 80-year period showed Yuma averaged 90% of possible days of sunshine.  The “Sunshine Capital” expended considerable effort, perhaps disproportionate to the economic benefit, to attract tourists, lovebirds, retirees, “snow birds,” sand buggies and river recreationists.  Government employment, especially military, has been important to the economy since the establishment of Fort Yuma.  To provide more local benefit from its tax base, the population of northern Yuma County voted to split off and form La Paz County beginning January 1, 1983.

Yuma Coronado MotelThe Peach family came to Yuma in 1916 and soon entered the hotel business.  In 1932 they built Peach Auto Court on Highway 80 (Fourth Avenue) on the mesa one and a half miles south of downtown, adding Coronado Motor Hotel closer to downtown in 1938.  The junior John Peach remembers planting the palm trees as a child.  The Coronado was the first modern design motel in Arizona, replacing auto court style rooms separated by garages with side by side rooms.  One of the oldest still operating Best Western hotels in the world, John and Yvonne Peach still own and manage the Coronado, now expanded to 127 rooms and 23 suites.  This Portraitone postcard produced in the 1950s by Associate Services of Pasadena, noted that the Coronado was recommended by Best Western, Triple-A and Duncan Hines, and was located at 233 4th Avenue in the “Sunshine Capital of the US.”

Yuma Main Street 1950sMain Street looking north at the intersection with Third Street about 1954 illustrates a still vibrant business district.  Looks like the same neon “Bowling” sign in the 1940s view of First Street has moved to Main, across from the Western Auto Supply Co.  Centre Drugs, Rexall store, (formerly McCallum Cutrate Drugs, and before that Carl D. Farrar Drugs) is on the northwest corner of Main and Third.  The Kress building still looks much the same today, now housing a number of shops with the Top of the Kress comedy club on the roof.  You can still read the painted sign on the brick wall.  Down the street on the same side is the marquee for the Yuma Theater (1912) and red roof over First National Bank of Arizona.  First National Bank of Yuma was chartered in 1905 and built on the northwest corner of Main and Second Street in 1924.  But after the financial collapse of 1929 it had to be liquidated and absorbed by Yuma National Bank.  To increase the comfort of pedestrians in summer covered sidewalks (arcades) were added to storefronts on Main in the 1920s, replacing canvas awnings.  The introduction of evaporative coolers in the 1930s, followed by affordable air conditioning based on the refrigeration cycle helped Yuma thrive.

Yuma Fourth AvenueDespite the straight line shown on maps, Fourth Avenue (US 80) makes a gentle S-bend at the intersection with 8th Street, shown here about 1954, looking north.  By the 1950s, the commercial district had spread from Main Street to the top of the mesa and south down Fourth Avenue a few miles.  Pictured (left to right) are a Shell station, Texaco station, Firestone dealer, Sant Drug Co., Garland Jewelers, Western Fashions and Susie’s Eats (steaks, fried chicken).  The city ended at 8th Street by 1923 but the business district reached 24th in the early fifties and then the big curve at 32nd Street in the 1960s.  South of 8th Street businesses remained spread out, typical of the unplanned strip development along major highways that came to dominate nearly all American cities and towns by the mid-1930s, and has continued despite recent attempts to re-centralize commercial districts.

Yuma cantaloupe harvest
The Mexican Farm Labor Program, informally known as the Bracero Program (bracero, “one who works with his arms”), began 4 August 1942 to import guest workers in order to meet wartime demand for farm labor.  Braceros entered the US under individual contracts that required them to return home at the end of the season.  More than three million participated over the course of the program, which was continued following the war.  The number of braceros peaked at more than 445,000 in 1956 and declined after 1960.  The program ended in 1964, around the time this postcard of the Yuma cantaloupe harvest was made.  By then, growers were opting to hire even cheaper illegal workers and American labor unions intensified objections to the wage-lowering effect of bracero contracts.  The end of the bracero program was followed by the rise of the United Farm Workers Union led by Cesar Chavez, born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927.

Yuma Crossing ca1958This airplane view of Yuma Crossing, issued as a postcard about 1958, shows (top to bottom) the 1956 Highway 80 bridge (on Fourth Avenue), the siphon outlet on the East Main Canal, remains of piers in river from Madison Street rail bridge, the 1915 Ocean-to-Ocean highway bridge (white) and the 1924 railroad bridge (black).  California side of the river is at right.  Old Arizona Inspection Station is the white roof south of bridge while abandoned California Inspection Station is orange roof (lower right).  The old highway 80 goes past the former prison site (lower left) and curves to become First Street.  Gila Street is the first north-south street, ending at water treatment basins on the riverbank, the site of the last ferry crossing.  The road away from the ferry on the California side of the river is still evident.  The next street crossing First to the west is Main (red roof of bank building on Main & 2nd is visible), and then Madison.  Railroad Tracks ran down Madison Avenue until 1966, curving through the water treatment and electric plant site to meet the new rail line on Prison Hill.  The County Court House is obscured by the word “Yuma.”  City Hall is the red roof below the first letter in “Arizona.”  San Carlos Hotel is the tallest building, on northeast corner of First and Main.  New agricultural inspection station on Fourth Avenue (US 80) is above the letter “n.”  The diagonal street at upper left is Orange Avenue.  One block north of Orange is the new fire station with site of Second Avenue Grammar School still recognizable on opposite corner of same block.

Yuma Crescent CenterCommercial development continued to move south on Fourth Avenue in the 1960s.  This Curteichcolor photo by Don Cordery Photography looks north over the four mile strip development along Fourth Avenue (four-lanes plus center turn lane), with Crescent Center in the foreground and Circle Square a mile north (another high-rise).  Crescent Center is on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 24th Street, with the Stardust Motel on the northwest corner (Fry’s Food Store today) and the Flamingo Hotel on the southeast corner (now the site of a restaurant).  Circle Square is on the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and 16th Street (Highway 95), across from Yuma Mesa Shopping Center on the southeast corner.  The old downtown along Main Street is under the word “Colorful” at top of the postcard, behind Black Hill.  The south rail yards are below the word “Yuma.”  Development along Fourth Avenue is on the Yuma Mesa, raised above the agricultural land in Yuma Valley to the west and the Gila Valley to the east.  The Mesa is the site of miles of citrus groves, south of the area shown here.  Bob Petley of Phoenix published a postcard using this same photograph.

Yuma Mall 1970As shoppers followed stores south on Fourth Avenue, a battle of the malls ensued.  Downtown merchants opted for a radical makeover of Main Street, eliminating cars and turning it into an outdoor pedestrian mall as shown here, looking north in the block between Second and Third Streets (same block shown above in 1950s).  The project was completed in November 1969 just as competition was ramping up at the big curve several miles south on Highway 80.  Westgate Mall, a conventional shopping center located on the east side of Fourth Avenue between the curve and Catalina Drive, had already opened.  The more logically named Southgate Mall opened in 1973 on the west side of Fourth at the big curve and underwent a $5 million facelift in 1993.  In 2005 Yuma Mall, as the pedestrian plaza on Main Street was originally called, was removed and a narrow Main Street reopened to vehicle traffic.  The building with the red roof is the First National Bank of Arizona building (1924), today, restored as Yuma County Administration Building.

Bill & Millie Brent,
This Is the Yuma Country, (1965)
William & Milarde Brent,
The Hell Hole, (1962)
John Mason Jeffrey,
Adobe and Iron, (1969)
Charles P. Kendall, “Planks Across the Dunes,”
Jour. Az. History (Winter 1980) pp.391-410
Robert Lenon,
It Seems Like Only Yesterday, Vol. 1 The Yuma Years, (2004)
Richard E. Lingenfelter,
Steamboats on the Colorado River, 1852-1916, (1978)
Frank Love,
From Brothel to Boomtown: Yuma’s Naughty Past, (1981)
Douglas D. Martin,
Yuma Crossing, (1954)
Robert Nelson,
Early Yuma, (2006)
Frank D. Robertson,
A History of Yuma, Arizona 1540-1920, (1942) U. of A. Masters Thesis
John & Lillian Theobald,
Arizona Territory Post Offices & Postmasters, (1961)
US Dept Interior,
Fifteenth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service 1915-1916, (1916)
Roscoe G. Willson, “Arizona Marks A Century As A United States Territory,”
Arizona Days and Ways Magazine (
Arizona Republic Sunday magazine), February 24, 1963
Robert Woznicki,
The History of Yuma and the Territorial Prison, (1968)

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32 Responses to Yuma: Gateway City and Sunshine Haven

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  10. ColRivFisherman says:

    Great article !. The photo listed as the Yuma prison is actually a photo of the fort on the calif side.

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  12. William H.Lyle, M.D. says:

    A wonderful history that confirms many tales that I’ve heard from 19th century residents.

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  15. jonnie thomas says:

    Love this.

  16. profitup10 says:

    I was born in the old Avenue C hospital in 1943. Grew up in Yuma flying small planes all over the west with my dad so the air views are nice to help me remember the good old days of freedom in Yuma.
    Your article is accurate and very well stated thanks to you from all of us relocated Yuma criminals.

    Lock Piatt

  17. Desi Foster says:

    What a great article! I moved here in the summer of 1970, and have loved learning about how our city came to be. I have learned much of this before, but never as interesting, and there is so much here I didn’t know. Thank you!

  18. Jerry Berg says:

    There is a small error in the date for the burning of Second Avenue Elementary School. You show 1946 and I know that’s not correct as I went to first and second grades there in 1949 and 1950. Perhaps it was 1956 but I don’t know for sure.
    Lock Piatt, the hospital to which you refer was on Avenue B not C as I was born there a few months before you kid.

  19. Anonymous says:

    The Herrera family of Juan and Mary moved to Yuma in January of 1953. They had, eventually, 15 children all raised and schooled in Yuma. As Catholics we mostly attended the now gone location of Immaculate Conception Elementary at the corner of 4th ave and 5th Street. Many of us still live in Yuma (and descendants) to this day. Juan and Mary’s son, John and his wife Lynn, now live in
    Payson, Az. I am he.

  20. profitup10 says:

    My family moved to Yuma in the 30s and we then moved in 1960. I have no immediate family there anymore.

  21. Steven Seale says:

    The Second Avenue Grammar School was destroyed by fire in 1953, you’re article says 1946. This has been confirmed by many students that attended the school.

  22. Janet Rotharmel says:

    Steven Seale is right, I was born in 1943, and went to first and second grade there…It was a beautiful school, cool in the summer.

  23. Janet Rotharmel says:

    Also, Jerry Berg is right, Hi Jerry…

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hi Janet. Remind me who you are.

  25. Jerry Berg says:

    I’m listed above as Anonymous and I don’t see where to log in. Janet I see now, after searching my annuals, that you are Janet Smith.

  26. profitup10 says:

    Hello Janet, this is Lock Piatt, hello Jerry Berg.

  27. Santiago Sanchez says:

    does this site know when the underpass on Four Avenue/ 5th St year built

  28. bmestudent says:

    Is there anyone who knows the history of Immaculate Conception School located on 4th Ave? I am trying to find out some history for a class I am currently taking. Thanks.

  29. John Lock says:

    I attended ther in the 50s if that will help you – I will answer what I know.

  30. bmestudent says:

    By the way, thank you for the wonderful article and pictures. I have seen Yuma has changed over the past 30 years, but for a while in the 80s and 90s it seemed really stagnant..not so much change during those years. It’s mostly been in the late 90s and 2000s. Anyway back to what I’m interested in, Immaculate Conception School:
    1) What was the curriculum like in the 50s?
    2) What was the student population like (percentage-wise): Whites, Hispanics, blacks, etc? Was there segregation?
    3) Was their bilingual education?
    4) What was the socioeconomic status of the students? If you had to guess, what was the percentage of low-income students compared to the whole student body?
    5) Was there any issues with race or ethnic background at the time? If yes, what types of issues?

  31. John Lock says:

    The 40s and 50s were static for the most part. Only issue was when the Marines took over the Airbase.
    1) the Curriculum was advanced for the most part and classes were often over 40 students – The Sisters made sure all did their assignments if not you stayed after school.
    2) Race was not an issue for the most part. Mostly white and Mexican not many blacks. There was no segregation. In fact in the 50s and 60s one black family had a son as Yuma High president and his sister was freshmen class queen.
    3) Many spoke Mexican and English and classes were taught in English.
    4) Most students were from middle class families – yes even the Mexicans. There was quite a number of poor students.
    5) Yuma had segregation with signs in restaurants and theaters – the town was divided by poor Mexicans and Black in the valley. People like my Father built a pool for the poor and Blacks that was better than the segregated white pool. There were Mexican gangs and they caused many fights. Drugs were not common. Most people like the Indians, Blacks, Mexicans keep to themselves just at we all do now. Tribalism is still the rule. For the most part we all got along.

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