Monday, 17 August 2009


Yuma, Arizona was there long before the Southern Pacific Railroad routed the 3:10 there.
Nor would the railroad had gone there had it not been for an Army Surveyor called Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple. Whipple had been born in 1817 in Greenwich, Massachusets and had assisted in the boundary locations with Mexico from El Paso through to the Pacific Coast. The War Department, therefore, thought that A.W.Whipple would be the ideal choice to survey and find a transcontinental railroad route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Los Angeles, California.
The story of the Whipple Expedition is fascinating and too lengthy to go into here - but there is an account of this on the web.
Whipple was killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863.
Yuma's real history though dates back to about 1540 when the Spanish explorere Hernando de Alarcon was the first European to set eyes on this territory. In 1697 Father Eusebio Francisco Kino established a mission on the banks of the Colorado River but this did not last a year. Yet it is he that pioneered the desert route that became known as El Carmino del Diablo.
It was not until 1774 that a new mission was built by Father Francisco Garces from where he led an expedition under Juan Bautista de Anza to California. The mission was destroyed by the Apaches in 1781.
The territory lay dormant for a while until re-discovered by Kit Carson but it was not populated until the late 1840s. It was at this time that Whipple arrived only to find that it was only populated by Indians.
The California gold rush found the crossing of the Colorado to have it's own means of making a profit. L.J.F. Jaeger opened up a ferry for those seeking their fortune and within a year an estimated sixty thousand hopefuls crossed over at $2 a head.
Steamboats brought passengers and materials to the crossing and in 1870 the Southern Pacific Railroad bridged the river.
Arizona, at the time a part of New Mexico (Arizona did not become a state until 1863) became a territorial US possesion in 1854 and Fort Yuma was built on the opposite bank to the town. It remained an Army post until 1883.
Nearby placer findings in 1858 brought further prosperity to the growing town.
On the Ist July, 1876 the territorial prison open it's gates to admit the first seven prisoners. Yuma's Territorial Prison would, in it's lifetime, house 3069 prisoners - 29 of whom were women. Construction of the prison was ongoing and built by the prisoners themselves.
This would serve as a harsh reminder of frontier justice. The prison was sited on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River. Adobe walls 18 feet high and eight feet thick at the base surrounded stone buildings, solid rock dungeons and a sun baked yard. Outside, a Gatling gun on a tower stood guard over the single entrance. Beyond - well anyone attempting to escape had not only the desert to content with but Indians who were paid a bounty of $50 for every prisoner that they brought back.
Between 1854 and 1858 Yuma was known as Colorado City when it changed the name to Arizona City.
Yuma as a city and a county did not come into being until 1873 and was named for the original indigenous tribes.

1 comment: