By Philip A. Bailey
Prior to the advent of railroads the Colorado was looked upon as the Mississippi of the West, and while many realized that other means of transportation would be developed, they felt that nothing could supplant the river traffic. Yuma then was the center of great activity. The San Diego Herald maintained a correspondent at Fort Yuma who sent his news items to San Diego by whatever means available, usually immigrants or soldiers traveling to the coast. The general feeling was that Yuma would become the metropolis of the West, and the Herald was full of accounts of doings on the Colorado.
The town and fort were important not only because of the traffic up and down the river but also because of that which crossed it. In the Herald for August 13, 1853, appeared the following from the Yuma correspondent, dated August 1, 1853. “Captain Brown informs me that 50 immigrants from Texas recently passed this place — their animals are in good condition. They report a large number well behind well supplied with cattle and horses. As there is now plenty of water in the New River they will experience no inconvenience in crossing the desert. I am told there are quite a number of females — thank God — with the party. I shall advise them — for your sake — to go by way of San Diego.”
The Herald, on November 19, 1853, quoted from Narrative of Four Voyages to the Soutb Sea and Nortb and Soutb Pacific Ocean from the Year 1822 to 1831, by Captain Benjamin Morrell, Jr., including an extract from the diary for April 6, 1825.
“The Gulf of California is only an extension of the Colorado River which rises in the same mountains as the Rio del Norte which empties into the Gulf of Mexico…. I think I may hazard little in ascertaining that long before another century rolls around, the principal avenue of trade between the United States and different seaports on the Pacific Ocean will be the Colorado River as connected with the Gulf of California. The China and India trade will, of course, intermittently flow through the same channel which will render the route to the Pacific far more eligible than that of the river Columbia can ever become.”
In time the Herald lost its enthusiasm, when Yuma, which was called Colorado City, failed to live up to expectations.
On October 3, 1857 it said, “Colorado City, according to the Stockton Argus, is situated on the Colorado opposite Fort Yuma, and is a place of some importance. We wonder if the Stockton Argus man owns some lots in Colorado City. The ‘city’ at present contains one adobe house.”
The name was changed to Arizona City, then to Yuma, river trade flourished, and immigrants continued to come across on the old trail. The town began to live up to expectations, and was not merely an adjunct to Fort Yuma, which stood across the River on the California side.
The following article appeared in the San Diego Union of November 11, 1876:
“Yuma is opposite Fort Yuma where there are several companies of U. S. troops in commodious barracks. Yuma Depot, the headquarters of the Quartermaster dept. is located on the Arizona side. Yuma proper is an ‘adobe town’ as lumber is scarce and sells at 15 cents per foot. All the houses are roofed with layers of branches, over which is laid a layer of gunny-sacks and leaves, then it is covered with four or five inches of mud. Mesquite cordwood sells at $3 delivered. Yuma is incorporated and has a U.S. patent to the townsite. The village is officered by a Mayor and Councilmen, and has a good public school, also a Catholic convent in charge of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and a Catholic church. The population is 1500, 200 of which are Americans and the balance Mexican. There are eleven saloons, two of them with gambling, nine general stores, the leading one being J. M. Barney, successor to Win. B. Hooper & Co., a barber shop, machine shop, three blacksmith shops, one livery stable, two hotels, named the Railroad and Colorado, two boarding houses, three butcher shops, two doctors, four lawyers, and a District judge. There is also a weekly newspaper, The Arizona Sentinel. There is a smelter in town and another at Castle Dome, 20 miles north. Yuma is a great re-shipping point, principally to Ehrenburg, 100 miles up the river, from where freight is carried by team 190 miles to Prescott. The freight for Tucson goes directly from here by teams.”
An odd thing about the above letter is that the writer does not mention the Arizona Territorial Prison. The letter was written in November 1876, and the prison on Penitentiary Hill was erected in 1876. It was abandoned in 1909.
It is almost surprising that anyone got to Yuma in those days, considering what the approaches were like. Here is an extract from the journal of an expedition from San Diego to the Colorado, from September 11 to December 11, 1849, kept by Lieutenant A. W. Whipple, of the Topographical Engineers.
Having travelled the long valley of Warner’s Ranch eight miles from Santa Isobel we struck the much travelled emigrant road leading from the Colorado to El Pueblo de los Angeles…. Upon entering the San Felipe, twenty-six miles from Santa Isobel, we found several parties of emigrants, some of them destitute of provisions. They tell us that upon the desert we shall find many in a condition bordering upon starvation. They also confirmed the reports of the emigrants at San Diego concerning the hostilities committed by the Indians at the mouth of the Gila. One party pretended to have had a pitched battle with them, and showed an arrow with which one man had been wounded. The numbers of Indians at Yuma is estimated at 5000, and it is feared they would destroy the emigrant parties in their rear.
From Ives’ The Colorado River of The West comes:
… of the injurious effect of extreme heat and long marches with water upon cattle and sheep, there are abundant evidences in the Colorado Desert. Skulls, limbs, and whole skeletons of animals lie strewed about along the trail near the watering places. Most of these were on the way to California from Santa Fe and the plains of New Mexico and Sonora, and overcome by fatigue and drought, succombed to nature. Their bleached bones and preserved skins have rendered their last remains unpalatable to the coyote and wolf, and are a valuable, though melancholy testimony of the dryness of the air . . . If two parties be approaching the same well, one strived to anticipate’ the other, knowing or fearing the supply is not sufficient for both.
Yuma did become a crossroads of the Southwest, for a while, and its importance continued to increase, but it did not grow to be the metropolis of the western states. Great cities spring up where there are breaks in transportation — ocean or lake to river or canal — water to land — rail to road — or the reverse in any of these cases. The railroads, bridges, and irrigation projects put an end to river traffic and Yuma, no longer a crossroads, was left to develop more gradually.