Sunday, July 22, 2012

Yuma: The Quartermaster Depot

The Quartermaster Depot in Yuma, which also doubles as the Yuma Visitors Center, is a lovely state historic park located near the California border on the Colorado River (see photo at right).  A large map in the Visitors Center explains that “Settlement  of the Southwest hinged upon the Army’s ability to protect American lives and property during the frequent Indian conflicts. 

But, the effectiveness of the soldiers was only as great as the Army’s ability to keep outposts supplied.  The Quartermaster Depot at Yuma was established in 1864 as the primary supply terminal for posts in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas."

Of course, this being the nineteenth century, horses were an important part of Army life and there was a large corral on the grounds for them (see photo at right).  Mules were also stabled here.  In 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation, part of the United States Department of the Interior, took over this building and added an addition to it. 

Nowadays, what one sees when visiting here is a history of the Bureau’s efforts to siphon water from the Colorado River to the surrounding land in Arizona and California.  The purpose was to provide water for irrigation and, in fact, the Yuma region produces 90% of the United States’ yearly lettuce crop.  A canal several yards from the corral building is visible through a fence and apparently is part of the Colorado River Siphon.

The house where the commanding officer of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and his family lived was built by George Alonzo Johnson in 1959.  It is thought to be the oldest home still extant that was built of adobe in Arizona by an Anglo.  Each room in the house exhibits the furniture and accoutrements of the time period when Army officers resided there.  There is a glass barrier prevents visitors from touching the contents in any of the rooms, though, which accounts for the glare and shadows in the photos accompanying this blog entry. 

And, had there been cross-ventilation, the temperature inside the building would undoubtedly have been somewhat cooler but as it was, it was extremely hot and uncomfortable.  I hope for the sake of the people who actually lived there, especially since they wore much heavier clothes than we do nowadays, that they found it more tolerable.  The master bedroom room (see partial view in photo above, top) was adjacent to the children’s bedroom and they occupied one side of the house; on the other, connected by a hallway, lay the dining room and parlor (see partial view in second photo above; i.e. fourth from top of screen).  The kitchen and servant’s quarters were in a separate building only a few feet away.  The “servant” was usually a soldier from the post and a sign explained performing this duty earned him additional pay and his own room to sleep in.   

In 1872, the Army constructed a building that the Quartermaster could use as his office (see photo at right).  It was the last building that the Army built on the grounds.  It currently has displays about Army uniforms and their insignia, and about its use from 1875 to 1891 by the Signal Corps as a telegraph office and weather station (see photo at right of the desk where the telegraph equipment was) until the Army left in 1883.  When the Weather Service was formed as an independent agency in 1891, separate from the Army, civilians maintained the weather station on the grounds through 1949.

Six months’ worth of supplies was always kept at the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  They were stored in a large building (see photo below) which is now a transportation museum.  Inside the huge, barn-like structure are numerous vehicles ranging from an 1846 wagon used by the Mormon Battalion  to dump wagons from the late nineteenth century used in the construction of the Yuma Territorial Prison and for harvesting grain to an Army escort wagon, to early twentieth-century combustion-engine harvesters and cars modified as wagons for business purposes.  A small room off the central room showcases the importance of steamboat travel in the area, for both business and pleasure, and contains maps, a hand cart for transporting goods, and a model of the Cocopah steamboat.

Making a circuit of the lovely, well-manicured grounds of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and exploring all the buildings should take about two hours.  There are picnic tables set up by the canal and in a cooler season would be a very nice place to relax.  The Visitors Center has plenty of free brochures about the area as well as a gift shop; it is air-conditioned, which provided pleasant relief from the stuffy interiors of the other buildings on the premises.

If Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry did take that ride down the Colorado River, as Heyes suggested at the end of Six Strangers in Apache Springs, maybe they transferred to a steamboat and made it all the way to Yuma.  If they did, they might have ended up at the Quartermaster Depot looking for work at the conclusion of their journey.

Website for the Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Yuma Territorial Prison

Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were fortunate they didn’t face the prospect of serving twenty years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Known as the “Hell Hole” by the inmates, the prison opened in 1876 and closed in 1909 when overcrowding became too severe, so it was in operation at almost the same time as the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie, which I described in a blog entry in July 2011. 
Built by convicts on a hill just outside the city of Yuma, the prison was surrounded on two sides by the Colorado River, which made escapes difficult though not impossible.  Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison is an Arizona State Park (see photo above) and is open year round; though tours are not offered in the summer, the park rangers, called customer service representatives, are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions from visitors.

Perhaps the most famous prisoners held at the Yuma Territorial Prison were “Buckskin” Frank Leslie and Pearl Hart; both have displays in the site's museum.  Leslie was a gunman infamous in Tombstone and was sentenced to twenty-five years for murdering a prostitute there.  He arrived at the prison in 1890 but was pardoned—a common occurrence back then—six or eight years later (records differ as to when exactly he was released).  Hart was an erstwhile stagecoach robber who initially was found not guilty at her trial but the judge convened another jury that convicted her and she was sentenced to five years.  In its thirty-three year history, the Yuma Territorial Prison housed 3,069 inmates, of which 29 were women.

When a convict first arrived, he or she entered the prison through the sally port, (see two photos at right and below: the top shows the original adobe structure and small white-painted guard post next to it; the photo below shows the view through the sally port looking out towards the Colorado River).   The convict was photographed and vital statistics were noted; using a mirror with a cut-out section on the bottom, the photographer was able to simultaneously take a photo that captured a full and profile view of the person.  This mirror is on display in the museum and visitors can don a black-and-white striped shirt, made of heavy cotton by Levi Strauss’ company, and try it out for themselves.

A display reveals that most of the prisoners were between 21 – 30 years old, although the youngest was 14 and the oldest 88.  Not surprisingly, at least half were single, although the marital status of one-quarter was unknown.  The vast majority used some form of tobacco, which was allowed in the prison, but the inmates had to supply it themselves. 
Most of the prisoners were either Anglo or Mexican; much smaller numbers were Native American or African-American.  Over 1,300  prisoners identified themselves as Catholic and slightly more than 500 as Protestant; only three prisoners were Jewish and just one was Buddhist; however, the religion of approximately sixty percent of the remaining inmates was unknown.  Interestingly, at least half of the prisoners were literate, although the literacy level of an additional one-quarter of the convicts was not known.
Prisoners were housed six to a cell, with ten cells in a row facing ten other cells across a narrow passageway that was barred at both ends with a metal gate (see four photos at right and below).  This is what remains of the cellblock today and what visitors see.  Behind each of those rows of cells were additional cells.  Original strap-iron doors have been preserved (unlike the doors at the Wyoming Territorial Prison).
Each cell was furnished with bunk beds—originally made of wood but when the bedbug problem became too great, iron bunks were used instead—a chamber pot, and an iron ring bolted to the floor that was used for punishment by chaining an inmate to it.  Prisoners had their heads shaved weekly (though not the women, as far as I can tell from photographs of them) and bathed at least once a week.  Prisoners were required to work and, in fact, were able to learn a trade while incarcerated at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Female inmates were housed in a separate section of the prison.

The law-abiding citizens of Yuma referred to the prison as the “Country Club on the Colorado” because it had amenities they themselves did not.  For example, starting in 1885 there was electricity, and the surplus was sold to the town; there was also running water that was pumped into a reservoir on the prison grounds from the Colorado River; forced ventilation; and a hospital which not only provided medical but also dental care.  The hospital was constructed over one of the cell blocks and a doctor was on call.
For twenty-five cents, townspeople could visit the prison; this fee went towards the purchase of books for the prison library, which was the largest in Arizona with 1500 – 2000 volumes (accounts differ).  In its time, the prison was considered a model penitentiary.  I was not able to find out if the Auburn System was in effect here, though.

Several buildings from the era of the Yuma Territorial Prison no longer exist.  They include the hospital, the dining hall for prisoners, the superintendent’s house, the building where the guards lived, and the women’s cells.  However, when the prison began to become overcrowded, a new cell block was built and visitors can still see that.

Another part of the prison that can be visited is the Dark Cell.  Unlike the one at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, which was located in the same building with the other cells, the Dark Cell at the Yuma Territorial Prison was located in a separate section.  It can be seen behind the iron gate in the sixth photo from the top of this blog entry.  The Dark Cell was reached through a short, dark passageway (see photo above).
I visited the prison the day after a very heavy monsoon thunderstorm and the entrance was flooded so it was not possible for me to actually go inside and see the place.  But I was told that it was an iron cage and the only light was from a small vent in the roof.  Prisoners wore only their undergarments while there and were fed a meal of bread and water once a day.  There was no bedding, not even a chamber pot.  If wearing a ball and chain or being confined to solitary—a separate row of five cells--was not a severe enough punishment, inmates were sent to the Dark Cell.  There was a punishment even worse than the Dark Cell—the Incorrigible Ward, which consisted of five small cells behind the main cell block (see the foundation of the Incorrigible Ward at the center right of the photo below).
There were many escape attempts but only a few were successful.  Convicts who died while serving time were buried in the prison cemetery, located partway down the hill.  There are no markers, only heaps of stones now, to indicate the graves but a plaque explains that 104 prisoners are buried there and it lists their names.

A museum, built where the dining hall used to be, contains very interesting exhibits about the history of the prison and the prisoners who spent time there; it definitely should not be missed.  The building at the entrance to the park also serves as the gift shop and contains a few books about the prison as well as many others about Arizona; there are also lots of other prison-oriented souvenirs available for purchase.While I enjoyed my time immensely at the Yuma Territorial Prison, I am sure that Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes would have had a completely different perspective had they ever been incarcerated there.

Official website for the Yuma Territorial Prison:

A short history of the Yuma Territorial Prison:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Yuma: The Sanguinetti House Museum

First-time visitors to Yuma should begin their exploration of the city with a visit to the Sanguinetti House Museum, formerly known as the Century House (see photo at right).  A small building located on the outskirts of the downtown, this museum showcases Yuma’s history from its time as a Native American settlement through the present.

E.F. Sanguinetti was a businessman in Yuma in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century.  If Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry ever passed through Yuma, they very likely would have bought supplies at one of his many mercantile stores. 

The house was bequeathed to the city of Yuma by his children; two rooms have been restored with period furniture, including a Brattleboro organ in one and wood chairs with rattan seats in the other, and show how the Sanguinetti family lived.  There is a kitchen in another room with an icebox, a small cast-iron stove, and a sink with a pump for running water.  Unfortunately, photos were not allowed to be taken inside the museum.  (See two photos of the exterior above and one below.)
Other rooms presented exhibits about Yuma’s history.  A large map on the wall near the entrance situates Yuma in the Southwest and clearly shows why its geographic location made it so important in the nineteenth century.  There is information about the Quechan (Yuma) people’s traditional way of life and then a lot of information about the Spanish, who first explored the area in the sixteenth century but who didn’t settle there until the eighteenth. 

A good description of the attacks by the Native Americans on the Spanish missions is provided, complete with translations of primary source document excerpts.  The museum also has exhibits on the riverboat and railroad history of Yuma, with many photos and artifacts displayed.  Another section of the museum displays the history of the US military presence in Yuma, which continues to this day at the Yuma Proving Grounds.

The beautiful garden at the back of the house contains an aviary, complete with peacocks (see photo at right).  During seasons other than summer, the Garden CafĂ© is open for business.  Next door to the museum is a gift shop, well-stocked with books about Yuma and its history.  Be warned, however—credit cards are not accepted.

One hour at the Sanguinetti House Museum should be sufficient to thoroughly see what it has to offer.  It’s well worth it!

Official website for the Sanguinetti House Museum:

Yuma, Arizona

Yuma has the reputation of being incredibly hot in the summer but on the three days I visited in mid-July 2012, the temperature was 100, 102, and 105 degrees Fahrenheit and even though the humidity was definitely more noticeable, due to the city’s location on the banks of the Colorado River, than in Tucson where I spent most of my time in Arizona during its centennial year (see photo above), the weather was not unbearable.  In fact, I experienced a big thunderstorm one evening that caused flash flood warnings to appear on TV and as cell phone alerts.  So don’t let the weather forecast deter you from visiting what turned out to be a very nice small city.

Situated near the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, the region was originally inhabited by Native Americans tribes known as the Quechan, or Yuma, from which the present city takes its name.  A primarily agricultural society, they also traded with other tribes to the north and south.  Nowadays, the federally-recognized Quechan have a reservation on the California side of the Colorado River.  The Cocopah is another Native American tribe whose members also live in the Lower Colorado Valley and Mexico.

In 1540, Hernando de Alarcon was the first Spaniard to reach the site of present-day Yuma.  Other Spanish explorers followed and in 1780 a Spanish mission, called La Purisima Concepcion, was founded near Yuma but the native Quechan Indians were poorly treated and in 1781, attacked and killed the European men living at the mission.  Nothing remains of it today but St. Thomas Mission, which was built in 1922, is located on the hill where the original Spanish mission was located (see photos above; on top is a close-up of the mission and below is the mission with the Colorado River in the foreground).

In the 19th century, the strategic and economic importance of the lower Colorado River was recognized.  Products were transported overland from California and when they arrived in Yuma, were shipped up the Colorado River to points north or continued their journey overland to points further east in the United States.  The settlement at Yuma grew as people traveled the Butterfield Overland Mail route and as Forty-Niners on their way to the California gold fields passed through Yuma.  Nowadays, goods are more likely to be transported by train and I saw numerous freight trains, such as the one in the photo above, during my brief stay in Yuma.

Some shops and restaurants on Main Street—which actually was the main street of Yuma in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century--were closed for the summer or because of the recession.  However, there was still plenty to do: The Yuma Art Gallery exhibits the works of local artists, the historic Yuma Theatre hosts performances, and Yuma’s Main Squeeze (see photos at right) is a local winery that offers daily wine tastings. 

The main attractions for people interested in Western history are the Sanguinetti House Museum, the Yuma Territorial Prison, and the Quartermaster’s Depot and each of these will be described in separate blog entries.  While Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry would certainly have appreciated the pleasures Yuma had to offer, they would have definitely wanted to avoid a stay in the prison!

General information about Yuma: