Friday, July 20, 2012

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: