Because Yuma was the safest place to cross the Colorado River, all trails led here for centuries. In fact, the first European explorers arrived in Yuma 80 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Yuma’s Place in History

What put Yuma on the map of the Old West was the Gold Rush of 1849, when thousands of fortune hunters headed west in search of gold. In just one year, more than 60,000 travelers used Yuma’s rope ferry to cross the mighty Colorado.

Some years later, the U.S. Army built a fort to protect the crossing and set up a depot here to supply outposts throughout the Southwest. Goods brought upriver from the sea were shipped out from Yuma by 20-mule teams or by steamboat.

That made Yuma a lively spot full of river pilots, soldiers, mule skinners, miners, outlaws, cowboys, Indians and bandits – and those who supplied them with hot grub, strong drink and warm female companionship. 

At Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, explore original buildings – some of the state’s oldest – and learn how the Colorado River shaped the West’s past, present and future.

Lock ’Em Up

prison kids lock in (2)- edited.jpgYuma’s name took on a fearsome new meaning in 1876 when Yuma Territorial Prison opened on the bluff above town – and prisoners were locked into cells they’d hacked from the granite with their own hands. Now a state historic park, the prison’s newest feature lets visitors hear echoes of hard times in a hard place. 

Through a motion-activated sound system in the cellblock, six prisoners tell their stories – taken from diaries, journals and news accounts – including John Clay, one of the meanest and most violent prisoners; Phineas Clanton, the last of the infamous Clanton Gang; William Jordan Flake, a Mormon “prisoner of conscience,” jailed for polygamy; R.L. McDonald, a “white-collar criminal” who swindled prisoners’ earnings; “Three Finger Jack” Loustaunau, a radical agitator; and Barney K. Riggs, who saved the warden’s life during an escape attempt.

Also expanded this year is the Bad Girls of the Old West exhibit, featuring the 29 women who served time here. Don’t miss The Gathering of the Gunfighters, January 11–12, 2014, as Old West re-enactors from throughout the region come together at Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park for hootin’, shootin’ and lots of drama.

Hidden Treasures

Western history buffs will dig Castle Dome Mines Museum, a lovingly recreated ghost town in a picture-perfect desert setting about 40 miles northeast of town. Spanish conquistadors found silver here in the 1600s, and exploration continued from 1862 to 1979, making Castle Dome Mines Arizona’s longest-worked mines.

When Allen and Stephanie Armstrong bought the old claim – now surrounded by Kofa National Wildlife Refuge – only a few original buildings remained standing. The Armstrongs have since created a sprawling town of more than 50 authentic structures. Each of these structures are filled to the rafters with period furniture, equipment and artifacts – like the world’s oldest pair of Levi’s – much of it pulled by Allen from the claim’s dry, dark mineshafts in pristine condition.

Mostly off the tourist radar, Castle Dome delivers what travel writer Roger Naylor  called, “An unforgettable blend of history and scenery [that] bristles with rich details of the lives led – and lost.” A new section of the article updates the story through the 1960s and 70s. 

Castle Dome is open daily fall through spring. Admission includes access to the ghost town and a self-guided hike through the mining area. 

Historic Detours

Castle Dome blacksmith shop (2)- edited.jpgDig deeper with a walking tour of Yuma’s historic downtown and riverfront from the Yuma County Historical Society. The stroll takes about two hours, covers about one and a half miles and includes centuries of interesting tales.

For another kind of walk down memory lane, visit Cloud Museum. Among the 115 vintage vehicles gathered here, there are more than 75 Model T Fords on display – all in running order thanks to owner Johnny Cloud. Lots of other “stuff” too, from farm equipment to crank telephones to a gadget that cuts saltwater taffy. Says Cloud, “If it’s old and rusty and useless, I’ve got it.” Now you go see it.

Get a closer look at the desert with Running Boy Tours, whose off-roading adventures can be customized to your personal thrill level. No weather worries – choose an open-air ATV or a climate-controlled Jeep to see wildlife, mining, and military and historic sites and to hear local tales and folklore.

Happy 100th!

The city of Yuma is celebrating a big birthday in 2014 – the 100th anniversary of its charter under the laws of the new state of Arizona on April 7, 1914. Along with birthday candles, the city will be lighting up new signs welcoming folks to the “Gateway of the Great Southwest.” Celebrate in style at a gala concert featuring Creedence Clearwater Revisited and Lonestar April 12, 2014. Join the party at www.yuma100.com. 

To find your real Arizona adventure in Yuma, head to www.visityuma.com or call toll-free, 800-293-0071. The visitor info center is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. MST, seven days a week.

Highlights of Yuma’s History

1540: First European explorers arrive upriver from the Sea of Cortez.

1849–50: More than 60,000 gold seekers cross the Colorado River via rope ferry.

1857: First U.S. post office established.

1863: Arizona Territory established under law, signed by President Lincoln.

1866: Town site laid out for what’s known as Arizona City.

1871: Arizona City incorporated under Territorial law.

1873: Arizona City renamed Yuma.

1900: Yuma City Hall built.

1912: On Valentine’s Day, Arizona becomes 48th state.

1914: On April 7, city of Yuma chartered under new Arizona laws.

 

 (Brought to you by the Yuma Visitors Bureau, (800) 293-0071, www.visityuma.com.)