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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark YUMA CROSSING

Location: Yuma County, Ariz., and Imperial County, Calif. The crossing is between the U.S. 80 and old highway bridges over the Colorado River in the vicinity of two small islands at a point directly below the proposed I-8 bridge. Other associated sites are in the city of Yuma, Ariz., and in Imperial County, Calif., in the vicinity of the city of Winterhaven.

From historic times to the present this crossing near the mouth of the Gila River, the only natural crossing of the Colorado River in the southern desert region, has been a major entry route—for covered wagons, railroads, and automobiles—into California from the southeast and one of the most strategic transportation-communication gateways in the West. During the last half of the 19th century, Fort Yuma and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot were situated adjacent to it.

Prehistoric Indian trails converged at the crossing, over which passed many Spanish explorers beginning in 1540. In 1774 it became a stopping point on a newly pioneered route from Tubac, Ariz., to Los Angeles. In 1779 Father Francisco Garces founded a mission on the California side of the river. Two years later the Spaniards added a presidio and colony, but that same year the Yuma Indians destroyed the settlement. The extreme hostility of the Yumas, Mohaves, Apaches, and other Indians in the region prevented much further Spanish or Mexican (1821-48) use of the crossing, though after 1826 it was on a Sonora (Mexico)-California route used by Mexican traders and mail carriers. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny's Army of the West, en route to California in 1846, forded at the crossing, as did Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke's Mormon Battalion the next year.

Yuma Crossing
George H. Baker's lithograph of Yuma Crossing in its heyday, about 1870. Ferry masts are in foreground. Fort Yuma stands on hill across the river. (California Historical Society)

Traffic over the crossing boomed following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the same year the United States acquired the Southwest from Mexico. Thousands of prospectors and other emigrants moved over the Southern Transcontinental Trail in covered wagons and stages. The flow of traffic fostered the operation of various ferries across the river, the most important being that of Louis J. F. Jaeger (or Yager). He conducted his business from 1850 until 1877, when the Southern Pacific Railroad bridged the river and brought an end to most trail traffic and ferry operation.

Meantime, in 1850, the Army had also reacted to the emigration by establishing Fort Yuma on the California side of the river to protect travelers. For the first 4 months the fort was located about one-half mile below the mouth of the Gila, but it was then moved to its permanent site on a bluff overlooking the junction of the Gila and Colorado. Yuma Indian attacks in 1850-51 and supply problems caused the fort's abandonment, but it was reoccupied the next year. Its garrison, serving at a post that had the reputation as the hottest in the West, mainly escorted emigrants. Situated on the Mexican border, it was also involved in customs and immigration matters. In 1858-61 it was a stopping point of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which established a stage station on the California edge of the river.

Soon after the founding of the fort, the town of Colorado City grew up across the river in Arizona. Later renamed Arizona City and then Yuma, it became a major way station on the overland trail and a terminal point for the busy steamboat traffic that supplied Fort Yuma beginning in 1852, when steamboats were successfully introduced on the Colorado River. Ships from California ports rounded Lower California and sailed up the Gulf of California to the mouth of the river, from where flat-bottomed river steamers took the cargoes upriver to Yuma. Jaeger's Ferry Landing, on the south bank, became the steamboat landing.

For these reasons in 1864 the Army established the Yuma Quartermaster Depot, Ariz., adjacent to Jaeger's Landing. The depot distributed supplies, received on ships from California, by freight wagon to Arizona forts. It was also a quartering place for mules, sometimes as many as 900 being on hand. Destroyed by fire in 1867, the depot was immediately rebuilt and functioned until the late 1880's. From 1908 until 1954 it served as a customs house and immigration checkpoint. Fort Yuma's importance had diminished following the Civil War, during which California Volunteers replaced the Regular troops. After the war, the fort was mainly a supply and personnel depot. The Army evacuated it in 1882, and 2 years later the Indian Bureau assumed jurisdiction.

Modern view of barracks at Fort Yuma, Calif. (National Park Service)

In the years 1876-1909 the Arizona Territorial Prison, a symbol of harsh frontier justice, stood atop a barren cliff overlooking the river just east of Jaeger's Landing. Housing notorious frontier desperadoes and a peak population of 376 prisoners, the prison enjoyed a reputation paralleling that of Alcatraz in later times. The Territorial prison's adobe walls were 18 feet high and 8 feet thick at the base. The stone cell blocks, naked to the desert heat, were guarded at two corners by towers mounting Gatling guns, which prevented several escapes.

Modern structures on both sides of the river and powerlines crossing it have impaired the natural setting of historic Yuma Crossing. On the California side of the river where the old highway and railroad bridges cross, about a dozen adobe buildings from the late military period are grouped around the parade ground at Fort Yuma, a registered State historical landmark that is today the agency headquarters of the Fort Yuma (Quechan) Indian Reservation. Many of the structures have been altered and some are in poor condition, but they are all of considerable architectural interest. Surrounding and linking them are verandas, designed to preclude the need to walk in the sun.

About a quarter of a mile west of the historic crossing in Arizona are several adobe and plaster buildings that were once part of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot. Owned by the city of Yuma, some are unoccupied and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation uses others. Just east of the crossing at the south end of the old railroad and old highway bridges directly opposite Fort Yuma is an other interesting complex, the Arizona Territorial Prison, a unit of the Arizona park system. Originally constructed of adobe and stone, much of it is now in partial ruins. One restored building serves as a museum. Of special interest are the guard tower, several banks of cell blocks, and the entrance gate.

NHL Designation: 11/13/66

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005