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Yumping for Yuma

Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2005-2017

Written March 2005.
Day One.

We left our home in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning in March 2005, about 6:30, an hour behind schedule as always. We headed south on the San Diego Freeway (405) until it merged with I-5 and continued south to I-8 in San Diego, then followed I-8 to Yuma. There were two points of interest in Imperial County that we wanted to see. We were miles past Desert View Tower before we realized so we put it off till another time. While there was a sign along the highway telling us to exit for the Plank Road, we drove along the frontage road about a mile past the display onto a dirt/sand path before we turned around and found the plank road on our return. The display is now within Buttercup Valley Off Highway Vehicle Area on the south side of I-8, a few miles west of Yuma.

Before paved roads were able to cross the shifting sands of the Imperial Dunes, the only way for vehicles to travel from El Centro to Yuma was over a road made of wooden planks, known as "The Plank Road." Several versions were build before being replaced by a paved road. The first version consisted of two parallel rows of planks, a car tires width apart. Later, a solid bed of planks running perpendicular to the road, a bit wider that a car, replaced the parallel planks. This second road was easier to navigate, however the road was one vehicle wide with occasional passing sections. It worked, but everyone was relived when a modern paved road replaced it. Now this section of reproduced plank road remains to commemorate this early engineering feat. There is about a quarter of a mile of plank road, fenced off from the dune buggies that cover the dunes.

A mile or so before I-8 crosses the mighty Colorado River, we took the Winterhaven exit to Fort Yuma. Fort Yuma was built atop the hill that once supported Mission La Purisima Conception. The mission was destroyed about a year after its founding by the local native people who were dissatisfied with continued abuses by the Spanish. Saint Thomas Indian Mission was established in 1919 and dedicated in 1923 on the same site. Catholic Masses are still held each Saturday evening and Sunday morning. We visited the Mission and a hundred steps beyond, the Quechan Museum which contains displays of the three main occupants of hill - Spanish, US militery, current. The hill, sometimes called Indian Hill, offers a commanding view of the surrounding valley.

From Winterhaven, we crossed the historic Ocean to Ocean Highway Bridge that crosses the Colorado River, now about 50 feet wide, and leads to First Street in Yuma. The Ocean to Ocean Bridge was built in 1914 and opened in 1915 and was a critical link in joining the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans with a highway.

We stumbled upon the Yuma Visitor Center and then went on to the Century House, also known as Sanguinetti House Museum. This began as a two-room adobe and grew with the family. It is now operated as a museum, open Tuesday through Saturday, 10-4. To get to the Century House, we had to cross the street dodging bicycles in an annual bicycle race around several blocks, include the one containing the Century House.

From the Century House, we checked into our motel, stoppings to photograph other historic buildings along the way.

Once we unloaded the car, we headed east on Highway 95 which turns north after about ten miles. We followed this for about 45 miles before turning around. The Castle Dome Mining Museum was about 8 miles ahead on a dirt road, but since we hadn't researched this and didn't expect it to be open, we chose not to continue. We stopped to observe a heard of wild burrows, the stallions faced us, ears erect, in defense of their heard. I was frustrated that my zoom lens had been stolen a few days earlier. It was now approaching sunset and we found a nice spot to park and wait for a sunset over the desert. It was a clear night, so we missed the reds and gold clouds I had hoped for, but tomorrow would be another day. Once I put my cameras away, we drove back to Yuma in the dark, past silhouettes of farm equipment in this rich agricultural region watered by the Colorado River. We enjoyed our dinner and settled into our evening.

Day Two.

After the Mission, our next priority was to visit Yuma Prison State Historic Park. For 33 years, this was home to 3069 Arizona convicts. To the inmates, the prison was a decidedly unpleasant place, but the prison tried to make it livable by adding electricity when it became available and for one stuffy cellblock, a large ventilation fan. Since the good citizens of Yuma didn't yet have electricity and air conditioning, the townsfolk referred to the prison as the Hotel. Of the 3069 inmates, 26 Escaped, two from the minimum security section. Local Indian trackers were contracted to bring them back, preferably alive, but a few did escape recapture. While mostly holding male prisoners, a few women were also held here. Eventually, the administration decided to build a separate compound for the women. A volunteer docent gave an excellent tour, including the infamous Dark Cell. The dark cell was just that, a space deep in the rock with only one small ventilation hole in the ceiling that allowed the slightest amount of light into this otherwise lightless space. The cell was for the less cooperative prisoners, the average stay being three days. One man was so uncooperative while in the Dark Cell, that he stayed in the cell for 30??? days and it took several days, once he was out, for his eyes to return to normal.

We then drove to the other side of I-8 to visit the other State Historic Park in Yuma, Yuma Crossings State Historic Park. This was where a ferry service was established to transport people and cargo across the river, which at that time was much wider than it is today. It was also a shipping depot for Fort Yuma and several warehouses, the Commander's home, and the Quartermaster's office still stand. I had observed just outside the back fence, an odd irrigation structure where a large volume of water emerged seemingly from nowhere. The last building we visited had an exhibit about this irrigation structure. It is the Arizona side of a siphon that carries irrigation water under the river. Just a few miles upriver is the merger point of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. The dam where this irrigation channel begins is north of the merger point and the water was needed southeast of this point. So one way or another, one of the two rivers needed to be cross. The Colorado River at Yuma Crossing was chosen because the Gila River was more likely to meander.

At this point, we had accomplished our main goals for this trip and drove around the older part of the city to observe some of the oldest and historically significant buildings in Yuma. The Old City Hall is at 181 W. First Street and the courthouse is about a block away. We also found the loading area for Yuma Valley Railroad, a small tourist train that we did not have time to ride on this trip.

It was now time to follow the priest's advice and head north on County Highway S24, in Imperial County, California. S24 winds north through farm land and small farming communities. We were disappointed to discoverer that the Imperial Date Farm Visitor Center was closed, but then it was getting late. We also discovered Cloud Museum, but added it to the list for next time.

Then as we continued north on S24, a highway that ziz-zags a lot, I was past a roadside marker almost before I noticed it. I turned around to read it and was elated that I did. One of my top priorities for this trip was the site of Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, but the research I had read said it was seven leagues down river from La Purissima Conception, which would have put it near Mexico in an isolated corner of California. Here, I read the historic marker for Mission San Pedro y San Pablo de Bicuner, seven leagues upriver from La Purissima only about a quarter mile from the Colorado River. Further research shows that the actual location is disputed. All that remains today is the marker at a bend in the road. It was one of two missions along the Colorado River in the Yuma area and was destroyed in the same Indian attack that destroyed La Purrisima. History records that the Spanish were not kind to the Indians and the Indians simply had enough of the abuse. I took as many photos as I could justify for a stone roadside marker and we continued on to Imperial Dam.

The turnoff to the dam was not clearly marked and we drove back and forth a few times before we got on the right road. It was late and not much to do there other than picnic or boat, so we headed back across the mighty Colorado and back into Yuma County, Arizona.

The road continued through Yuma Proving Ground, a military base used for desert training. Again it was too late to investigate any tourist visitor center that might have been there or to stop to look at the quipment displayed. We returned to the spot we had staked out the night before and this time the sunset was better. We watched the sun set over the mountains and desert and then returned to Yuma for our second night.

Day Three

Monday was our last day and I headed northeast before sunrise to get some sunrise over farm worker photos. In the pre-dawn darkness, I watched farm workers arriving and setting up by the light from the harvesting equipment. I also watched gandy dancers working on the railroad by the headlights of their maintenance vehicles. Compared to my native Los Angeles, the "rush hour" traffic was light but steady as people commuted to Yuma for the work day. It was a magical time of the workday, beginning before the sun was up. By the time I returned to the motel, my wife was up and almost packed. We had breakfast and checked out.

Within minutes we were back in Imperial County, California heading west. We exited at Ogilby Road, Highway S34, and headed north into the desert. We stopped briefly at the trailhead to Tumco Mine, but were not prepared for a long hike so we continued north. We also made a quick stop at Gold Rock Trading Post, a touristy site beside the road. The ocotillos were in bloom and the desert was beautiful. We made a few quick stops along the way, mostly to check out potential points of interest. It's an isolated corner of the state, mostly desert, a few military reservations, and mines.

We reached State Highway 78 and turned west. We pulled in and considered viewing Mesquite Mine, but again decided we didn't have the time for a hike. Then we unexpectedly encountered the Algodones Dunes. As I drove along, the white sand dunes slowly appeared over the horizon. The wind was blowing and the sand was moving. The highway cut through the dunes with Hugh Osborne Scenic Overlook viewing station at the top of the highest dune. Even though the viewing station was paved, the sand was several inches think atop the asphalt and I was reluctant to drive all the way to the end. Not wanting a car full of sand, I also didn't want to open a window, so we observed for a few minutes through closed windows and continued our journey. At the west entrance to the dune system is Cahuilla Ranger Station. And at the east entrance is Glamis Cemetery Historic Landmark.

Not long after leaving the dunes, we drove through the agricultural town of Brawly. Brawly is another of those town that few have heard of but is vital to the food we place on our tables. It is a mix of older and newer buildings, commercial and industrial, held together by quiet neighborhoods.

From Brawly, we traveled north on State Highway 86 along the west shore of Salton Sea. At Salton City, we stopped to find the "beach." It was a Monday and all was quiet. The strong breeze was producing modest waves as we walked along the sandy beach. Only, it wasn't sandy. The beach was covered with some type of shells that looked like barnacles. Definitely not a bare feet beach, but quite interesting. Just off shore were towers of some type, covered in salt deposits. Again our schedule didn't allow a long stop so onward through a town that has seen more prosperous days. The Salton Sea was disappearing off to our right as we crossed into Riverside County.

We stopped in Indio long enough to get gas and lunch. We bought a fast-food lunch which we enjoyed in the parking lot of a community park. We stopped again at the entrance to the fair grounds were the Date Festival is held in February. We do hope to return to Indio for the annual Date Festival and Tamale Festival.

From here, the rest of the trip was more straightforward. We followed Highway 10 west past the wind turbines north of Palm Springs and continued home to Los Angels arriving just before dark.

It was a long drive to Yuma and we saw many sights along the way. We spent only about a day and a half in the Yuma area and do plan to return in a year or two. Further research has found many more sites to see and we are likely to make a three day trip back to Yuma and another to Imperial County. This remote corner of the California and Arizona deserts has much to offer, you just need to look for it.

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