Today, when watching people splash in the placid waters of the Colorado River, it takes a leap of imagination to picture the frothy, dangerous waters that flowed through Arizona for millions of years. There was almost no place where it was safe to cross the Colorado and travelers had to come south from the confluence with the Gila River to where modern day Yuma stands to find a place where the granite outcroppings caused a natural narrowing and calming of the river. The United States acquired this region via the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, just in time for the California Gold Rush. It is estimated more than 60,000 gold hunters used L.G.F. Jaeger’s rope ferry across the Colorado River in Yuma to reach the California gold fields between 1850 and 1851, paying $2 a head.
The stream of traffic did not escape the attention of the United States Army which established Fort Yuma in 1852 on a hill overlooking the crossing. A town called Colorado City grew up here but it was washed away by the Colorado River and rebuilt as Arizona City. In 1866 a street grid was laid out with a 100-foot wide Main Street able to handle the most ambitious wagon trains. In 1871 Arizona City was officially incorporated and two years later became Yuma.
In 1876 the Yuma Territorial Prison was established on the banks of the Colorado River with prisoners hacking the first seven cells from the granite walls of granite. Prisoners would keep at work building the notorious prison until it closed in 1909 by which time a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, had been detained. In 1910 fire destroyed Yuma High School and for the next five years classes were held in the cellblocks and sports teams adopted the nickname, the Yuma Criminals.
In 1916 floodwaters on the Gila River swept into Yuma causing the worst of many floods that ravaged the town. It was also the last major flood, thanks to dams created by the Bureau of Reclamation. After that adobe buildings were banned in downtown Yuma and new construction adopted the newly trendy Spanish Colonial Revival style; in 1925 Main Street was paved for the first time. The streetscape we will encounter in downtown Yuma dates to that era but first we will begin our walking tour of the sunniest place in America along the Colorado River near the crossing that made the town famous...
Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park
201 North 4th Avenue at northeast corner of 1st Street
The United States Army established the Yuma Quartermaster Depot in 1864 to distribute food, ammunition and other supplies to frontier military posts. The depot’s stables housed some 900 mules to accomplish the mission. The depot was supplied by steamship on the Colorado River, always insuring a six-month’s supply of goods in the hostile region. The usefulness of the post was short-lived, however, as the railroad assumed most its duties after 1877. The United States Weather Service ended up getting the most use out of the depot. The State of Arizona began acquiring property here in 1969 and opened it as a park in 1990. Since then four of the five original buildings, among Arizona’s oldest and best-preserved artifacts, have been incorporated into an historic park.
WALK DOWN THE HIKE/BIKE PATH ALONG THE YUMA VALLEY CANAL AND CROSS THE FOOT BRIDGE. PICK UP 2ND AVENUE AND WALK TO THE END AT 1ST STREET.
Old City Hall
180 West 1st Street at northeast corner of 2nd Avenue
Oozing classic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, the Yuma city government moved into these offices overlooking the Colorado River in 1921. It was an early project of the design collaboration of Roy Place and John B. Lyman which would become one of Arizona’s most acclaimed architectural teams before Lyman left for San Diego, from where both men hailed, in 1924. Place would become Tucson’s go-to architect, dressing the streetscape in the Spanish Colonial style while carving out a national reputation.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST STREET. TURN LEFT ON 3RD AVENUE. TURN LEFT ON 2ND STREET. TURN LEFT ON 2ND AVENUE.
Yuma County Courthouse
168 South 2nd Avenue at end of 2nd Street
This is the third house of justice for Yuma County, rising from the ashes of its predecessor in 1928. San Diego architects Ralph Swearingen & G.A. Hanssen provided the Second Renaissance Revival design for the courthouse that came with a price tag of $100,000. When the Yuma County Justice Center arrived next door in 2005 most of the trials moved over there but this building was spared. Ghost hunters like to look for the spirit of Adolph Teichman, a long-time bailiff who lived in an attic loft in the courthouse until his death in 1949 at the age of 82.
FOLLOW 2ND AVENUE AS IT BENDS RIGHT AND BECOMES 2ND STREET. CONTINUE TO 1ST AVENUE.
200 South 1st Avenue at southwest corner of 2nd Street
John Gandolfo sailed for California from Genoa, Italy with his family in 1866 when he was 20 years old. Ten years later he was on a stagecoach to Yuma where he went into business peddling fruit from a small shop on Main Street. From those humble beginnings Gandolfo built a retailing empire in Yuma, operating steamships on the Colorado River and acquiring swaths of desert real estate. In 1883 Gandolfo constructed the largest building in town to house his 50-room hotel. In 1914 Gandolfo moved his family to Los Angeles but “in retirement” he kept his expanding Yuma business interests. in 1917 Gandolfo opened a 635-seat theater in this brick building. The stage hosted vaudeville acts, musicals and entertainment troupes from Mexico. During World War II it functioned as a USO canteen but after the war the building was vacant until it was occupied by a furniture store and in 1960 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Today it approaches its centennial as office space.
96 West 2nd Street at northeast corner of 1st Avenue
Architect-designed houses were seldom seen in early Yuma but by the 1890s vernacular adobe buildings began to display more adventurous floor plans. This well-constructed Anglicized Sonoran style house was typical of middle class homes seen in Yuma during Arizona’s last territorial days.
TURN RIGHT ON MADISON AVENUE.
240 South Madison Avenue
E.F. Sanguinetti arrived in Yuma in 1883 when he was 15 years old and found work clerking in the general store of Ginochio & Co. When Ginochio retired several years later Sanguinetti was able to buy a one-third interest in the business, with John Gandolfo taking a 2/3 stake. In 1898 he was on his own with Sanguinetti General Merchandise, the first of a chain of eleven branch stores scattered across the county. While the Sanguinetti name was associated with Arizona’s largest retailing empire he also brought the first herd of registered Holsteins into Yuma which he grazed on his more than 1,000 acres of farmland. The operation included the town’s first dairy and first ice plant. Sanguinetti purchased this two-room adobe house with a lean-to kitchen in 1890; it had been built in the 1870s. Sanguinetti lived in the house for more than 25 years before marrying Lilah Baisz at the age of 48. The couple stayed here another 30 years until Sanguinetti died in 1946, raising three children and adding rooms, gardens and aviaries to the property. It has served as a museum since 1963.
Yuma City Hall
One City Plaza between Madison and 1st avenues
This new city hall for Yuma came online in 2002. The grounds are meant to highlight the region’s agricultural heritage with date palms, papyrus, lemon and olive trees gracing a courtyard studded with water conservation features such as misting towers.
TURN LEFT ON 4TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON MAIN STREET.
390 South Main Street at northwest corner of 4th Street
The Robert E. Lee Hotel began greeting guests in 1917 and stands as Yuma’s oldest hotel. It is reported to be haunted, not by the ghost of the Confederate general but by the spirits of three women, one of whom was the original owner. The coast-to-coast highway that connected New York City and San Francisco via the Southwest ran right down Main Street and past the hotel was named after Robert E. Lee.
U.S. Post Office/Gowan Company
370 South Main Street
During the Great Depression the federal government went on a building spree to inject dollars into American communities. Thousands of post offices were built and Yuma’s came in the Spanish Colonial Revival style in 1933. This is another Yuma work by Tucson’s leading architect, Roy Place. The building has be adapted for private commercial use.
Main Street Fountain
Main Street at 3rd Street
The fountain was installed in 2000 as the centerpiece of the then-pedestrian mall. Main Street welcomed cars back in 2007 after being closed to vehicles for 38 years.
TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET.
Hotel Del Ming/Hotel Del Sol
300 Gila Street at southwest corner of 3rd Street
The arcaded, three-story Hotel Del Sol that closed in the 1970s began life in the 1920s as the Hotel Del Ming, with 68 guest rooms each with a tub or shower - the mark of luxury back in the day. The money men were the Southern Pacific Hotel & Investment Company with Frank S. Ming at its head. In addition to his hotel duties Ming, a native of New Jersey who came to the desert to restore his health, served as Yuma mayor in the 1920s and pursued citrus farming. As a hotel man he pledged to give away free meals “every day the sun doesn’t shine.” After the hotel shuttered it quickly became run-down but did take a star turn in 1994’s The Getaway with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger reprising the roles of Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in the 1972 original.
ACROSS THE STREET IS...
Southern Pacific Railway Depot
281 Gila Street at east end of 3rd Street
The Southern Pacific Railway, defying orders from the Secretary of War, bridged the Colorado River and ran the first train into Yuma from California on September 30, 1877 (at approximately where Madison Avenue is today). The move pre-empted the Texas and Pacific Railroad which had been building westward with a land grant from Congress in 1871 to lay track through Mexico and Arizona to meet the Southern Pacific at the Colorado River. A roomy two-story passenger depot was constructed by the Southern Pacific hard by the Colorado River and it was replaced by a landmark Spanish Colonial station in 1926 which served the line until Amtrak took over national passenger service in 1971. The Southern Pacific depot assumed duty as the Yuma Fine Arts Museum but burned in 1995. Amtrak, which comes through town three times a week, makes do with a loading platform and a room in an old Union Pacific freight building.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO MAIN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
284 South Main Street at northwest corner of 3rd Street
Samuel Henry Kress looked on his stores as public works of art and he retained a staff of architects to achieve that end. He took as much pride in the appearance of those stores as the nickels and dimes that piled up in his coffers. There would eventually be 264 Kress five-and-dime stores throughout the United States and many of them adopted the Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kress store in Yuma came along in 1927 and was no different; the company paid a reported $10 for the lot. In its most recent incarnation since the demise of the five-and-dime chain the Kress Building has housed a restaurant and popular night club.
Yuma Art Center & Historic Yuma Theatre
254 South Main Street
This vaudeville and movie stage was built in 1912 for Anna Desmond on property she owned on Main Street. The local architecture firm of Brooks & Cargill drew up the plans and contractor Chalres Olcestor executed the work. Local impresario A.J. Zeller leased the new 900-seat theater for five years before it was constructed but he abandoned his lease in 1913 after barely a year. It was still the Zeller Theater later that year when the roof and stage area went up in flames. When repairs were made the building re-emerged as Riley’s Garage. But Anna Desmond never lost her hankering for a theater and poured $40,000 into the Yuma Theatre that enjoyed its grand opening on January 12, 1927. Another fire crippled the building in 1936 but this time Desmond rebuilt immediately and the Yuma Theatre re-opened in months, not a decade. It has operated ever since and although the exterior was altered before restoration to its 1912 appearance, the Art Deco decor inside, including exuberant mermaid wall murals, is largely unchanged.
221 South Main Street
This building was constructed in 1901 as a general store but became a pool hall in 1920 and Lute’s lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating billiards room in Arizona. There was actual gambling in the “casino” in the first half of the century and the business came into the Lute family in the 1940s as payment on a gambling debt. Patrons enjoy the eclectic decor, including the booted artificial leg of a “plumber” stuck in a hole in the ceiling and the one-way glass in the men’s restroom so players could keep a wary eye on the tables when forced to take a break in the action.
San Carlos Hotel
106 East 1st Street at northeast corner of Main Street
Charles Harris built his first San Carlos Hotel in Phoenix in 1928 and by 1930 he had constructed his third, here in Yuma. The five-story reinforced concrete building with Art Deco styling dwarfed its neighbors as it continues to do more than 80 years later. The San Carlos boasted 107 rooms and guests enjoyed the first air conditioning in Yuma, provided by water pumped from a well and a water cooler on the roof. Costing over $300,000, the San Carlos was the final word in luxury in Yuma. It was created as a couples retreat servicing the 20 or so wedding chapels that lured lovebirds to Yuma. The San Carlos was the bivouac of choice for Hollywood movie stars while filming in the desert with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne signing the guest book. Wayne is remembered for bringing a favorite horse through the lobby and into an elevator for a ride up to the rooftop garden so he could have a look around Yuma. The San Carlos went vacant in the 1970s and was converted into low income housing.
TURN LEFT ON 1ST STREET.
Popular Drug Store
southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 1st Street
This souvenir from the 19th century was the town’s drug store for many years; it still bears the stamp of its days in the 1940s and 1950s as a wedding chapel.
CONTINUE ON 1ST STREET TO 4TH AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE QUARTERMASTER DEPOT.