BY TINA CLARK
ARCHAEOLOGIST AND HISTORIAN
For centuries, the Yuma Crossing has been viewed as both an oasis and a gateway.
The water of the Colorado River has provided life and sustenance for many generations of people.
First, they came to hunt, to camp, to mine and to farm. Most came to cross the mighty Colorado at its narrowest point and continue their journeys -- first the Quechan, then the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally American and European explorers and settlers.
Riverboats in the Colorado River circa 1880. Loaned photos
This was the only natural river crossing in the desert. It was here that the old tribal trails converged. Here natives, conquistadors, padres, adventurers, armies and immigrants met the river's challenge. Near this place where the Gila and Colorado rivers join, where the hot sun and rich soil make agriculture an ideal industry, the town of Yuma developed and prospered.
Since the arrival of the first Anglo settlers in the 19th century, Yuma has grown to a city of nearly 100,000. Counting communities around the city, the population of the metropolitan area has swelled to around 200,000.
While gold may have brought the Anglos here, agriculture became the area's traditional economy, with the harnessing of the Colorado River for irrigation. But in the century since then, the Yuma area's economy has diversified.
Having always had a presence here, the military became an economic mainstay in the latter half of the 20th century, with the establishment of Yuma Proving Ground and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Diversification continued in the following decades, as winter tourism became the third pillar of the area economy.
The Gold Rush
Parade down Main Street,Yuma. Loaned photos
A singular great event occurred in 1848 which would make the Yuma Crossing a household word in countless American homes: the discovery of gold in California. When President Polk verified stories of the gold strike in California and declared that the wealth was so great "it could scarcely command belief," the nation was said to have gone into "a state of delirium" in which it talked only of migrating west.
Yuma, situated at the mighty Colorado's narrowest point, was the crossroads for these Forty-Niners, a group willing to risk all for the "pot of gold" believed to be there for the taking in California. Many were fortune hunters, but there were also those who had lost health or home and were looking only for a new beginning.
The importance of the Yuma Crossing to these people lay in the fact that it was the end of the perilous Gila Trail. It was an oasis in the desert where they began the last leg of their journey to the gold fields. The trail itself was a natural route west along the Gila River, popular because travelers could be reasonably certain of finding water and were free of at least one danger - freezing to death, as many did on the northern route through the Rockies.
Water: The New Gold
The Colorado River and Gateway Park under the Ocean To Ocean Bridge
Families enjoying a day at the river
The 20th century brought a new "gold rush" all its own. The Reclamation Service began building the first dam and canal system on the Colorado River in the early 1900s. Taming and marshalling the river's water to inhibit flooding and to irrigate the rich agricultural lands of the Yuma area has transformed Yuma into the "Winter Fresh Vegetable Capital of the United States" -- a multibilliondollar industry.
The role of military has also been dramatically transformed. While in the 19th Century, the role was one of quartermaster supply and defense of the crossing, the 20th Century has led to a greater role for Yuma in the nation's global commitments.
The Yuma Proving Ground and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma are vital to the nation's defense.
Finally, Yuma is not simply a gateway to California. Over the last 50 years, millions of winter visitors have flocked to Yuma for the beautiful climate. Now, they are coming to enjoy the restored Yuma riverfront, which includes two riverfront parks, seven miles of waterside trails, and nearly 400 acres of restored wetlands. Pivot Point Plaza recounts all the stories of the Yuma Crossing, featuring a restored 1907 Baldwin Locomotive on the original alignment of the first rail line into Arizona in 1877.
The view of the river from Interstate 8 is now that of beautiful parklands and wetlands -- and this plaza which celebrates the historic Gateway to the Southwest.
Dancer at the Strong Hearts Native Society Pow Wow
The Cocopah Tribe, also known as the River People, have lived along the lower Colorado River and delta for centuries. Described as generous and nonmaterialistic, they have sustained their traditional and cultural beliefs through various political environments and everchanging landscapes.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order that established the Cocopah Reservation.
In 1964, the Cocopahs founded their first constitution and formed a five-member tribal council. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the tribe began acquiring additional land, constructing homes, installing utilities, developing an infrastructure system and initiating economic development.
In 1985, the Cocopahs gained an additional 4,200 acres, including the North Reservation, through the Cocopah Land Acquisition Bill signed by President Ronald Reagan.
The Cocopah Reservation in Arizona consists of three noncontiguous bodies of land known as the North, West and East reservations, located southwest of Yuma. Today, they comprise more than 6,500 acres, much of which is leased as agricultural land to non-Indian farmers.
Currently, there are about 1,000 enrolled Cocopah Tribal members who live and work on or near the three reservations.
The tribe has numerous commercial ventures, including the Cocopah Casino, Cocopah Resort & Conference Center, Cocopah Rio Colorado Golf Course, Cocopah Museum, Cocopah RV and Golf Resort, Cocopah Speedway and Wild River Family Entertainment Center.
Members of the Quechan Tribe are descendants of the River People, the Yuma-speaking Indians who occupied lands along the lower Colorado River centuries ago.
Contact between them and the area's European settlers, the Spanish conquistadors, was infrequent until 1780 when the Spanish began building a settlement at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers that consisted of soldiers and Franciscan padres, whose mission included religious indoctrination of the native people.
But as the settlers strained the area's food supplies and sought to supplant traditional religious practices, the Quechans rebelled the following year, overthrowing the Spaniards. Anglos returned to the area to stay in the late 1840s as settlers arrived as part of the California Gold Rush.
The Quechan (pronounced "quitsawn") Reservation was established by executive order in 1884 and the tribal constitution was adopted in 1936.
Today, the tribe consists of about 3,800 members on a reservation covering about 44,000 acres in Imperial County in California and in Yuma County. It is governed by a sevenmember council. The tribe caters to Yuma-area residents and winter visitors at a number of commercial ventures, among which are the Quechan Casino Resort, located just south of Interstate 8 on the road to Los Algodones, Baja Calif.; and Paradise Casino, 450 Quechan Drive in Winterhaven.
Lighted sign at the north end of Main Street in historic downtown Yuma
In 2014 residents celebrated the 100th anniversary of the city's charter under the laws of the then two-year-old state of Arizona on April 7, 1914.
Somerton - established in 1898 and incorporated in 1918 - is located in the fertile Yuma Valley in southwestern Yuma County, about 12 miles south of Yuma and 180 miles east of San Diego. Equidistant from the borders of California and Mexico, Somerton is also the native region of the Cocopah Tribe.
Though its economy depends primarily upon agriculture, light industry is becoming important. Somerton also has a small commercial service sector that is growing.
Major employers within the city are the Somerton School District, City of Somerton, Regional Center for Border Health and Sunset Community Health Center.
Also a large employer is the Cocopah Tribe, with seven different entertainment, lodging and cultural attractions, including Cocopah Casino, Cocopah Resort & Conference Center, Cocopah Rio Colorado Golf Course, Cocopah Museum, Cocopah RV and Golf Resort, Cocopah Speedway and the Wild River Family Entertainment Center.
Somerton is home to the Somerton Tamale Festival, where more than 30,000 people gather every third Saturday in December to enjoy a staple of traditional Mexican cuisine. The event is organized by the El Diablito Arizona State University Alumni Chapter to raise scholarship money for area students who will attend ASU.
Somerton has received both regional and national attention as a "Green City" for having introduced the area's first citywide recycling program.
Having incorporated in 1979, San Luis is Yuma County's youngest municipality. But the community's history is longer than that.
Its beginnings date back to 1930, when the United States opened a port of entry across from San Luis Rio Colorado, Son. Over the next several decades, its population consisted mainly of farm labor families who lived within a two-block area north of the Mexican border.
In the 1950s, the population hovered at around 200 residents but then climbed in the 1960s, primarily as a result of the Bracero program that brought Mexican farmworkers and their families to the United States.
In 1961, Jose Urtuzuastegui opened the city's first gasoline station, The Flying A, on Main Street, a block north of the border line. And in 1965, Chevron became the first major business chain located in San Luis when it opened a service station, which was operated by Enrique Fletes.
The area's main industry is agriculture, but large employers in the city include the City of San Luis, the ACT call center, and Gadsden Elementary School District.
Founded in 1878, Wellton was originally known as "Well Town," named for water wells drilled in the area to supply the railroad. It was incorporated as a town almost a century later, in 1970.
Located east of Yuma on the opposite side of the Gila Mountains, Wellton's main industry continues to be agriculture, although it draws growing numbers of winter visitors attracted to the community's slower, easygoing lifestyle.
Wellton's growth and increasing popularity among winter residents has required the town to add amenities in recent years, including a Family Services Center, the 18hole Butterfield Golf Course, a community center, and N.D. & Katie Kline Pool, which gives residents a cool respite from summer heat. Golfers who like to tee off in the desert can also play 18 holes at the Links at Coyote Wash on the south side of Interstate 8.
The town also has a branch of Yuma County's library system, and a museum - the Wellton-Mohawk Fine Arts and Historical Association. In addition, Arizona Western College has built a branch campus in Wellton to serve residents of the town and other areas of East County.