Thursday – February 12, 2015
Yuma Territorial Prison
We explored the Yuma Territorial Prison today. Arizona’s famous Territorial Prison sits on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, three miles west of the confluence of the Colorado and the historic Gila River.
Of the 3,069 convicts sentenced to Yuma Prison, 111 met their death. Disease, accident, murder, suicide, and escape attempts were the causes of their demise. The remains of 104 unfortunate souls are interred in the Prison Cemetery.
1875 – Prison authorizes by Territorial Legislature
1876 – Prison Opens - First Convict: William Hall
1878 – First Female Convict: Lizzie Gallagher – First Escape by J. Lewis
1881 – Water Reservoir Constructed
1882 – Guard Tower Built
1884 – Electricity brought to prison with Dynamo-Generator. Lowell Battery Gun Purchased.
1885 – Sally Port built Hospital established.
1887 – Gates Riot: Four convicts dead, one wounded.
1889 – Female convict Manuela Fimbres gives birth to baby boy, Luis, in prison.
1891 – Women’s cells built.
1893 – Library dug out of south wall.
1894 – Dark Cell dug out of south wall.
1899 – Pearl Hart sentenced to 5 years for robbery.
1900 – New Yard opens.
1902 – Female convicts Elena Estrada and Rosa Duran serve time in Dark Cell.
1904 – Maximum Security cells built.
1905 – Martin Ubillos hangs at County Courthouse
1910 – Yuma High School at Prison until 1914.
1914 – County Hospital at Superintendent’s House.
Original Prison Structure
Yuma began to experience the American westward surge when countless immigrants crossed by ferry from Yuma on their way to the California gold fields in 1849. In 1850, a military post was established at Yuma, and when rich placer gold strikes on the Colorado River precipitated a gold rush in 1858, Yuma experienced a boom. In 1871 Yuma incorporated and became the county seat of Yuma County.
The Territorial Prison was authorized by the Legislature in 1875 and $25,000 was budgeted for the project. Ground was broken on April 28, 1876, and some of the prisoners were pressed into service to build their cells. The first seven inmates moved into the facility on July 1, 1876. The Prison held a variety of law violators, including the legendary stagecoach robber Pearl Hart. The Prison continued in operation for 33 years when, due to overcrowding, all inmates were moved to a new facility in Florence, Arizona.
New Prison Yard with Additional Prison Cells Opens - 1904
From the date of closure, the prison’s facilities have been occupied and used by various groups. After Yuma High School burned, the High School Board rented four structures and used them from 1910 until 1914. The school athletic teams became known as "The Criminals". The County Hospital utilized the facilities from 1914 until 1923. In 1924, the Southern Pacific Railroad demolished the western one-third of Prison Hill to make way for the new tracks. The Veterans of Foreign Wars leased the guard’s quarters in 1931 and used it as their clubhouse until 1960. Hobos, riding the trains in the 1920’s and 1930’s, stayed in the cells, and homeless families during the Great Depression lived in the cells.
The first request to preserve the Prison came in the early 1930’s, and in 1939 local residents began to raise funds for renovation of the guard tower and construction of a museum to be located on the site of the mess hall. The City of Yuma operated the museum and prison area until 1960. On October 4, 1960 the City of Yuma sold the Territorial Prison to the Yuma Parks Board for one dollar. The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park opened to the public on a limited basis January 1, 1961.
Dark Cell: Cruel and Inhumane Punishment?
Unruly prisoners were sent to the Dark Cell. Prisoners were stripped to their undergarments and locked into a strap iron cage.Their one meal was bread and water, no bedding or restroom facilities were provided. Cleaned infrequently, the dark cell had a horrid stench. The only source of light was a small beam from the vent in the roof. Dug into the hill the Dark Cell was well insulated, with milder temperatures than outside conditions.
Tomorrow another adventure begins.