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Jack Smith

Yuma, then and now: A warm welcome melts memories of a frosty reception

April 27, 1987|Jack Smith

We have just come back from a trip to Yuma, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

It started with a flight to Yuma, where I went to give a talk at the annual luncheon of the Arizona State Library Assn.

It might sound foolish, going all the way to Yuma to give a talk. But I had a reason.

I had been to Yuma only once before--in 1934, in the heart of the Depression. Having quit my $17-a-week job as a theater usher, I decided to bum my way around the Southwest.

The first leg of that epic was disastrous. I caught a freight train at Colton and rode in an open ore gondola across the desert to Yuma in July.

I had read accounts of adventurers whose tongues had become swollen from thirst in treks across the desert. When the train pulled into the Yuma yards my tongue was swollen. I walked into the small town and drank from a hose in someone's yard. Then I went back to the yards to catch another freight train out of that hell hole.

As one Eastern newspaper editorialized in the late 19th Century, "Yuma is so hot in the summertime that wings melt off mosquitoes, and flies die in the excessive heat of the scorching sun."

I came face to face with a man in a brown uniform. A railroad bull, as we bums called them. He asked me if I had any money. I had a $20 bill in one shoe, but I was reluctant to tell him. In those days $20 was a lot of money. He said I could either buy a ticket on the passenger train to Phoenix, or go to the road camp for 30 days.

I knew that 30 days in a road camp in Yuma in July would kill me. I sat down, pulled off my shoe and extracted the folded $20 bill. The railroad bull walked me to the depot and stood by me as I bought my ticket. He saw me off. Grimy as I was, I must have been repugnant to the other passengers.

So, the last time I was in Yuma, I had literally been run out of town on a rail.

Constance Hey, assistant director of the library association, had offered to pay for our plane fare and lodging. She said someone would meet us at the airport on the day before the luncheon, that we would have a suite at the new Days Inn and that Charles Barnett, president of the Yuma Chamber of Commerce, would like to take us to breakfast and show us the town the next morning.

I was irresistibly attracted to the idea of returning to Yuma as a guest of the city.

We flew Delta, making one stop at El Centro. As promised, someone met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel. That evening we went to a library fiesta on the patio of the Civic and Convention Center on the outskirts of town, just beyond the ballpark where the San Diego Padres take spring training.

Having the Padres for spring training is the biggest thing that happens in Yuma. Barnett told us that the RV parking spaces are jammed and every hotel room is taken.

Barnett and Leonard Fuller, executive director of the Yuma Economic Development Corp., picked us up the next morning at 8 o'clock for breakfast and a tour.

Yuma lies on the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona, next to Sonora, Mexico, and California. It is the site of the historic narrows, known as the Crossing, just below the juncture of the Gila and Colorado rivers. It was this crossing that put Yuma on the map, since it joined the old wagon trails with the West Coast. It was used by generations of adventurers, 49ers and soldiers. An Army post, Ft. Yuma, was established to protect this traffic from the local Indians. We have seen Ft. Yuma in many a Western.

My friend Fred Coonradt had asked me to inquire about his grandfather, Arthur Roselle Coonradt, out of Rockford, N.Y., who used to run a steamboat on the river from about 1900 to 1906.

A likely story, I thought. But it turned out that there was a lively steamboat traffic on the river from 1852 until 1909, when a dam was built upriver. Photographs of Coonradt's grandfather and his boat are in the local archives.

Yuma is proud of its old state prison, whose grim walls are being restored as a state park. What a monument it will be to the harshness of Arizona law in the bad old days! I shuddered at the idea of being incarcerated in those sweltering cells in a Yuma summer, and I was reminded of my own close escape from desert justice in that summer long ago.

Among the several leaflets that Bartlett gave me was one called, "Where's Your Sense of Yuma."

A town that has a sense of Yuma can't be all bad.

Yuma is the sunniest city in the nation. It has four 18-hole golf courses, a 253-bed hospital, 18 elementary schools, two high schools and a two-year college, one daily and two weekly newspapers, five radio and television stations plus 24 cable channels, and 15 banks.

The old town has come a piece since a visitor observed that it must be civilized because it had a newspaper and a brewery.

Come to think of it, that railroad bull was pretty decent. He could have taken my $20.

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