A High School Full of Criminals

Yuma Territorial Prison
Saturday, September 9, 2017 - 11:52am

If you've been following along at home, you can probably tell that I love history. Part of that love stems from the context the past provides the present. No place exists in a vacuum of either space or time, and knowing what happened before provides a better understanding of what is happening now.

For example, we’d seen the striped shirts and the convict mascot of the Yuma High Criminals at the Casa de Coronado Museum, but didn’t get the full background. Without the history, you might think it’s a terrible nickname for a high school. But, just like Chicago’s “Second City” moniker, it’s a title that Yumans wear proudly, flaunting what was meant to be an insult and turning it into a badge of honor.

The Yuma Territorial Prison opened in 1876 and was pretty much hell. The first seven inmates built their own cells. It was constructed on a bluff above the Colorado River, which would flood three months out of the year and turn it into a peninsula. If you were caught talking you were chained to the floor. The heat was insufferable. Six men occupied one cell, and the lone chamber pot was emptied just once a day. If you were bad (which is a relative condition in a prison), you were sent to the Dark Cell.

Just the name gives me the heebie jeebies. We entered this den of darkness through a narrow hallway and you could almost feel the desperation weeping from the stones. While the cell itself was tall enough for us to stand upright, prisoners would be put in a cage that was only 5’ tall. At one point there were fourteen men stuffed in that cage; as we stood there I could picture their faces upturned to the one porthole of light high above.

If you were really bad, you were punished with a ball and chain, and the worst offenders of all were sent to the snake den.

What’s the lesson here, kids? DON’T BE BAD.

Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison

Prisoners who behaved themselves were able to take advantage of the many amenities that prompted the law-abiding citizens of Yuma to call the prison the Country Club on the Colorado. These jailbirds had two bathtubs and three showers. There was a band. They even had a library with 2,000 books, which was the biggest collection in the territory. If you couldn’t read and write, you could learn. And they had electricity, possessing one of the first generators in the West.

The prison closed in 1909. That same year Yuma Union High School was founded. After the school’s building burned down in 1910 it needed a new home, and some enterprising souls pointed out that this big huge building was completely empty. For the next few years Yuma’s children learned their reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic in a place where criminals feared to tread.

They weren’t called the Yuma Criminals yet, though. That happened after they’d already moved out. When the football team defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, the sore losers started screaming that their opponents were a bunch of criminals, and the name stuck. At first the town was none too happy about it, but by 1917 the school officially adopted the nickname.

Take that, Phoenix.

Before leaving we checked out the view from the Watch Tower. On one side we could see the Ocean to Ocean bridge. On the other, the view stretched to Castle Dome, and below us was the Yuma East Wetlands and the Colorado River.

Yuma Territorial Prison Watchtower
View from Yuma Territorial Prison
Ocean to Ocean Bridge

To keep the theme going we ended the night with dinner at Prison Hill Brewing Company. Down Main Street from Lutes Casino, it was Yuma’s first craft brewery, and on that Tuesday evening on the last day of February it was packed. We met Ann Walker, from the Yuma Visitors Bureau, and her husband, Charles Flynn, and they gave us the inside scoop of life in Yuma. Tidbits like the windshield wipers rot in the summer, so when the first rain comes they fly off when you turn them on. And that Arizona was going to shut down the Territorial Museum in 2010 due to a budget crisis, so the city took it over. The “Chain Gang,” as they called themselves, raised $70,000 in sixty days and received much more than that in grants. They used the funds to make several renovations and improvements and the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area has been running it ever since. When the state wanted to resume operations, the city said “No. We don’t want to have to save it again.”  They should know, since Charles was the Executive Director of Yuma Crossing.

We dined on a menu of smoked meats and specialties with names like “shivved" sausage and meatballs and The Verdict. Owner and brewer Chris Wheeler offered beers that might be considered risky in a city that’s not as acclimated to unusual drafts as places like San Diego or Asheville. Jim had a tart cherry saison, and I tried the chai spiced date saison. When it comes to craft beer, Prison Hill may have been the only game in town, but that didn’t mean it was resting on its hops and barley.

shivved sausage and meatballs at Prison Hill Brewing Co. in Yuma
Prison Hill Brewing Co. in Yuma, Arizona

Our plan the next day was to visit the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, make a quick stop at the Salton Sea, and be in Oceanside by early evening. Ann threw a wrench in those plans when she told us about two more places that we absolutely had to see, and they were kinda sorta on the way. Just like our detour to the singing road in Albuquerque, we figured “we’ve come this far, why not?” and this time we wouldn’t have to backtrack.

But that was tomorrow.

Step inside Yuma Territorial Prison, a museum in Yuma, Arizona
Theresa Goodrich's picture
Theresa Carter - The Local Tourist Founder and Publisher, a.k.a. the boss
About Theresa

Hello Fellow Traveler! I'm the Emmy-winning founder and publisher of The Local Tourist. I've got insatiable curiosity, wanderlust, and an incurable need to use my words. In fact, I

220 N Prison Hill Road, Yuma, AZ 85364
At Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park walk through the actual strap iron cells and solitary chamber of Arizona Territory’s first prison.
Yuma Territorial Prison Museum

For your reading enjoyment, by the founder of The Local Tourist:

"If John Steinbeck earned a Nobel Prize in Literature shortly after publishing Travels with Charley, then Theresa should start planning a trip to Oslo, Norway, because Two Lane Gems is every bit the book Travels with Charley was. And then some." ~Amazon review

Comments

I love history too! Thanks so much for introducing me to this prison I've never heard of before. That themed brewery is so cool.

You're welcome! The whole Yuma area is pretty cool. LOTS of civic pride.

OK this is actually really fascinating! I like to read actual stories about places! Thanks

What a fascinating place! Although the description of conditions in the cell is horrific. I have to visit a prison for work this week, and I'll be thinking of this piece and the Dark Cell when I'm there. It's impressive how everyone bonded together to save the site.

Ooh - I don't envy you that! The conditions prisoners endured were pretty unbelievable... Yes, Yumans are passionate about their past!

Really interesting story! Glad that the prison was put to good use for a bit and everyone can look back on it and laugh!

Add new comment