Early Yuma distinguished by foul odor
To the outside world, Yuma in its early days was reputed to be a good place for sufferers to regain their health. Many came here hoping the dry climate and fresh air would make them well.
This belief was mentioned by the Arizona Citizen newspaper of Tucson on April 4, 1885. It published these remarks about Yuma's reputation as a health spa: "Every issue of the Yuma papers contains notices of one or many births or marriages, but very seldom death. People don't die there in fact they have too much pride in their town to be caught dead within its limits. Seriously, there is scarcely a healthier locality than Yuma in the United States."
It is true that invalids who came here for health reasons did sometimes recover. Pioneer cattlemen Hall Hanlon came to Yuma in 1855 because his asthma was worsening in the California gold fields. He survived to the age of 89. But Hanlon only lived in Yuma a short time before he moved across the river.
Other health seekers weren't so fortunate. Mark Hopkins, one of the wealthy owners of the Southern Pacific Railroad, went first to Colton to convalesce in 1878. When he didn't improve there, he came to Yuma and promptly died.
After reading old issues of Yuma's Arizona Sentinel newspaper, one can only wonder why those in poor health thought they would recover here. A whiff of the air in our town suggested that a clothespin on the nose might have been a great idea while a glass of the town's water was likely to cause frequent visits to the nearest outhouse.
The smell that permeated Yuma in the early days came from two sources. One was a slaughterhouse in the middle of town.
No one seemed very concerned about the bad odor until a new editor of the Arizona Sentinel, J. Fletcher Knapp, got a whiff of the air. In the midsummer of 1880, he suggested in an editorial that a board of health should be appointed with power to require the removal of "all garbage and filth... from streets, alleys and lots whether occupied or not."
His suggestion brought no immediate action. A week later, on July 24, 1880, Knapp told Yumans that if they cleaned up their back yards, "It will undoubtedly avoid much sickness in this hot weather."
While some residents may have gotten busy removing the filth from their property, little else was done. The slaughterhouse continued operations as before, and the stink did not diminish.
Knapp gave up his editorial job and turned it over to John Dorrington in July of 1881. Why he left town is not known, but perhaps the odor in the center of Yuma played a role.
Dorrington had been here ever since the county seat was moved from La Paz in 1871, so he was well aware of the town's bad smell. Like Knapp, he decided to use the columns of the Arizona Sentinel to urge change. "(Yuma's) stench is attracting the attention and consternation of strangers," he reported on Dec. 24, 1881. "A traveler in passing the other day remarked that it is strange the citizens of Yuma would tolerate such a detrimental disturbance. As we all wish the town to grow, let me insist upon its speedy removal. The good of the town requires it."
Where Knapp had failed to gain much support, Dorrington was more successful. A month later, the County Board of Supervisors appointed Sheriff Andrew Tyner as Health Officer and passed several sanitary regulations. Notices were posted around town listing the new laws, and Yumans got busy cleaning up the messes around their property.
With Yuma's air improving, Editor Dorrington launched a campaign to improve the city water supply. It was being taken from the Colorado at a point below the prison. The problem was that the prison was dumping its sewage in the river, and Yumans took their water from below the prison drainage. Local doctors blamed the water supply for frequent outbreaks of disease.
Dorrington's Arizona Sentinel began complaining about the water situation as early as 1882. When the editor was elected to the legislature in 1889, he introduced a bill appropriating $10,000 to build a prison waterworks which would also supply Yuma.
Although a bitter Yuma critic, William Hardy, fought the bill, calling it an "expense for the comfort and convenience of the prisoners and the town of Yuma," it passed.
For the first time since the prison was created, Yuma had safe water supply.
Frank Love is a local historian.