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The Wild West ... not! Yuma was urbane and genteel in the late 19th century
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No doubt, Yuma's pioneers were hardy souls.
But they were also genteel, fashionable, proper. Yuma may have existed during the heyday of the Old West, but the Colorado River made Yuma an urbane oasis on the vast, sun-baked frontier storied for its rugged terrain and roughneck characters.
The way city historian Tina Clark tells it, Yuma was a “precious river town” in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. As the first Arizona stop for the trains and steamboats, Yuma was able to refine its tastes, boasting the newest trends in the commercial and cultural epicenter that is now downtown. Dusty cowboy hats and six-shooters may have been more at home in the notoriously unruly Tombstone, some 300 miles away.
“Yuma was a river town,” Clark said. “It wasn't the ‘Wild West.'”
But with the Yuma Territorial Prison, the dubious home of thousands of stagecoach robbers, murderers and other assorted ne'er-do-wells between 1876 and 1909, a rough-hewn image stuck, Clark said. The prison is a well-known landmark now and was a well-known landmark then. Yuma became cemented in popular culture for being a place where hard men did hard time.
Yet Yuma became a vibrant and diverse destination because it was a crossroads, Clark said.
This is where the Colorado River calms and narrows, allowing for safe river crossings. This natural feature has made Yuma attractive for centuries.
By the mid-1800s, the crossing became crucial for trade and exploration. Skilled ferrymen turned a lucrative business guiding all manner of goods across the narrows.
This was also a good place to strike it rich in the mines. What is now Main Street was once part of the Gila, or Santa Fe, Trail that connected fortune-seekers to the California gold fields. Not all prospectors were successful — at least, not at first, Clark explained. As they went back the way they came, they found gold, silver and copper here instead, and stayed.
Clark said the Wild West association isn't so much a bad thing, just not accurate. Historical photos show plenty of locals stepping out as members of a polite, cosmopolitan society.
Clark pores over slides showing scenes from turn-of-the-century Yuma, holding the black-and-white positives up to the light and pointing out the telling details.
The ladies were elegant in their bustle dresses. The men were dapper in their suits.
“These people wore boutonnieres. They wore suits and ties,” she said as she looked at a photo of pioneering merchant E.F. Sanguinetti in his store.
She then holds up scenes of well-dressed men inside a china shop, of patrons and bartenders outside an establishment known as the Paraiso Cantina and of locals outside a laundry, noting the lack of guns visible on hips.
“You have these three dandies here, and they're not wearing cowboy hats,” she said of men outside the Gandolfo & Sanguinetti general store. “They're wearing bowlers.”
A photo from 1909 shows locals gathered for a parade, looking anything but rowdy.
“This could be Paris,” Clark said, reflecting on the styling of the men, women and children lined up along the route in Victorian finery. “This could be Philadelphia. This could be New York.”