Editor's Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Arizona Centennial celebrations, marking the area's history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
Boats on Main Street? Yes, it's true. The year was 1916. Yuma had one of its worst floods that year. It wasn't anything new to the old-time Yumans. They had experienced Colorado River floods many times in the past.
Our city was just eight years old when it was hit the first time. There were 28 consecutive days of rainfall in January 1862. Boyd Finch in an article for the Journal of Arizona History reports that the young town was “nearly obliterated from the face of the earth” by that one. The Colorado River rose so high that Fort Yuma became an island.
Gila City, a gold mining camp along the Gila River about 20 miles from here, was washed away in the 1862 deluge. A mining boom which had been underway since 1858 collapsed. It became a ghost town.
Fear of the Colorado's destructive powers resulted in the construction of a levee. Most residents then lived near the river in a saucer-shaped area, so the protective walls of the levee began at the Territorial Prison and ended at the sound end of town. Although the river reached flood stage in 1884, the barrier held, and Yuma survived without damage.
Perhaps the existence of the levee made townspeople overconfident. Seven years later, they learned that it wasn't the protector they thought it was. Rising waters in both the Gila and Colorado should have warned them earlier than it did of the danger. By the end of February, the Colorado was dangerously near the top of the levee.
Only then did the townspeople get concerned. Every healthy male in town went to work raising the barrier. It was too late. Water broke through and poured into the downtown area.
Many early Yuma homes were constructed of adobe brick. The houses melted away as the flood waters cascaded down Gila and Main streets. Water rose to nine feet on Gila Street. Main wasn't as badly affected, but nearly every building on the east side of Main disappeared.
One life was lost as the waters swept in. Gus Lee refused to leave his dwelling in spite of warnings to flee. Fearing for the man's safety, the sheriff and his deputy broke into Lee's residence. They found him floating unconscious in the floodwater. Efforts to revive him failed.
Despite the disaster, the townspeople showed courage and determination. Everyone pitched in to try to raise the levee before it broke. Quechan Indians labored side by side with businessman Eugene Sanguinetti, Sheriff Mike Nugent and dozens of others.
Commenting on the tribe's participation, Yuma's Sentinel newspaper noted, “The Yuma Indians are entitled to the gratitude of our people for the faithful work done by them in the hour of need. They worked with spirit and energy, not stopping to eat, drink or sleep, until further labor became futile...”
The worst was still to come. As it had in 1862, the Colorado began rising in January 1916. By the 21st, the river was a mile and a half wide at Yuma. Aware of the danger, volunteers led by Mayor Charles Moore and Eugene Sanguinetti began trying to raise the levee. For a time, sacks of sand stopped the water, which was beginning to top the levee.
In the end, their efforts failed. The barrier finally broke at 5 a.m. on Jan. 22. The newspaper office, electric power plant, the Arizona Hotel and the Yuma National Bank were soon flooded.
Roy Hansberger, a director of the bank, became concerned about the new furniture in the building. In an attempt to save it, he bought Crisco and lard and smeared it onto the equipment. Leaving nothing to chance, he also greased the cracks in the door leading to the vault. When the floodwaters subsided, he was relieved to find that water hadn't entered the vault. Most of the furniture was in good condition, too.
Like the flood of 1891, there was a casualty in 1916. Mayor Moore, who was leading the attempt to prevent the flood, suffered a fatal heart attack. Most Yumans believed the stress of his efforts caused his death.
A relief committee was formed almost immediately to assist affected families. Free coffee and bread were made available to the homeless at relief headquarters. Housing was found for those whose homes were uninhabitable.
Hopefully, we may never experience the floods those old-time Yumans survived. Dams along the river provide a measure of safety earlier Yumans didn't have.