East Yuma County's past rich with pioneer spirit
This series of stories in The Sun takes a look at the people, projects and effects in eastern Yuma County as the quiet, agricultural area undergoes widespread transformation.
Part 1: The history of the east county
Changes coming to the area
The faces of new east county
Life in east county
The communities that dot eastern Yuma County contain a wealth of stories of pioneers who saw opportunities in the harsh desert and left their mark through times of changing fortunes and the vagaries of a once-untamed Gila River.
The earliest farmers were American Indians, using the water and rich deposits of earth left by the flooded river each year to grow their crops, said Shirley Woodhouse Murdock, daughter of settlers, who wrote a book about the area's history.
Earliest settlers ran the stage stations along the Butterfield Overland Trail in the 1850s. Then came the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1870s. The stage stations became railroad watering stops that led to settlements.
Meanwhile, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 changed the course for the future Yuma. Ferry service began, the town plat was certified in 1854 and people began to settle in the area. With the arrival of the railroad in 1877 came real growth, said Carol Brooks, archivist at Sanguinetti House Museum.
In the eastern part of the county, a number of homesteads had been filed by then in the Gila Valley, an area that encompassed the present-day Dome, Antelope and Mohawk valleys and land to the east, Murdock said. Industrious farmers dug canals from the Gila, built homes, planted fruit orchards and grew a variety of crops.
Then a seven-year drought and a series of floods seemed to doom eastern Yuma County, and several people left in the early 1900s, Murdock said.
Others turned to wells for a water source, and the Gila Valley Power District was organized in 1921 to provide electricity to pump them. That same year, J.L. Terry and his partner bought acreage in Mohawk Valley and began making plans to organize an irrigation district. Two years later, the district was formed to draw water from the underground flow of the Gila.
The bright future offered by water and power districts lured more would-be farmers, including Murdock's parents, Harold and Ethlelind Woodhouse. In 1925, they left California in a Ford Model T truck with two mules in the back, and were teased that they would return with the mules in front. Hence the name of their daughter's book, "The Mules Go in Front."
Instead, the mules were used to clear 160 acres of mesquite trees, plow fields and plant pecan and fig trees.
However, the wells began to fail in the mid-1930s as dams built farther upriver depleted the Gila's underground flow and the water and soil became too salty for most crops, Murdock said.
Farmers hung on throughout the 1940s and '50s by the almost-exclusive production of salt-tolerant Bermuda grass seed, which was used to plant turfs throughout the world, including airfields in North Africa, Murdock said.
After World War II, efforts again turned to developing an irrigation project to bring Colorado River water to the Wellton-Mohawk area. The Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District was created in 1951 to manage the irrigation system and repay the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for the Gila Project's $42 million cost, which it has done.
On May 1, 1952, a huge celebration was held as the first Colorado River water was delivered. Murdock's father, who was among those who fought hard for the project, was the first to receive water on his farm.
"That project was key," Murdock said. "Everything was going to dry up and blow away. There wouldn't have been anything here."
Instead, the flow of the Colorado River water through the canals of the Gila Project brought new life to the area. Farm fields again were productive, and a handful of small communities survived.
We see them today along Interstate 8.
But, the quiet eastern edge of Yuma County is about to start another chapter as it nurtures new growth.
WHAT MAKES UP THE EAST COUNTY?
Wellton is the only incorporated municipality in Yuma County east of the Gila Mountains. It got its beginning in the late 1880s as a watering station for the Southern Pacific Railroad, taking its name, "Well Town," from the deep wells drilled there to supply steam engines, said Shirley Murdock, who grew up in the area.
A post office was established there in 1904, and the town became incorporated in 1970. Today, it serves as the commercial and civic hub of eastern Yuma County.
Murdock said the station originally was about five miles away at Adonde (Spanish for "to where"), which was abandoned after the 1891 flood.
Tacna got its start in the 1850s as the Antelope Peak Stage Station on the Butterfield Overland Trail. A few years later, a railroad station was constructed at the site.
There are differing stories about the origin of the name Tacna, but it likely was adopted from an old railroad siding sign by Max B. Noah, who arrived in the early 1920s and set up business under a tree with a barrel of gasoline and a hand pump. Where the railroad came up with the name is unclear.
Noah went on to establish a post office, hotel and restaurant called Noah's Ark. He posted a sign that read "Tacna by the Sea" because the area had so much sand, said Shirley Murdock, who grew up in the area.
According to Patty Ware, another area resident, whale bones were once found there, implying the area could have been under seawater at one time.
In the 1940s, the post office - and the name - was moved about four miles to the site of a competitive restaurant, Ralph's Mill, operated by Joe E. Ralph. One story says that Noah's Ark burned, another claims that Noah sold the town site at a public auction.
The unincorporated community of Roll got its start in the early 1900s by potential farmers persuaded by O.T. McCoon to come. McCoon, grandfather of Yuma resident Verda McCain, was a Yuma County booster who promoted land development in the area after wells came into use.
One of those early arrivals was John Roll, who came around 1925 and established a post office. Roll's son, Jack, still lives in the area.
The community is near Antelope High School, named for Antelope Hill. The land for the high school was donated in the early 1950s to the new Antelope Union High School District by longtime Roll-area farmer Charles Buckeye, said his daughter, Eunice McDaniel. Buckeye (no connection with the town of Buckeye) bought the land at a tax sale to donate for the school. Until then, east county students had to face a long bus ride every day into Yuma.
Antelope Hill was named by John Fremont in 1850 for antelope he and his exploration party saw there.
Patty Ware remembers moving to Dome Valley as a young girl, when the area was "a lot of mesquite and dust."
A community in Dome got started as it became a gold mining town in the 1860s, she said. Ferries were used to bring up supplies and to ship out ore. The settlement was an old Butterfield Overland Trail stage stop until the railroad came through, bringing an end to the landing.
When she was a girl, there was a school, a big cemetery and an old store "with the coldest sodas and beer," Ware said. "It was a busy place."
Today, all that remains of the town are a concrete slab for the post office, the stage stop's foundation and the cemetery, she said.
The name for the town and valley came about because soldiers at Fort Yuma in the late 1850s thought the highest formation in the Castle Dome Mountains looked like the nation's Capitol Building dome.
In the 1930s, Dateland was a thriving place with a restaurant, a store and a motel with a swimming pool fed with mineral water from hot springs that existed in the area at the time, according to Bob Sloncen, longtime Dateland educator.
The community began in the late 1920s (nearer to the Gila River than it is today) when Pacific Southwest Date Co. decided to raise dates in the area originally called San Cristoval Valley. In the 1930s, a Mrs. William Harrison built a house and other buildings, said Sloncen, who added that it is unclear who she was or why she was in the area.
Tom Collins started a service station and held other commercial property in the 1930s along Highway 80, which closely followed the route of the Butterfield Overland Trail, then the railroad.
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps had a landing strip on the north side of where Interstate 8 now lies, Sloncen said. There also were two training camps in the area: Camp Horn and Camp Hyder; slabs from the many buildings can still be seen on both sides of I-8.
After I-8 was built farther south in the 1960s, the commercial property was rebuilt in its current location. Today, it is owned by Roland and Charna Walker and noted for its date shakes.
Over the years, a few businesses, some residents and a school were developed nearby.
At one time there were several other little communities in the area - among them Aztec, Owl and Stoval - that served the railroad, Sloncen said.
‘THE MULES GO IN FRONT’
For more on the history of eastern Yuma County, see the book "The Mules Go in Front" by Shirley Woodhouse Murdock. The book is available at Hastings, the Corner Book Shop, the Sanguinetti House Museum gift shop or by calling Murdock at 785-9531.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853.