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Steamboats made a desert river the Mississippi of the West

U.S. Army Major Thomas Dunn was furious. At 2 a.m. on Sunday, September 30, 1877, construction noise had wakened the commander of Fort Yuma in the Arizona Territory. Below the bluff on which the fort stood, Southern Pacific Railroad workers, violating Dunn’s direct order, had resumed bridging the Colorado River. The structure was to span the Yuma Crossing, an ancient Indian encampment that had become a bustling port.

Most of the fort’s 64 troopers were away fighting the Nez Perce, but Dunn, 55, mustered a medical officer, a sergeant, two privates, and a prisoner sprung from the stockade. He and his ad hoc force charged downhill toward the job site, 300 yards away. The Army had established Fort Yuma, now a five-acre motley of some two dozen metal-roofed adobe structures, in 1851. The fort’s role was to control local Indian tribes, protect settlers, and safeguard the Southern Emigrant Trail linking Santa Fe to San Diego and Los Angeles, California. In the late 1850s, the Army built a second riverside bastion, Fort Mojave, 200 miles north of Yuma.

In February 1877, Arizona’s territorial legislature granted the Southern Pacific Railroad, laying track east from California, a charter to build a line along the 32nd parallel in the territory’s southern reaches. That path ran through Fort Yuma. The War Department permitted the railroad to cross the military reservation and to bridge the Colorado, but barred laying tracks across the bridge until Congress had settled a right-of-way dispute. Dunn’s duties included enforcing that federal stop-work order. 

Now, the major and his ragtag squad, wielding rifles with fixed bayonets, faced down the construction crew. Track laying stopped until a donkey engine pushing a carload of rails forced the troopers to leap aside. Dunn arrested the worksite superintendent but, unable to make his order stick, retreated to the fort. Work resumed.

Shortly after sunrise, September 30, 1877, a locomotive chuffed across the bridge into Yuma. Later that day, villagers greeted the flag-draped Arizona Express as it hissed to a stop on Madison Avenue to deliver Yuma’s first rail freight, mail, and passengers. The travelers and the goods had come from San Francisco, 713 miles northeast. 

Ferrymen and steamship operators anxiously observed the celebration. Ferries had long been crucial to western migration. For a quarter-century, paddle wheelers had been maintaining the Colorado as a vital link in a transcontinental supply chain. Now, with the Arizona Express crossing the new bridge, their heyday was coming to a close.

For six million years, the Colorado River had surged out of the Rocky Mountains and across the Sonoran Desert to the Gulf of California, carving steep canyons and frequently flooding expanses 15 miles or more beyond its banks. In spring the river was a rush of snowmelt; for much of the rest of the year it ran slow and shallow—in dry spells, the channel depth could be less than two feet—punctuated by countless sandbars and snags. The only natural crossing in the desert along the river’s 1,450-mile course was in the far southwest. At the Yuma Crossing, where bluffs pinched the river to less than 1,000 feet, the Yuma, Cocopah, Quechan (“quit-sawn”), and other tribes had been fishing and hunting for centuries. They helped the occasional traveler by swimming livestock across the river and ferrying goods on crude rafts. 

Europeans intermittently visited the Yuma Crossing. Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcon arrived at the Crossing in 1540; Juan Bautista de Anza, in 1774. Franciscan missionaries arrived in 1780. In the 1840s came wagon trains following the Southern Emigrant Trail. Forty-Niners trekked through, headed for the California gold fields. American ferrymen like Dr. Abel L. Lincoln began competing with the Indians. The Army laid out Fort Yuma on the river’s west bank in 1851, and later built a depot on the east bank. Regular ferry service and the Army’s presence encouraged the development of villages optimistically named Jaeger City and Colorado City—both destroyed in an 1862 flood—and later Arizona City, renamed Yuma in 1873.

Travelers from Texas, New Mexico, and California reached the Yuma Crossing by horseback, stagecoach, mule train, or ox-drawn wagon. The Gila Trail between Santa Fe and Yuma stretched 750 miles or more. Along the 170-mile path between Yuma and San Diego, the forbidding Algodones Dunes—a 45-mile ridge of sand six miles wide—required wagon and mule trains to divert south into Mexico. Hauling freight to Yuma from either east or west was slow and, at $500 to $800 a ton, expensive.  

In early 1850, Abel Lincoln’s Yuma Crossing ferry was so profitable that notorious scalp hunter John Glanton and his gang muscled into Lincoln’s business. The outlaws ran the Indian ferrymen off the river. In April, vengeful Yumas massacred Lincoln, Glanton, and all but three of Glanton’s men. A survivor reported that at the time of the attack, Lincoln had $50,000 in silver and $20,000 to $30,000 in gold. In San Francisco, a young Easterner named George Johnson read the bloody tale in the San Francisco Star and saw opportunity.

George Alonzo Johnson, born August 16, 1824, in upstate New York, had come to San Francisco at 25, lured by gold fever. Except for a short stint in the mines, he worked as a stevedore while he watched for his chance. Learning of the carnage and ferry profits at the Yuma Crossing, Johnson corralled seven partners, including Louis F.J. Jaeger, Benjamin M. Hartshorne, and William J. Ankrim. Each anted up $500 for boat-building equipment and supplies. Enlisting five seamen, the group sailed to San Diego, bought ox teams and wagons, and set out in early May 1850 for Yuma.

At the crossing, the Yuma ferrymen had resumed their makeshift operation, struggling to serve a stream of wagon trains, Army units, and other travelers. Trying to negotiate with the indigenes to share the ferry route, Johnson and company got nowhere.

Finally, as historian and Pulitzer prize-winner Douglas D. Martin describes in his book Yuma Crossing, the Americans built “a stockade of sharpened, nine-foot logs, inside of which they put up shelters and dug a saw pit.” By August 1850, the new outfit had built and launched a 35-foot scow and was doing a brisk business—though not as profitable as hoped. In early 1851, Johnson and most of the partners sold their shares to Jaeger and two others. Jaeger eventually became the sole owner. His critical role in the region’s development earned him wide respect as “Don Diego the Ferryman.” 

After selling out to Jaeger, Johnson and Hartshorne contracted with the Army to supply Fort Yuma by water. In February 1852, the pair assembled two flatboats at the Colorado’s mouth, loaded them with 250 tons of cargo, and attempted to pole the 150 miles upriver. One flatboat sank. The other carried too few supplies to serve the garrison. Johnson and Hartshorne gave up and returned to San Francisco.

By the mid-1800s, it cost less to ship goods 1,900 miles by sea from San Francisco around Baja California to the Colorado delta and shuttle them another 150 miles upriver to Yuma than to cart freight between the California coast and the river port. Like the Mississippi River, the Colorado ended in a braided delta of islands and lowlands. The delta had no port facilities, but transports could anchor in deep water and offload cargo into shallow-draft steam-powered riverboats. Midstream transfers also spared shippers Mexican customs duties.

The first entrepreneur to ship freight by steamboat up the Colorado was Captain James Turnbull. Sometime in 1852, out of secondhand parts he had transported to the delta, Turnbull assembled Uncle Sam, a 65-foot sidewheel steam tug. That November, wrestling with the boat’s cranky engine, Turnbull spent 15 days fighting the river’s stiff current, sandbars, and snags. On December 3, a boisterous crowd greeted Uncle Sam at Yuma. 

Turnbull’s success lit a fire under the sleepy riverside settlement. Uncle Sam hauled freight up and down the Colorado until April, when the tug sank while it was docked downstream of
the fort. Busted, Turnbull fled to Mexico, leaving his creditors in the lurch. 

Word of Turnbull’s brief rise attracted George Johnson back to the Colorado. In late 1853 the George A. Johnson Company shipped parts from San Francisco to the river delta, where crews assembled the 104-foot General Jesup, built in the classic shallow-draft style to carry freight on deck. Crammed with 50 tons of cargo, General Jesup churned upriver, mooring near Fort Yuma, on January 18, 1854. Johnson established a schedule of shuttling between fort and delta in four or five days. At $75 a ton, a trip was worth $4,000. Johnson soon was grossing $20,000 a month, about $616,000 today. He commissioned a second vessel, Colorado I, in 1855.

Johnson’s monopoly in the Colorado steamboat trade made him wealthy. He moved to San Diego in 1858, and in 1859 married Maria Estéfana Alvarado, niece of California Governor Pio Pico. The couple lived on the Rancho Santa Maria de los Peñasquitos, a wedding gift from her parents. Johnson also built a house in Yuma. The Johnsons had nine children, of whom two lived to adulthood. In 1863, and again in 1866, Johnson served in the California Assembly, leaving his senior captain, Isaac Polhamus, at the company’s helm. 

For all the business being done in its vicinity, the settlement at Yuma Crossing remained a straggle of low adobe structures, retail establishments, and saloons laid out along treeless streets hardly more than sandy trails. The population, estimated at 130 in 1860, included Indians, Mexicans from Sonora, and a handful of Anglos. Ferry service made the crossing a riverside hub where California-bound wagon trains and travelers could re-provision. Freighters constantly ran the river. At Yuma, pilots edged their vessels’ shallow-draft bows into the riverbank to debark and board passengers and goods. 

In the spring of 1861, prospectors discovered rich silver deposits in Eldorado Canyon in what is now southern Nevada. The following  January, prospectors happened upon placer gold—nuggets often encountered loose at the surface in dry canyons and gulches—some 20 miles north of Yuma at Laguna de la Paz, triggering the “Great Colorado River Rush.” Thousands of miners, traders, and settlers poured into the region. By late 1863, more than a dozen mining districts stretched along both banks of the Colorado from Yuma to Eldorado Canyon, some 365 miles upstream. Demand ballooned for fast, reliable freight and passenger service.

Teamsters charged $250 a ton to haul freight to Yuma from San Francisco or San Diego. Delivering by ship, Johnson asked less than half that. The Army hired him to transport troops and supplies the 200 miles between Fort Yuma and Fort Mojave. Johnson’s fleet grew in 1862 with stern-wheelers Colorado II and Esmeralda. He incorporated in December 1869 as the Colorado Steam Navigation Company, and over the next 14 years built five more steamboats. The company dominated service on the river. 

Yuma, home to 1,500 and, as of 1873, seat of Yuma County, was the largest town on the Colorado and the third largest in the Arizona Territory. On the outskirts of town lived 500 or so members of the Yuma tribe. Yuma proper swarmed with riverboat crews and passengers, soldiers, muleskinners, cowboys, outlaws, and trappers. Stagecoaches loaded with passengers and mail and 20-mule-team freight wagons piled high with cargo delivered by steamboat left daily for Phoenix, Tucson, and other inland settlements. Steamboats lined the landing just downriver.

Yuma had a newspaper—the Arizona Sentinel—and a brewery, essential for an Army garrison town that drew its share of gamblers and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, the Arizona Territorial Prison was established at Yuma in 1876. People began to speak of the Colorado as the “Mississippi River of the West,” and like that other big American river, the Colorado spawned a retinue of celebrity pilots like George Johnson’s star navigators Isaac Polhamus and John Alexander (Jack) Mellon.

Polhamus was skilled at “reading the water”—gauging a given stretch’s depth and pinpointing shoals and sandbars easily disguised by weather and light. “It’s all in a pilot’s eye,” he told a reporter in 1909, explaining why he was known as “The Dean of the Colorado River.” In 1864 as captain of Mohave, Polhamus set a speed record of ten days, two hours on the 365-mile run between Fort Yuma and Eldorado Canyon.

Mellon had fans as well. One was Martha Summerhayes, an Army officer’s wife. In her 1908 book Vanished Arizona, Summerhayes described a sweltering 11-day journey she took by steamer from Yuma to Fort Mojave, portraying Mellon as “the most famous pilot on the Colorado…very skillful in steering clear of the sandbars, skimming over them or working his boat off, when once fast upon them.”

Mellon had two preferred techniques for crossing sandbars. One was the familiar pilot’s method, “grasshoppering.” To grasshopper, a boat crew ferried an anchor over the bar. A heavy line attached the anchor to the ship’s steam-powered capstan. Meanwhile, on either side of the bow, deckhands hammered wooden poles, or spars, into the river bottom so that they stuck up like a grasshopper’s hind legs. 

Sailors strung lines secured to the spars through pulleys on deck to the capstan. Turning the capstan tightened the lines and lifted the boat a few inches onto the bar. With the stern wheel churning and the capstan heaving around on the anchor line, the vessel crawled ahead. Alternating his port and starboard lines, Mellon could sashay a steamboat over the bar. 

Caught on a sandbar, Mellon often worked loose by crawfishing, a method of his own creation. Placing an anchor as far as he could up the bar, he turned the boat’s stern to the sandbar and reversed the engines. 

As the paddlewheels whirled away the sand, the capstan hauled on the anchor line, pulling the boat over the collapsing bar. “Brave, dashing, handsome Jack Mellon,” Mrs. Summerhayes rhapsodized. “What I would give and what would we all give, to see thee once more, thou Wizard of the Great Colorado.”

Johnson bought his first ocean steamer in 1871 and a second in 1873, to ship cargo from San Francisco, charging $50 a ton to deliver goods to Yuma and another $60 per ton to Eldorado
Canyon. By the mid-1870s, the Colorado Steam Navigation Company was shipping at least 7,000 tons of freight and carrying 1,000 or so passengers, grossing more than $750,000 annually. For another year or so after the Southern Pacific began using the Yuma Crossing bridge in 1877, Johnson hauled most of the freight from the railhead to northern and central Arizona. As the railroad pushed into the Territory, however, waterborne business withered. In 1877, the Southern Pacific bought Johnson out, and he retired to San Diego. 

Polhamus ran the company until 1886, when he and Mellon bought it from the Southern Pacific. The partners, operating four steamboats and several barges, enjoyed a profitable surge beginning in January 1891 when gold was discovered in mountains west of Needles, California, some 280 miles north of Yuma. For another ten years, the company’s steamers and barges kept busy supplying mines and ore mills and provisioning Indian agencies around Fort Mojave. However, the expansion of rail service into the region and new competitors on the river turned the boom to bust.

Johnson was 79 when he died in 1903. His family’s last residence now houses a Victorian shop in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. In 1904, Polhamus sold out to Mellon and two partners. The three stuck it out until 1909, working on irrigation projects, bridge repairs, and, finally, one of the many dams that have come to characterize the Colorado. After 56 years in business, the company folded. Polhamus died at age 94, in 1922. Mellon, the “Wizard of the Great Colorado,” was 83 when he died in 1924. 

Today Yuma—population 95,000—sprawls across 121 square miles.
The historic village overlooks a river tamed to a languid stream (see “Servant and Savager,” opposite). The Quartermaster Depot and the Yuma Territorial Prison are state historic parks. Of the railroad bridge that vexed Major Dunn, only a concrete pivot point for the swing bridge remains. Nearby, the 1909 Southern Pacific steam engine No. 2521 stands on a few yards of track aimed down the old alignment on Madison Avenue.

No ferries ford the Yuma Crossing. Fort Yuma is no more. The cheerful whistle of riverboats has faded into history, leaving only memories of a time when the Colorado River was a major waterway that opened up a remote and inhospitable area, and made Yuma the “Seaport of Arizona.”