The Colorado River, known as America's "Nile," is the most important river in the Southwest. For millions of years it flowed unchecked, flooding annually, and creating some of the most incredible landscapes on our planet. From Utah's Canyon Lands, to Arizona's Grand Canyon, to some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the world; all are products of the amazing Colorado River.
Yuma's strategic location at the only practical crossing point on the lower Colorado River assured its importance as a transportation hub in both pre-historic and modern times.
Early Years on the Colorado River
The early postcard photo at right represents what the Colorado at Yuma was before the construction of the Dams: a major river supplying not only the lifeblood of the area, but capable of supporting significant commerce.
From the collection of Art Everett
For many years, ferries operated at Yuma. Operating on ropes stretched across the narrows below Fort Yuma, they provided the most reliable, and safest, means of crossing the mighty Colorado River.
Riverboats and Commerce
Riverboats were common on the Colorado at Yuma during the 19th century. The steamboats came to the Colorado in 1852, as Yuma became the key supply point for first the Army, and then for all sorts of mining operations and settlements up and down the river.
The first bridge of any kind on the Colorado was constructed at the Crossing in 1877, when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived. Building east from California, the SP would build across southern Arizona, eventually reaching New Orleans and forming America's second transcontinental rail line.
Bringing Water to the Land: The Story of the Yuma Project
The first great reclamation project on the Colorado was the Yuma Project, consisting of the Laguna Dam (shown under construction here) as well as a series of levees and canals designed to bring water to the fertile lands of the Colorado River valley.
The opening of Laguna Dam in 1909 was celebrated by local citizens and marked the beginning of modern agriculture along the river.
Photos courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation
The Impact of the Great Dams
As this early postcard photo of the Laguna Dam shows, the Colorado River carried an immense quantity of water. The dam at Laguna was later joined by structures at other locations so that today there are no less than seven dams on the main channel of the Colorado River between Lake Mead and the Yuma Crossing.
This modern photo, taken at the same location, shows the dramatic impact that dam construction and water diversion has had on the River and on the environment.
Water and Power from the Colorado
Today the Colorado River meets the water and power needs of the nearly 25 million people within the basin states and adjoining areas, It's reservoirs also provide water for more than 1.4 million acres of irrigated land, producing about 15 percent of the nation's crops, 13 percent of its livestock, and agricultural benefits of more than $1.5 billion a year
These benefits have not come without a cost, however, as the natural riparian regions of the Colorado have suffered as the water has been diverted to other uses. The story of the use of the Colorado, the transformation of the lands through which it flows, the environmental degradation which has accompanied the use of the water, and the hopeful ecological rehabilitation efforts at the East and West Wetlands areas are the major story of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.