RV Trip 3.16 Florence – Casa Grande Ruins NM – Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park – Colorado River State Historic Park – February 26 – March 3, 2018

There were a couple locations that we had missed on our way up to Lost Dutchman so we back tracked a bit from Fountain Hills in order to see them. The first stop was the historic town of Florence to visit the McFarland State Historic Park which was housed in the oldest standing courthouse in Arizona. The courthouse was constructed in 1878 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. The town dates back to 1866 when Levi Ruggles, an Indian agent and a storekeeper established a trading post in the area since it was close to the Gila River just north of town. The original adobe courthouse contained a courtroom, judge’s chamber, district attorney’s office, and a treasurer’s office. Later they added on a jail and sheriff’s office and they used the second floor as a jury room. The building was used as the courthouse until 1891 and then it became the county hospital for 50 years when they built a new courthouse. In 1974 the former governor of Arizona Ernest W McFarland purchased the building and donated it to the Arizona State Parks for a historic site. McFarland is the only known American to serve his state in all three branches of the government (US Senator and he was the majority leader, Governor, and Arizona State Supreme Court Justice). McFarland was also famous for negotiating the deal with Colorado to supply water to Arizona through the canal system and we had seen the canals when we hiked to Sunrise Peak. The exhibits in the building were quite interesting as we learned about the 134 stage coach robberies that occurred in the area (thus the need for the courthouse) and about the Prisoner of War camp that was located in Florence during World War II.

After the park we walked around the downtown area where we saw C. G. Powell People’s Store from 1915 which is now the True Value Hardware store. Inside the store they had a large collection of butterflies for your garden (we know who would like this), some interesting ladies hats, an old Maytag washing machine, their original fuse box, and everything you could ever need from a hardware store. A fun store to wander around in. We also saw the town hall and police department building from 1948, the current county Administrative office complex, and the old Florence Hotel building. There were many other historic buildings in the downtown but they were all closed up with no businesses in them now. The movie called “Murphy’s Romance” with Sally Fields was filmed entirely in the town of Florence.

We continued down the road to Coolidge where the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is located. In 1892 Casa Grande actually became the nation’s first archeological reserve! The reserve contains the Casa Grande ruins (named by the Spanish, means “Great House”), an ancient village with earthen buildings and raised mounds, and a ballcourt constructed by the People of the Sonoran Desert (sometimes referred to as the Hohokam people) in 1350. The Hohokam people abandoned this community sometime in the 1400’s and there is speculation on if this was because of flooding or some other reason.

We watched a 20 minute video about how Casa Grande was a sacred area and then we went on a volunteer guided tour. The volunteer was an excellent story teller and presenter and really helped you to feel how this place is magical. The building is four stories high and 60’ long with a platform mound filling the first floor. The walls face the four cardinal points of the compass and there are circular holes on the western side, one aligned with the setting summer solstice sun and another aligned with the lunar standstill event that occurs every 18.6 years. The building was constructed directly from the soil in the area as the soil has calcium carbonate in it which acts as a binding agent when you add water. It was built in a 12 week period and they simply worked their way around the building a layer at a time. The floors were made from Mesquite wood with a layer of Saguaro ribs and Caliche mud on top to make them smooth like concrete. The area was heavily pillaged in the 1800’s which led to the need to preserve it. They have added support structures, a roof overtop and an outer layer of mud reinforcement in order to keep the building from crumbling any further.

Since there are no historical records from the time period they have to speculate on the usage of such a large structure. They believe it may have been used for food storage and they may also have built it for their spiritual leader. The community was likely up to 2000 people and they built about 220 miles of irrigation ditches (all by hand) to route the Gila River into their fields where they grew corn, beans, and squash. They would plant the corn seeds and around that plant the beans so the beans could use the corn stalk for support and then they surrounded that with Squash as the leaves would help retain moisture for the corn and beans. They were quite ingenious with their farming techniques in such a hostile desert climate and the archeologists have found evidence that they traded some of their crops with tribes to the North and South for other goods they needed (like the Mesquite wood and seashells).

The guide described how the six tribes that now have ancestral ties to this area believe that their ancestors souls are still in the area. As the wind and dust picked up to a stiff pace the guide described how those souls were blowing all around us to welcome us to the area and it really felt like that was true!

After the guided talk was completed we wandered around to get some more photos, looked at the displays inside the visitor centre and then took a look at the Ballcourt. If you are ever in this area it is well worth the stop.

On our way to Yuma Arizona we saw lots of the extremely large dairy farms and had to keep the “fresh” air vents closed as we drove by! We decided to stop at the Painted Rock Petroglyph site and camp for the night, only $6 for primitive camping because we had the National Park pass. This site has hundreds of ancient petroglyphs in a very small area (more than we have seen at any other location) and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. We picked our campsite close to the rock outcropping and started our walk around to see the display boards and the petroglyphs. At the very first board a historian came up and told us all the mistakes on the Butterfield Trail sign. He was on his way to Tucson to speak at a conference and spent about 20 minutes giving us all kinds of information on the stage coach days and then also about the petroglyphs. Once he was done with us he proceeded to do the same thing with all the people that came after us to the site;-) He sure was passionate about the stage coach days!

The petroglyphs show various styles (Western Archaic and Gila) that date from 7500 BC to 1450 AD for people that lived in the area. In the photos you will see some that had the afternoon sun on the day we arrived and others from sunrise the next morning. In the evening we saw the full moon come up right over the granite outcropping that had the petroglyphs. On the way out of the Petroglyph area the next day we saw the Solana Solar farm and it was the largest we had seen in our journey so far.

The road to Yuma was flat straight desert land with the exception of two mountain areas we had to cross. We got checked in at an RV park close to downtown Yuma and then went to see the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. The prison opened on July 1st 1876 after the first 7 inmates carved their own cells out of the granite outcropping at the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. The prison operated for 33 years and had a total of 3069 prisoners during that time period including 29 women. The people of Yuma called it “The Country Club on the Colorado” because it had electricity (from a dynamo generator), forced ventilation, running water, a library with 2000 books and even a prison band. The inmates called it a “Hell Hole” because of the stifling heat, it was surrounded by rivers, quick sand, and desert making it impossible to escape, for punishment they had ball and chains and the “Dark Cell”, and Tuberculosis was the #1 killer. After its closure in 1909 it was used as a high school for a short time due to flooding of the original school and then was used as a hospital before becoming a museum in 1941. It became Arizona’s 3rd state park in 1961.

Our timing worked out well because the last guided tour of the day started 10 minutes after we arrived so we took that tour and then saw the museum and the short video clip. The tour guide showed us the double gated adobe checkpoint (Sally Port) where they would check the wagons, typical cells in the main block and new block (carved out of the hill) and the famous dark cell for punishment which is now home to some bats. The water tower was interesting because they had pipes in the rivers to bring the water to a holding tank and then they built the guard tower over the holding tank to keep the heat out. The prison has been used in several movies but the most famous is called 3:10 to Yuma. There was an original version with Glen Ford and then a remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It was interesting to read about some of the prisoners like Frank Leslie and Elera Estrada (the Heart Breaker) and also to read about how they prepared the rope for hanging. After the park we saw the Ocean to Ocean highway bridge and the Union Pacific Railroad bridge to California and the Prison Cemetery where 104 of the 111 prisoners who died are buried.

The next day we had a leisurely morning and then drove back to downtown Yuma in the afternoon to see what used to be called the Quartermaster Depot and is now called the Colorado River State Historic Park. We were surprised how few visitors there were but that may have been because the Vintage Car show was going on this weekend. We started off in the visitor centre and watched some of the videos and realized we had seen one of the videos at a National Geographic show in Toronto. It was talking about how the Colorado River delta had been destroyed in Mexico because of all of the river diversions through dams and agricultural aqueducts in the south western states. The next video was done in 1955 and talked about the mechanical engineering marvel that the Hoover dam was in Nevada. Such polar opposites in terms of the impacts! The engineering side talked about how marvelous it was to “tame” the Colorado River. The environmental side talked about how the dams and aqueducts had diverted so much water that the Colorado River no longer flowed in to the Sea of Cortez. The aqueducts mean that cities like Phoenix and Tucson can exist and 90% of the North American leafy food products like lettuce grow in the Yuma area because of the diverted water. On the other hand the bird migratory paths have been permanently altered and the wetlands that used to exist are gone. The Yuma project has recreated 3000 acres of wetland and has plans to recreate another 10,000 acres but this is still an incredibly small amount in comparison to what has been destroyed. The dams along the Colorado River have generated an incredible amount of electricity and have sustained life in the south west US but they have also destroyed incredible canyons and wildlife areas. We were incredibly torn by these pros and cons!

In the state historic park we went through the storehouse where we read about the dam projects and also learned about the impacts of the railroad and the steamboats on the area in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Next we saw the Quartermaster’s Office which served as the headquarters for the army depot from 1865-1883. We also saw the water reservoir which helped separate the sediment in the river so the water was be used as the main water source. Next we saw the Quartermaster’s house and kitchen which may be the oldest house in Yuma. Beside the kitchen was the Yuma water project where water is siphoned from the California side of the Colorado River to feed the main canal used to send water to the agricultural areas around Yuma. We all need this in order to get lettuce and other vegetables in North America. Lastly we saw the Corral House which was used as the Bureau of Reclamation’s Office for the Yuma Project. Now it houses the Back in Time Pie and Gift Shoppe so we had to enjoy a slice of Pecan Pie and a slice of Marion Pie (Blueberry, Blackberry and Bumble Berry).

After the state park we decided to go back to the historic downtown area and have a brew at the Prison Hill Brewing Company. I had the Founders Stout which was 8.3%, Sharon had the Hibiscus Margarita and we shared the Deep Fried Avocado appetizer, everything was excellent. After the brewery we went to the Old Town Wine Cellar and found lots of interesting wines and beers to buy before returning to the RV Park.

This concludes our first two month stint in Southern Arizona as tomorrow we will cross into California but we know we will return as we have lots of things left to see in Arizona. This next week is also the first time during this three month trip so far where we will finally have warm day time and night time temperatures so we’re very happy about that! We’ll connect with Sharon’s older brother Brian on Tuesday and do some touring with him in California.

One comment

  • Very informative ! … Esther and I have been through Arizona on three different RV trips and yet from reading your blog, we realize how much we missed. Now we’ll have to make another trip to the southern states again.
    Enjoyable, keep up your blogs. j & e

    Liked by 1 person

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