We were supposed to be at the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum & Park by 9am, on a very sunny and warm day in late September. We almost didn’t go, because we were tired after covering quite a distance the day before, it was hot (around 102 F) and all we wanted to do was hanging out at a pool somewhere. But then we went – and did not regret that decision for a the tiniest second.
Dan, a volunteer, was already waiting for us. For the next hour he took us through the fascinating history of the Yuma Territorial Prison. The tour started at the old water tower, from where he led us through the sallyport, the adobe entrance gate that you might know from different western films and to the museum building as well as the remaining parts of the former prison cells.
It was a really interesting tour. We learned that the first seven inmates were locked in at the prison on the first of July 1876, after they had built the prison themselves. During the 33 years of operation a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, did time there. The reasons for their imprisonment ranged from polygamy to murder. Because it got overcrowded, the prison closed 1909, the inmates were brought to the newly built Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, which is still operating.
Dan also told us about the more famous inmates, like Pearl Heart (there’s a song by Volbeat called “Pearl Heart”, which we listened to on our way back to the Hotel!) the stage coach robber and Franklin Leslie, the gunfighter and killer. Why there were a lot of escape attempts (of which 26 succeeded) was not really understandable from our point of view, because the prison was really modern, they had electricity, a hospital, library and a forced ventilation – all things, the townspeople of Yuma did not have. That’s why they called the prison “The Countryclub”. Inmates could sell their hand-crafted items during public bazaars that were held every Sunday in the prison, where the public could attend.
From 1910 to 1914 the Yuma Union High School used the remaining buildings, that’s why they got the nickname “The Criminals”, during the great depression the abandoned buildings were used for free construction material. That’s why there is not too much (but enough!) left of the former complex. But we visited former cells, spent a little time in the Dark Cell (which was the worst punishment you could get in that prison) and explored the museum, where next to photographs of inmates, descriptions of escape attempts and objects that were used in everyday prison life you can watch a short introduction film there.
It was such an interesting morning, we were happy we went there. Dan did such a great job telling us everything about the prison and the history of Yuma that’s connected with it, he even re-enacted an escape attempt for us. So if you go there, ask for Dan to be your tourguide! Of course you can explore the area on your own as well, but you’d miss a lot!
Yuma Territorial Prison Museum & Park
1 Prison Hill Rd, Yuma, AZ 85364
Open Monday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm, with admission of 6 USD for adults.