Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Preserving Yma's past: Yuma Territorial Prison

View from Yuma Territorial Prison grounds
The site of Yuma Territorial Prison would be considered prime real estate today. Remains of the famed prison sit atop a cliff at the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers, allowing visitors to what is now an Arizona state historic park to see for miles and miles. The deal buster, however, would probably be a railroad track that took part of the prison grounds and is busily in use today.

Not too much of the original prison, built by its tenants in the mid 1870s, remains today. The guard tower sits on one rock pile, but it only appears to be a few years old. The entrance or sally port has been restored, but the cell blocks behind the museum are eerily original. Voices of prisoners tell their story as visitors peer into some of the cells.

Yuma Territorial Prison cell block
When it opened in 1876, it quickly became known as the Country Club of the Colorado because prisoners had amenities Yuma townspeople didn’t have: a hospital with dental facilities, the largest library in the territory with 2,000 books, a primitive air conditioning system in the east cell blocks, and a school where classes included German and music (the prisoners had their own band.)

Prisoners, however, called their home a “hell hole.” Six men were crammed into a small space with only a bucket for a toilet. A good many prisoners died of consumption, now known as tuberculosis. Lice and roaches were common because of unsanitary conditions.

A prisoner made this collar
When they weren’t doing work for the prison, inmates could make extra money through crafts work. Examples of wooden boxes and jewelry were on display, but my favorite was seeing the exquisite lace knitted by some prisoners.

One famous time
The museum gets a lot of visitors today, many probably coming to see it  because of the movie, 3:10 to Yuma, originally made in 1957 and remade in 2007. A clock on the museum wall is permanently set at 3:10.
This is the second old prison we've visited in recent years. The first was the Montana Territorial Prison at Deer Lodge. Compared to Yuma, this prison is positively upscale, though that might be because it was updated several times in the more than 100 years it served as a prison.

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