Master Plan Proposes Changes to Yuma’s State Parks
The stories of Yuma Territorial Prison and Quartermaster Depot reflect the historic interplay of the federal, state and local governments during the westward expansion and development over the past nearly 200 years.
An equally significant part of the area’s history is the effort at all three levels of government — in particular the local level — to preserve these key historic resources, often well before the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted in 1966.
Today, both are historic state parks, currently operated by the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area on behalf of the city of Yuma through a three-year agreement with the Arizona State Parks.
It’s a relationship that has worked well. The community rose to the challenge of raising badly needed funds for the prison, and not only do both parks remain open despite severe state budget constraints, the prison has become self-sufficient, attendance at the two sites is up, they’re in demand as venues for various events and some critical improvements have been made.
Now attention is turning to the next challenges: making the prison even better and finding an identity for the Quartermaster Depot that will drive its future. To that end, a draft master plan has been developed as a first step in a long-term agreement to keep the parks under local control with the collaboration of the city of Yuma, Arizona State Parks and National Parks Service.
“Remaining under local control is essential,” said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Heritage Area. “It’s the essence of any long-term agreement.”
It’s critical, he said, to maintain community support for local fund-raising, assistance of contractors and volunteers.
The master plan, unveiled last week to the Yuma City Council, is first of all a business plan, Flynn said.
“The reality is that a lot of master plans start with what is needed and what would be nice and then come up with a wish list,” he said. “We took a different approach.”
With today’s budget constraints and economic realities, the plan places the emphasis on the parks as “attractions” capable of generating funds for their operation, he said. Other goals include addressing basic preservation needs of historic buildings and assets, defining the interpretive goals of each park and upgrading their infrastructure.
The first challenge for the Quartermaster Depot is that there are two competing themes and eras: the 19th century military and the 20th century Reclamation. Neither is compelling enough to carry the story of the park, Flynn said. The second challenge is the loss of the park’s connection to the Colorado River, which now is at least a quarter mile away from the storehouse where steamboats once stopped to unload their cargos.
Therefore, the Heritage Area is proposing that the park be renamed the Colorado River State Historic Park. That incorporates both existing themes and introduces possibilities for engaging stakeholders in the river and providing a forum for telling the story of the river’s past, present and future, Flynn said.
The purpose would be to create regional and national public awareness of the dramatic changes to the river over the past century and the need to address its future in a proactive and collaborative — not combative — manner.
Nowhere is the river’s diminishment more evident than Yuma, Flynn said. At one time, he noted, Gateway Park would have been under 10 to 15 feet of water and the river disappears at the nearby Mexican border.
“We want to explain what happened and why,” he said. “We want to raise the consciousness of people all over the country. The park could be used for conferences, lectures and exhibits about the river.”
To dramatize the impact on the once mighty river, the master plan proposes to create an outline of a steamboat by the storehouse from which visitors can visualize the change. The plan also proposes expanding the entry area to include interpretive exhibits of the river.
And a proposed restaurant and other concessions such as bicycle rentals would bring in revenue to help fund the park.
As for Yuma Territorial Prison, it is doing well, Flynn. The future focus would be on continuing to improve the visitor experience. The biggest challenge is to explain and interpret the considerable loss of the original prison structures through the ravages of time, neglect and construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
“We want to create a sense of the historic setting while avoiding ‘faux’ history since much of the site is gone,” Flynn said. “And we need to provide a sense of confinement that now is missing.”
The master plan proposes to accomplish those goals by extending walls on each side of the Sally Port, constructing higher walls along the east and west sides of the park, adding murals and abstracting the lost historic buildings, such as the hospital that once stood above the double cell block.
Other suggestions include expanding the entry building to add much-needed public restrooms and more retail space, adding shade ramadas and creating a special events venue in the New Yard on the south side of the site.
The next step, Flynn said, is to gather input on the draft master plan. He’s also hopeful the city, Arizona State Parks and National Park Service will commit funding through a long-term agreement that can be leveraged to obtain grants for the improvements.
The entire draft master plan can be accessed at yumaheritage.com.