Flashback Friday: In Yuma, 'reaping the reward of work well done'

Flashback Friday: In Yuma, 'reaping the reward of work well done'

By Steve Elliott / ADOT Communications
February 28, 2020

"Yuma extends to all of its thousands of visitors today its warmest welcome. We all rejoice in the completion of the great highway ... and in this celebration put up another monument to the progress of the Great Southwest." 

Ninety-five years ago today, this pronouncement next to the masthead of Yuma's Morning Sun started a day of festivities celebrating the completion of a highway stretching across Arizona and on to the Pacific. As US 80 and part of the coast-to-coast Bankhead Highway, the route went through southeastern Arizona to Tucson, north and west into Phoenix, over and down to Gila Bend and southwest to Yuma. From there, the highway replaced a plank road across the sand dunes between Yuma and California's Imperial Valley, then offered ways to either San Diego or Los Angeles.

An estimated 5,000 people traveled to Yuma for this celebration, including those carried by a 100-car caravan organized by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. According to The Arizona Republican, there were "representatives from every community west of the New Mexico line which is on the highway. These include Tucson, Bisbee, Douglas, Tombstone and other southern Arizona cities, as well as Globe and Miami in the mining districts." 

The Phoenix-to-Yuma portion offered the infrastructure featured in the 1920s pictures at top and middle right (thanks, State Archives), including a gravel surface and crossing the Gila River along the apron of Gillespie Dam (construction began soon after on a bridge there). In its day, however, this was an achievement worthy of the Homeric prose it inspired. 

"We are all happy and well may we be," The Morning Sun opined. "Through sweat and toil, through years of disappointment and adverse conditions, Yuma and Imperial Valley with San Diego and Southern Arizona have worked for the construction of this road and we are reaping the reward of work well done."

Heroic efforts were needed to accommodate the thousands who flooded into Yuma, which at the time had a little fewer than 5,000 residents.

According to The Arizona Republican: "The streets of Yuma are decorated with flags and banners and glad hand committees welcome the strangers as they motor into town. Nothing had been overlooked to complete a celebration that has lived up to all advance notices. Every hotel is crowded and the committee on reservations worked late this evening assigning travelers to private homes and the latchstring is open to all."

US 80 entered Arizona along the path of what now is State Route 80, passing through Douglas, Bisbee, Tombstone and Benson, then over to Tucson. It traveled along the alignment of what is now SR 79 to connect to what is now US 60, then through Phoenix, out to Buckeye, south to Gila Bend and on to Yuma. Much of its general path between Phoenix and Yuma is what drivers see along today on SR 85 and Interstate 8. 

According to accounts from the time, a good deal of the celebration looked to the west of Yuma, where a real roadway was replacing a path built of planks across the ever-shifting sand dunes. The image at bottom right depicts this as the "Highway Across the American Sahara." 

"The graveled surface highway west of here that supplants the old detour to the plank road over the sand hills was one long stream of motor cars," The Arizona Republican reported. Meanwhile, the article said, many drove the plank road, apparently for old times' sake.

An open-air celebration at Yuma's Sunset Park featured bands from as far away as San Diego and speeches by a bevy of leaders including Arizona Governor George W.P. Hunt and Governor Friend William Richardson of California. 

It's clear from the newspaper accounts how much this transportation link was improving the quality of life in the young, growing state of Arizona, and also how much The Morning Sun and others looked forward to more such achievements:

"Today, in Yuma, we celebrate and make merry as we have finished another lap and erected another milestone in the progress and development of the Great Southwest."


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