YOU ARE HERE: IVPress HomeCollections

Kids need down time from TV? Try historical trek to Yuma


Staff Writer

As you watch the mercury edge upward and the kids are presenting their annual demand for a large inground pool complete with diving board in the back yard, you're eyeing the calendar and truly wondering if you can survive — sanity intact — until school starts again in the fall, right?

You're also wondering if the offspring will need to be surgically cleaved from the TV set before returning to school. Right again?

That makes the timing about perfect for piling the kids into the family wagon and going on a road trip, preferably one that won't require a second mortgage to pay for the gas and a sophisticated satellite navigation unit for directions.


A day trip to Yuma — only 48 miles to the east of El Centro — to explore some of the area's history, while not exactly a "heat beater" at this time of the year, is a great way to give the TV some down time.

You'll want to start your historical odyssey at the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.

"Children absolutely spend too much time in front of the TV over the summer break so this would be a great time to come out here and learn some history," Assistant Park Manager Jesse Torres said Thursday. "Visiting the prison, children can learn about the 1800s."

Torres likes to explain the prison's place on history's timeline by telling you, " This prison opened only two weeks after Gen. George Custer and the massacre at Little Big Horn."

When it was put to Torres that learning about prison conditions might be a salutary lesson for those kids who gripe about homework, chores and eating green vegetables, the park ranger breaks into a broad grin.

"Definitely that's true; the prisoners were actually well-fed but some of the food was kind of rotten at times…and they had to eat beef all the time because it so happened one of the prison commissioners was a cattle rancher," Torres says with a chuckle.

In the heart of the prison there's the "dark cell," also fondly known in its time as the "snake den."

As a form of punishment, this was clearly the ultimate method of being sent to your room.

The cell, used as a last resort to tame recalcitrant inmates, involved the prisoner being locked in a metal cage in the middle of a dark and dank cell deep in the bowels of the prison.

Once ensconced there, a prisoner was fed only bread and water which — all things being relative — might have made a nice break from the steady diet of beef fed to the regular prisoners.

"The greatest number of men confined at one time in the 10-foot-by-5-foot-high cage was 14," Torres tells you adding, "The gentleman who earned the honor of spending the most time in the dark cell was John Clay, who spent 104 days straight in there."

Clay was clearly an attitudinally challenged prisoner and no doubt was even more so when he finally saw the harsh light of day again.

Directly outside the dark cell you'll find a large bell that was used, Torres explains, "To warn the townspeople of Yuma when a prisoner had escaped; the bell could be heard all over Yuma because there was none of a modern city's noise like freeways or planes, etc."

According to Torres the bell also alerted nearby Quechan Indians, who were paid $50 for every convict they returned to the prison.

Inside the visitor center theater there's a video tour of the prison running constantly and you'll find an awesome display of early American rifles just down from a showcase devoted to photographs of some of the prison's female inmates.

Clearly not your average soccer moms, the women staring at you from the old sepia images all wear expressions that clearly say, "I knew I should have stayed home and baked cookies." Sullen and defiant, they were convicted for crimes ranging from murder to larceny.

Arguably the prison's most colorful character was one "Buckskin" Frank Leslie from Tombstone.

Buckskin's claim to fame was lining the current object of his affections up against a wall and shooting her outline in the masonry behind her with whatever weapon lay close to hand, Torres explained.

Regrettably Buckskin's hobby led to a spell in the prison for attempted murder when one young paramour took exception to his life-threatening overtures.

The Elliott family from Spur, Texas, was at the prison Thursday as part of their summer vacation and none of the three Elliott children seemed to be missing the family television set — much.

When asked to recount the interesting things they'd seen so far on their road trip, 12-year-old Adam Elliott volunteered that the car wreck they'd passed on the interstate the day before had been, "Really cool."

When 9-year-old sister Praise tugged at his sleeve to remind him of a couple of well-known destinations they'd visited, Adam added, "Oh yeah, we saw the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam as well. They were OK."

One really neat feature at the prison is a prison timeline etched in the concrete pathway leading to the visitors' center.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles