The comedian of Uncle Sam’s military posts is old Fort Yuma on the Colorado River at the southwestern extremity of California. To mention the name in a barrack room where there are seasoned soldiers is to call forth a reminiscent smile and the old story of the hen that laid hardboiled eggs. These and that other one of the officers, who when they die at Fort Yuma and appear before his Satanic Majesty (by some strange miscarriage of justice) shiver with cold and send back to the fort for their blankets.
Other posts in Uncle Sam’s itinerary are hot, but Fort Yuma spends all of its time in heating up with a passion for its work and an unrelenting attention to detail that have become legendary. During the months of April, May, and June no rainfall comes, and the average temperature is 105° in the shade. Of course the post does much better on some occasions, and at other times it falls below this batting average.
The most active days of Fort Yuma as a military post were found just before and for a few years subsequent to the Civil War, though that great conflict had no part in Yuma’s past. During the days that California was having its mind made up for it to become a part of the United States, and during the days in which it was beginning the great experiment indicated, Yuma was of much importance as a base for United States troops. In addition to this it exercised and has always exercised a restraining influence upon those restless spirits of the desert, the Apache Indians. Being situated on the border between the United States and Mexico, it has some little to do in seeing that the customs regulations of this country are preserved. And it has always secured importance from being one of the stations on the old Santa Fe Trail.
After receiving the Gila at a point 100 miles from its mouth, the Colorado River turns suddenly westward and forces its way through a rocky defile, 70 feet high and 350 yards long and 200 yards wide, thus cutting off a narrow rocky bluff and leaving it as an isolated eminence on the California side of the river. Here stands Fort Yuma; grey and somber above the green bottom lands of the river, which are covered with a dense growth of Cottonwood and mesquite. Chains of low serrated hills and mountains limit the view on nearly every side all bare and grey save when painted by the sun with delicate hues of blue and purple.
Before reaching the fort the traveler passes through a long road shaded by young cottonwoods and mesquite interspersed with an impenetrable growth of arrow bush and cane. Then he comes to a bend of the river where the water loses the ruddy tint, which gives it its musical name of “Colorado” and, finally, he brings up at the fortification, which in the distance appeared heavy and forbidding but which near at hand resolves itself into a collection of substantial adobe houses inclosed by deep verandas with Venetian blinds which shut out every direct ray of sunlight.
All the buildings at the post are of sundried brick and neatly plastered within and without. They are one story in height, have large rooms with lofty ceilings and facilities for the freest ventilation. The roof and walls are double, inclosing an air chamber. Each house is surrounded by a veranda and adjacent houses have their verandas in communication, so that the occupants may pass from one to another without exposing themselves to the heat of the sun.
What entitles the post to the name of fort are certain unpretentious entrenchments scattered along the slopes of the bluff overlooking the river and commanding the bottom lands adjacent. They are not visible from the river and the visitor is not aware of their existence until he steps to the edge of the bluff and looks down upon them. The parade is a stony lawn. Not a blade of grass is to be seen and everything is of that ashy light grey color so trying to the eyes. It is a relief to gaze out upon the green bottomlands through which one passed before ascending to the top of the eminence where stands the fort.
Being so excessively dry the air at this post plays strange pranks with articles made for use in less arid climates, as many a young officer’s wife has found to her cost when bringing trunks and other household paraphernalia to her new home. Furniture put together in the North and brought here falls to pieces; travelling chests gape at their seams, and a sole leather trunk contracts so much that the tray must be pried out by force.
Ink dries so rapidly upon the pen that it requires washing off every few minutes and a No. 2 pencil leaves no more trace upon a piece of paper than a piece of anthracite coal would leave. To use a pencil it is necessary to have it kept immersed in water before calling upon it for service. Newspapers require to be unfolded with care, for if handled roughly they crumble. Boxes of soap that weigh twelve pounds when shipped to Fort Yuma weigh only ten pounds after having been there for several weeks. Hams lose 12 per cent, in weight and rice 2 per cent. Eggs lose their watery contents by evaporation and become thick and tough. The effort to cool one’s self with an ordinary fan is vain, because the surrounding atmosphere is of higher temperature than the body. The earth under foot is dry and powdery and hot as flour just ground, while the rocks are so hot that the hands cannot be borne upon them.
“The story of the dog that ran across the parade at midday on three legs barking at every step may be correct,” writes an officer who was stationed there, “though I have never seen it tried.”