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Queen of the Colorado

This 1876 photo shows the Mohave, the largest and most palatial of the paddle-wheel boats that once owned the trade business up and down the Colorado River.

This Mohave was the largest and most palatial of the paddle-wheelers on the Colorado River a century ago. The photo was taken in 1876, when the Mohave was docked at Yuma taking on school children for a May Day excursion. The ship had been launched earlier that year, replacing a smaller boat (also called the Mohave) that had been dismantled and completely rebuilt.

Steam navigation on the Colorado was a matter of necessity in the early days. When Fort Yuma was founded in 1850, the only way to provide supplies was by overland wagon trains sent out from San Diego. The route was difficult, dangerous and unreliable. It was immediately obvious that a river route was needed. In 1852, the Uncle Sam, a 65-foot side-wheeler, successfully made the trip from the Gulf of California upriver to Yuma Crossing. After that, dozens of settlements along the Colorado clamored for goods from California. The demand led to a thriving riverboat trade that made the Colorado the major means of transportation in the Arizona Territory. Towns as far inland as Prescott, Wickenburg, Phoenix and Kingman were supplied by the river and owed much of their growth to the riverboats.

River traffic flourished from 1860 until 1877, when the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in Arizona. River boaters apparently thought the rail line would stop at the California border and were surprised when the Southern Pacific decided to extend the line into Arizona. That would account for the rebuilding of the Mohave just one year before the Southern Pacific arrived.

Almost immediately river trade began to dwindle. For a while there was business transporting goods up river from the rail line, but by 1900 only two or three of the paddle-wheelers were left, and they were being used by the U.S. Reclamation Service. When Laguna Dam north of Yuma was completed in 1909, access to the Gulf of California was blocked and river trade ended altogether.

The last paddle-wheeler sank at dockside at Yuma in 1916 and was carted off in pieces by the citizenry.

— Mark Santiago. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Yuma.

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