The Gila River

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The mostly dry Gila River today hardly resembles the unruly, historic stream that came roaring out of the Black Mountain Range in western New Mexico, crossing the Great Divide and then Arizona before ending its 650-mile journey by joining the Colorado River at Yuma.

In those days, before construction of eastern Arizona’s Coolidge Dam and an irrigation-canal system commandeered the Gila’s water, boats navigated the river, which varied in width from 150 to 1,200 feet with depths ranging from 2 to 40 feet. Hydrologists calculate that without dams and irrigation canals the natural flow of the Gila would carry an average of 6,070 cubic feet of water per second into the Colorado, the second-largest flow behind that of the Green River, which cuts through Wyoming and Utah.

The Gila River occupies a prominent place in the history of the West as well as the prehistoric West. Artifacts as old as 15,000 years have been found in the Gila region.

In 1538, the first nonIndian to traverse the trail that drew its name from the river probably was Esteban, a black Moor slave who became a free man and part of a Spanish expedition to find the fabled Seven Cites of Cibola. After gold was discovered in California in 1849, thousands of fortune seekers went westward along the Gila Trail.

For a period — between signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War, and the U.S. Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico in 1853 — the Gila marked a portion of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Throughout Arizona’s Territorial and early-statehood days, the river raged and flooded at whim, serving as the setting for countless stories and events, including Arizona’s Federal Aid Project No. 1.

That project extended the beleaguered bridge at Florence in 1917. In the previous year, Congress reflected the nation’s quest to build roads and bridges by approving the Federal Road Aid Act of 1916 and President Woodrow Wilson signed the measure. Quickly, Arizona and Pinal County collaborated to raise the funds necessary to match $20,000 in federal aid. The project improved a bridge that remained in service until the late 1950s, when the Arizona Highway Department built a new one.

One of the descriptions of the river’s colorful history was told in the WPA Guide to 1930s Arizona, published by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration as a way of providing work to writers during the Great Depression.

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